Photo credit: The Interfaith Alliance for Climate Justice
A 15-member advisory council has recommended that the state rescind permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline on the grounds of environmental justice, the Washington Post reports.
The Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, created by former Governor Terry McAuliffe, said that Governor Ralph Northam should appoint an emergency task force “to ensure that predominately poor, indigenous, brown and/or black communities do not bear an unequal burden of environmental pollutants and life-altering disruptions.”
Environmental justice advocates have focused in recent months on the community of Union Hill in Buckingham County, a historically African-American area where the ACP wants to build a compressor station. The compressor requires an state air-quality permit, the denial of which would put a serious crimp in the pipeline plans. African-American residents would be impacted by the noise and dust of construction as well as from air pollution emanating from the compressor station. A draft letter (I haven’t been able to find a copy of the final letter) from the group declares that the compressor station “exhibits racism.”
Friends, the environmental justice/social justice movement has jumped the shark. Pipeline foes raise serious issues about landowner rights (are property owners sufficiently compensated for rights of way?) and water quality (will erosion and sedimentation in mountainous karst terrain damage local water supplies?). But the environmental justice angle is hokum. We live in an era in which labeling someone or something as “racist” trumps all other facts and logic. The anti-communist McCarthyism of the 1950s has revisited America a half-century later in a new guise. Today, social justice warriors espy racists behind every bush. But tarring the ACP as exhibiting “racism” deprives the term “racism” of any meaning.
Let’s consider a few facts about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The pipeline is 600 miles long. Architects of the pipeline route circumvented sites of historical or cultural significance (including those associated with African-Americans), as well as sites of ecological importance, including large tracts of land protected by conservation easements and national park status. Concerned about the impact on local economies and local tax bases, the ACP made efforts (not entirely successful) to minimize impact on sites with economic value. The unavoidable consequence was to steer the pipeline through properties with less economic value.
Steering a pipeline through areas with lower property values means redirecting it from affluent areas to lower-income areas. Insofar as there is overlap between the lower-income population and the African-American population, that means routing the pipeline through areas populated by African-Americans. ACP didn’t route its pipeline with an intention of discriminating against African-Americans, it reconfigured the route in response to pressure emanating from those with political power. If there is institutional racism in the picture, it’s the superior ability of affluent white pipeline foes to protect their property.
Despite this unintentional bias in the routing process, it is difficult to see a disproportionate impact on lower-income or African-American Virginians in the numbers.
According to the ACP Environmental Impact Statement, in Virginia 11.5% of the population lives below the poverty line. Thirty-four of the 63 census tracts in Virginia within one mile of the pipeline have a higher percentage of the population living below the poverty line when compared to the state. Consider how elastic this definition is. The pipeline doesn’t have run through a lower-income census district, it can run within a mile of such a district! Furthermore, the methodology fails to adjust the “poverty” line for the lower cost of rural living. Thus the percentage of poor Virginians who are truly poor — and the putative impact on truly poor people — is significantly overstated.
Likewise, minorities in Virginia comprise 30.8% of the population, according to the ACP’s Environmental Impact Statement. The pipeline route goes through, or within one mile of, census tracts with minority populations ranging from o.2% to 100%. In 15 of the 63 census tracts, the minority population is either (1) greater than 50% or (2) is meaningfully greater than the percentage of the minority population in that particular jurisdiction. Nice trick: Create two definitions for describing disparate impact and rather than pick one or the other, use both!
Despite the way the process is loaded, it strikes me that you would have gotten much the same impact if you had plotted the pipeline route by random chance. In 48 census tracts, the disparate-impact criteria do not apply.
In a state in which the African-American population is scattered throughout the countryside, it is impossible using random selection criteria to avoid impacting some African American landowners and communities. As it happens, one cluster of the minority communities in the path of the pipeline is located in Buckingham County near a proposed compressor station, the location of which was picked not because of proximity to African-Americans but because of the availability of an industrial parcel in proximity to the anticipated junction with the Transco pipeline.
The social justice warriors are focusing on one African-American community along a 600-mile pipeline and using it as a stand-in for the entire African-American population along the route. Then the SJWs purport to speak for that community (some of whose members may not share their views), and insist that the alleged injustices visited upon that single community are grounds for scuttling the entire project. If this logic prevails, SJWs will be given the power to exercise veto power over major infrastructure projects — not just gas pipelines, but electric transmission lines, highways, or any major industrial project — on the basis of race.
Of course, as I have frequently pointed out in other contexts, the SJWs are highly selective in assigning racism. One could just as easily describe the SJWs as the racists. Pipeline construction will open up hundreds of jobs for African-Americans working for the Laborers International Union of America. By augmenting local supplies of gas, the pipeline also will make rural counties with large African-American populations eligible to recruit new categories of manufacturing business.
Dominion Energy and other ACP partners would be fully within their rights to accuse the predominantly white SJWs of trying to shut off economic opportunities for blacks to advance their anti-fossil fuel agenda — an accusation which has considerable validity. Dominion doesn’t play the game that way. But I wouldn’t blame them if they did.