Why the South Is Organizing Its Own Green New Deal

Amid devastating hurricanes, oil spills and refinery fires, the Gulf South pushes for a Green New Deal that will meet its needs.

Power outages stretched from Port Arthur to Lake Charles several days after Hurricane Laura made landfall.
Power outages stretched from Port Arthur to Lake Charles several days after Hurricane Laura made landfall. Michael Barajas

Amid devastating hurricanes, oil spills and refinery fires, the Gulf South pushes for a Green New Deal that will meet its needs.

Power outages stretched from Port Arthur to Lake Charles several days after Hurricane Laura made landfall.
Power outages stretched from Port Arthur to Lake Charles several days after Hurricane Laura made landfall. Michael Barajas

LAKE CHARLES, LA.—After Hur­ri­cane Lau­ra hit in late August, a local chem­i­cal plant erupt­ed in flames. The fire, one of 31 post-Lau­ra oil and chem­i­cal leaks report­ed, sent up plumes of smoke and chlo­rine gas. Louisiana offi­cials told res­i­dents (many of whom had lost pow­er or their homes) to shel­ter in place and turn off their air con­di­tion­ing in the sum­mer heat to avoid the fumes.

“How do you shel­ter in place with no shel­ter?” KD Minor, a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er from Lake Charles, asked dur­ing a vir­tu­al con­fer­ence in August. Minor began coor­di­nat­ing relief before Lau­ra hit, pro­vid­ing res­i­dents with gas mon­ey to evac­u­ate. Oth­ers matched her con­tri­bu­tions, and “$5 turned into $1,000,” which Minor dis­trib­uted through For­ev­er Cal­casieu, a mutu­al aid net­work. Minor is still help­ing peo­ple get assis­tance as hur­ri­canes bat­ter the region.

Lau­ra wasn’t the first storm to expose over­lap­ping vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in the Gulf South—where thou­sands of oil and gas wells, refiner­ies and petro­chem­i­cal plants sit in a storm path super­charged by the emis­sions of the fos­sil fuel indus­try—nor will it be the last. While res­i­dents of Texas, Louisiana, Mis­sis­sip­pi, Alaba­ma, and Flori­da are build­ing mutu­al aid net­works, they’re also mak­ing longer-term plans, like the Gulf South for a Green New Deal.

Like the nation­al Green New Deal (GND) res­o­lu­tion, the Gulf South GND pro­pos­es slash­ing plan­et-warm­ing emis­sions through an ener­gy tran­si­tion with well-pay­ing union jobs, hous­ing, trans­porta­tion and health­care for all. But the Gulf South plat­form goes fur­ther, call­ing for an end to pipeline con­struc­tion, divest­ment from region­al mil­i­tary instal­la­tions and repur­pos­ing fos­sil fuel infra­struc­ture for renew­able ener­gy. It also demands food sov­er­eign­ty, repa­ra­tions for Black, Brown and Indige­nous peo­ple, and the redis­tri­b­u­tion of unpol­lut­ed lands to mar­gin­al­ized groups.

The plat­form ​out­lines what the Green New Deal would need to suc­ceed in the South and, there­fore, nation­al­ly,” says Emma Collin, direc­tor of pro­grams for the not-for-prof­it Gulf Coast Cen­ter for Law & Pol­i­cy (GCCLP), which coor­di­nates the ini­tia­tive. No cli­mate plan can win mate­r­i­al gains with­out lead­er­ship from ​peo­ple who work in the ener­gy indus­try, who have lived through cli­mate dis­as­ters, and who have been on the front lines of a lot of America’s dark­est his­to­ries,” she says.

Local farm­work­ers, fish­er­folk, labor groups and Indige­nous nations cre­at­ed the plat­form, meet­ing over six months in 2019 to decide what they liked about the nation­al GND and what was miss­ing from it. The result lays out a long-term vision that the platform’s more than 150 sig­na­to­ries, includ­ing Sun­rise Move­ment, are orga­niz­ing around.

The GCCLP sub­mit­ted the plat­form to the House Select Com­mit­tee on the Cli­mate Cri­sis and oth­er pol­i­cy-mak­ing bod­ies, but sig­na­to­ries are plan­ning state and region­al cam­paigns. Nurs­es, teach­ers and oth­er front­line work­ers—many non-union—have led much of the orga­niz­ing, while indus­tri­al unions have been more reluctant.

“How do you sell the refin­ery hole watch­er” on the Green New Deal, Minor asks. ​“They hear ​‘change’ and what that real­ly says to them is ​‘cut.’”

But change is inevitable. With near­ly 4,300 orphaned oil and gas wells in Louisiana (and more infra­struc­ture to be aban­doned as Covid-19 slash­es oil rev­enues), the Green New Deal’s wager is that a planned, demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly man­aged tran­si­tion will be bet­ter for work­ing peo­ple than a chaot­ic, cor­po­rate retreat.

I use that old union phrase, ​If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,’ ” says Ryan Pol­lock, an elec­tri­cian and orga­niz­er with IBEW 520 in Austin, Texas. In 2019, Pol­lock per­suad­ed the Texas AFL-CIO to pass a Green New Deal-style res­o­lu­tion. While indus­tri­al work­ers are warm­ing to GND pro­pos­als, he says, they need to get much more mil­i­tant. ​We’ve let our­selves be on the menu far too often.”

Cli­mate dis­as­ter rais­es the stakes. After Hur­ri­cane Ivan struck a Louisiana drilling plat­form in 2004, oil poured into the Gulf for 16 years. Kat­ri­na spilled 8 mil­lion gal­lons of oil. When Har­vey hit Texas in 2017, mil­lions of gal­lons of chem­i­cals entered water­ways. In Port Arthur, Texas, refin­ery oper­a­tors burned what was left in their pipes to pre­vent clog­ging, send­ing tox­ic gas over the city, accord­ing to local com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er Hilton Kel­ley. Weeks lat­er, a near­by Valero refin­ery caught fire.

“We have to get real about chang­ing the dynam­ics around how we get ener­gy,” Kel­ley says. ​“Because the old way is killing people.”

Gulf states sup­ply 75% of the country’s liq­uid fuel and 125,000 miles of pipeline snake across Louisiana alone, but far few­er peo­ple work in fos­sil fuel than the indus­try claims. ​It’s sort of this mythol­o­gy … that the petro­chem­i­cal indus­try is what makes Louisiana work,” says Dar­ryl Malek-Wiley, an orga­niz­er with Sier­ra Club’s Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice and Com­mu­ni­ty Part­ner­ships Pro­gram. In real­i­ty, pol­lut­ing indus­tries have ​tak­en most of the wealth and shipped it some­place else.”

In Lake Charles, peo­ple are ​“slow­ly but steadi­ly” con­nect­ing the dots between extrac­tive indus­try and cli­mate dis­as­ter, Minor says. Collin hopes the Gulf South GND can make those con­nec­tions clear­er, adding that the GND brand­ing is less impor­tant than what it hopes to do.

“The win,” Collin says, ​“is mate­r­i­al change.”

This arti­cle is reprint­ed with per­mis­sion from In These Times mag­a­zine, © 2020, and is avail­able at inthe​se​times​.com.

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