Politics 365
by: Tiffany K. Bain

Gathering ideas to increase minority – particularly African American – participation in all aspects of the energy and environmental sectors was discussed at the American Association of Blacks in Energy’s (AABE) recent Energy Policy Summit.

Last week in Washington, D.C., several energy and environmental lawmakers, regulators, corporate executives, entrepreneurs and other stakeholders convened during the 1 ½ – day Summit to share their insight with AABE members and provide suggestions on what should be done. These recommendations included increasing an overall understanding of the energy industry among lawmakers and the public, increasing minority participation as owners, decision-makers as well as employees, and creating policies that make energy policies more affordable for disadvantaged communities.

Minorities Scarce in Energy Sector

Although the Summit’s audience included women and men representing the African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic-American communities, many of them as well as speakers often pointed out that the energy industry is not as diverse.

Jack Gerard, president and chief executive officer of the American Petroleum Institute (API), said that API recently conducted a study and discovered that the African American community knows very little about the oil and natural gas industry.

David Owens, AABE Legislative Issues and Public Policy Committee Chairman and Edison Electric Institute Executive Vice President of Business Operations, said that he is not aware of any oil companies or transmission companies owned by African Americans.

Additionally, while 40 percent of energy consumers are non-white, according to AABE Interim President and Chief Operating Officer Paula Jackson, communities of color, particularly African Americans, are underrepresented in overall employment in the industry. Carolyn Green of the Council of Urban Professionals Executive Leadership Council added that the number of African Americans serving on corporate energy boards is just as scarce.

The number of African Americans serving on the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee is also low. Former Maryland Congressman Albert Wynn recalled that during his tenure in the federal legislative branch, the Committee, which is the oldest standing committee in Congress and is responsible for the nation’s environmental quality and energy policy among other responsibilities, had the least number of African Americans sitting on the committee.

“It’s absolutely essential that African Americans be involved in energy because it drives our economy,” Wynn said.

Renowned Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile also called for the “Ken Chenaults of the energy sector” as well as other people who are interested in getting involved in the energy sector to make the importance of increasing minority participation visible. She also said that they should be vocal about it to help make others comfortable with discussing increasing minority involvement in the current political climate.

What Congress can do to help and how others can help

While some Summit attendees doubted the effectiveness of the Congressional Black Caucus’s (CBC) role in improving the number of African Americans and other minorities in the energy and environmental sector, CBC members Congressmen Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) said that they need the help of AABE to further communicate and move action to the cause.

Clyburn, who is very involved in the energy sector particularly as it relates to nuclear energy, said that the CBC along with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus will be focused “like a laser on energy related issues,” especially since President Barack Obama addressed it in his last inaugural speech in January. Clyburn also said that the CBC is not getting its “just due” and every one should know their roles in the process.

“My advice to anyone would be to sit down with whoever your favorite member of the CBC is, let them know what your interest is, let them know whether you stand ready to help them develop a policy,” Clyburn, the highest ranking African-American in Congress, said. “Irrespective of what we might say, the only reason we are in Congress is because we convinced 50 percent plus one of the people voting in a particular election to vote for us… [d]oesn’t mean that we’re smarter than anyone else, we don’t know everything. We need help.”

Clyburn also mentioned that oftentimes people associate the CBC through its 501 (c) (3) foundation, which hosts annual events every September. The Congressman invited people to look for CBC beyond September and invited them to attend the CBC Institute’s annual meeting in Myrtle Beach, S.C., so that they can present their ideas for legislation and let the CBC members work on the issues presented to them once they get back to Capitol Hill.

Butterfield, an Energy and Commerce Committee member, said that he has difficulty communicating the importance of new energy policy and how renewable energy would greatly benefit his district’s constituents, which he mentioned is half- white and half African-American and the fourth poorest district in the country.

“I spent six years and got variations on how to present this conversation to the people I represent, and it’s very difficult,” the former judge said. “So if there is one thing you can help me with is packaging the message, so that low income communities can understand the dangers of climate change, understand the critical importance of new energy policy, and what we can do if we work together between the private sector and government to try and bring new forms of energy because this is so critically important.”

Samuel Kang, general counsel of The Greenlining Institute, and Yonnie Leung, Pacific Gas and Electric Company Workforce Development senior manager, also said that it will take government, industry, academia and non-governmental organizations to work together.

Increasing Minority Ownership and Employment in Energy Sector

Former Energy and Commerce Committee member Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said that renewable energy equals environmental justice for communities of color. He said that “clean energy means clean air for some of the most disadvantaged communities in this country” and that Congress has a lot of work to do before it works on trying to passing another comprehensive energy policy.

Menendez also suggested that renewable energy is a “good jobs policy,” citing that just seven years ago, no one in New Jersey worked in the solar industry and now there are 10,000 people employed in the field.

The Senator, who is also a member of the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Banking Committee underscored the the importance of creating access to capital for small, mid-sized, and minority businesses.

“As the economy slowly recovers, minority business owners often struggle with the availability of adequate capital to help businesses expand, grow and create jobs,” Menendez said.

His access to capital agenda also included increasing minority participation in Fortune 500 corporate boardrooms for companies to better understand, communicate and give better insight to the nuances and behaviors of their respective communities. In addition, increasing significant procurement of minority businesses at all different levels outside of supplying janitorial services, and removing other barriers to entry for minorities to create generational wealth were also a part of his agenda.

Menendez said he also plans to figure out how to get access to capital from Wall Street directly, and not through its philanthropic and charity efforts.

In addition to increasing minority business ownership in the energy sector, other guest speakers at the Summit constantly mentioned that it is important for African Americans and Latino communities to get involved in the energy sector via employment. Ray Dempsey, BP America vice president of government and public affairs, said that studies project that more than 500,000 jobs will be created by 2020 and will be geographically diverse.

Dempsey and Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO) Chief Executive Officer Thomas Graham both expressed their support for an increase in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education prior to high school and beyond.

Graham echoed a number of other Summit speakers and said that America will need a qualified and educated workforce to perform the STEM-related jobs that will be available. Dempsey said that 21 percent of projected jobs will require some amount of STEM education to pursue.

Dempsey also mentioned that most demographic studies suggest that most babies born today are from minority communities who have a number of disparities including in STEM. He said if they persist, there will not be any doctors or engineers for the future, and underscored that it will “not be a minority problem, but an American problem.”

AABE will create an agenda and create a strategy on how to move forward on their priorities, in forthcoming weeks.