Environmental Racism and Conservation Easements

Farmland real estate values of conservation easements granted to African-American landowners between 2011 and 2015, as tracked by the Black Family Land Trust.

I have to give Governor Ralph Northam credit: It took a lot of guts to remove two members from the State Air Pollution Control Board knowing full well that it would open himself to charges of indifference to environmental racism.

Earlier this week, Northam informed Rebecca Rubin and Samuel Bleicher that they would be removed from the seven-member board, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Environmental groups immediately connected the decision with concerns they had expressed about “environmental justice” in the Union Hill community of Buckingham County, where a predominantly African-American community would be exposed to low levels of pollution from an Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station. Northam has denied that his decision to replace the two air board members is tied to an upcoming vote on the compressor, but that hasn’t stopped some foes from doubling down on the race card as a way to halt construction of the compressor station and pipeline.

“Governor Northam has now officially taken ownership of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and ownership of this compressor station, a facility which involves strong elements of environmental racism,” said Harrison Wallace, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network & CCAN Action Fund.

Apparently, Northam isn’t buying that argument, although it’s hard to know what he thinks because he has not spoken publicly about the environmental-racism issue. The issue can be boiled down to this: About 80% of Union Hill residents are African-American. While Dominion says that the compressor station will have state-of-the-art pollution controls meeting the strictest standards in the state, foes say residents will be exposed to elevated levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, putting their health at risk. You can read a detailed explanation of the allegations in a Southern Environmental Law Center letter to Michael Dowd with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality.

For purposes of argument, let’s grant the proposition that the compressor station would pose a small but measurable health risk. (I don’t know that to be the case, but I want to set that issue aside to get to the meat of my argument.) In a 600-mile pipeline with three compressor stations routed through demographically mixed counties, it is inevitable that the pipeline will encounter minority communities. The standard under federal law is whether African-Americans are disproportionately impacted by the pipeline route. By focusing on the impact on Union Hill to the exclusion of many white communities along the route, pipeline foes have created a new standard: Does the pipeline route impact any African-American community? And if it does, some critics assert, it constitutes environmental racism.

I’ve made that point in past blog posts, but now I want to expand on it. The irony here is that one can make an argument that the system promotes social inequity — but not in the way pipeline foes suggest. If you’re looking for disproportionate impact, look at the racial distribution of conservation easements that protect landowners from pipelines, highways, transmission lines and other infrastructure projects from intruding on their land. It doesn’t take a planning Ph.D. to predict that conservation easements as well as the tax benefits and land protections they confer are rewarded overwhelmingly to white landowners — especially wealthy white landowners.

The tax benefits are substantial: federal income tax deductions, a state tax credit equal to 40% of the value of the easement, estate tax reductions, and property tax deductions. So generous are the tax deductions that the state has capped the value of tax credits that the Department of Conservation can grant in any one year at $75 million. Easements are in especially great demand by gentleman farmers — owners of horse farms, vineyards and the like — who have spectacular vistas to protect. Small farmers set amidst mundane corn fields and timberland have far less incentive to pursue obtaining the easements.

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which holds the conservation easements, does not track the race of landowners granted easements. But the Black Family Land Trust (BFLT), which works to conserve black-owned farmland in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, does have data which, though not comprehensive, gives a sense of the number and value of easements granted to black landowners.

The BFLT website displays data of easements granted between 2011 and 2015 in 28 designated Strike Force counties, 12 of which are in Virginia. Clearly, that does not represent a complete inventory of all the conservation easements in Virginia granted to black landowners. But the targeting of key counties likely does account for a significant percentage.

The four-year total for black landowners in Virginia’s eight targeted counties amounts to $3,o45,000. That works out to an average of $750,000 per year. That’s 1% of the total land value of conservation easements allowed by Virginia law. If we assume that the BFLT captured only half the easements granted black landowners in those years, we can guesstimate that black landowners were granted 2% of the total value of conservation easements and reaped 2% of the tax benefits. African-Americans comprise roughly 20% of Virginia’s population — a disproportionate impact if I’ve ever seen one.

(I could find no figures detailing the percentage of rural landowners, or even farmers, who were black. Nationally, black farmers tend to own smaller farms than the national average. I don’t know if Virginia is in line with national averages or not.)

When plotting their pipeline routes, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline made great efforts to avoid crossing conservation easements (although in a handful of instances it did not manage to do so). If you’re looking for institutionalized white privilege, there you have it. But the privilege is not that of the pipelines, it’s that of the white landowners. Curiously, pipeline foes and their allies in the environmental movement have ignored this gaping disparity. Why would that be? Perhaps because they are among the primary beneficiaries of the system.

Cynics might conclude that the hoo-ha about social justice at Union Hill is purely tactical, not borne of a principled concern for African-American communities. If Virginia’s social justice warriors were truly committed to fighting environmental racism, one might argue, they would target a system of conservation easements that protects wealthy white landowners far more than it protects poor black landowners. But I won’t make that argument.

Here’s the argument I will make: I don’t think the racial disparity in the dispensing of conservation easements constitutes discrimination against African-Americans. And I don’t think that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s selection of a compressor site in Union Hill constitutes discrimination. The Union Hill community comprises only one of many groups affected by the pipeline. I do think the racial justice angle on Union Hill is ginned up by mostly white pipeline foes desperately seeking any weapon they can to defeat the pipeline project — even if it means aggravating already-tender race relations. And I’m betting that Governor Northam is canny enough to see through the ploy.

Update: The Virginia Outdoor Foundation has responded that my view of landowners who take out conservation easements is out of date. Before 2000, a majority of easements were taken out by wealthy landowners who didn’t earn their income from farming/forestry. Today, a majority of landowners getting easements are working farmers. Read the full comment here.