March 4, 2021

We postponed our Black History Month blog series due to the winter storm and energy crisis in late February. We’re excited to be picking up the series here with an interview with John Hall.

John Hall has worked on environmental and social justice issues in Texas for almost 40 years. Most recently an associate vice president at Environmental Defense Fund, John served as the executive director of the Texas Environmental Research Consortium in Houston, chaired the Texas Water Commission and Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (predecessor agencies to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality), managed projects for the Port Authority of Houston, and was deputy commissioner at the Texas General Land Office.

 

After 38 years in energy, environment, and social justice, John Hall is optimistic, with a catch.

Pecan Street worked with John extensively following the murder of George Floyd to identify ways Pecan Street can help recognize and address how systemic racism has impacted the energy industry. (Watch John in our two-part Race and Energy webinar.)

We spoke with John recently about his career, the intersection of race and energy, and why he’s optimistic about fighting climate change and local air pollution.

Outside the energy bubble we live in, a lot of people are surprised to hear “race” and “energy” in the same sentence. Why is energy such an important part of discussions about race?

Because they’re inextricably connected, communities of color have a huge stake in energy. Even if you don’t work in the energy industry, your life is connected to it. For the last 100 years, energy has been the driving force behind the economy, especially here in Texas. The industry grew and prospered at the same time that black and other communities of color were politically disenfranchised, shut out of the growing economy and bore the brunt of the downsides of that growth. So today, power plants are more likely to be located in communities of color. People of color have lower homeownership, which means they have less authority over energy choices. They’re underrepresented in government, which means they have less say in the laws that limit pollution from energy. And they’re sorely underrepresented in the industry itself when it comes to leadership and jobs. The list goes on and on.

There are many areas of our society where a person trying to improve social justice could focus. What drew you to environmental issues?

Well, part of that is the impact of energy. But it extends beyond that to water, clean air, and other environmental issues. I’d love to tell you I had a grand career strategy, but I think I just had a visceral sense about the connection between equality and many of the things that we connect to the environment today – the right to breathe clean air, the right to clean water. You shouldn’t have to choke when you step on your front porch. You can drive around the neighborhoods that surround any power plant or petrochemical plant and see who bears the burden of energy. Who lives near refineries or along highways?

I’ve heard you say that you’re worried the clean energy industry could replicate the racial inequality of the fossil fuel industry. How so?

Because if they don’t make a deliberate effort to NOT replicate it, it will happen. It’s true that large solar farms are cleaner than coal plants, but do you want to live right next to one? Or under a wind turbine? How many black clean energy CEOs are there? Or even upper management? The clean energy industry – from companies to advocates – are saying the right things about ensuring that the industry will be good for communities of color, but it will take a deliberate effort to ensure it is.

I think local jobs is one area where clean energy has a real opportunity. Every residential solar installation is a local job creator. Every energy efficiency audit company is a local job creator. These new jobs give the industry an opportunity to not only pull black and brown people in as customers, but as workers and investors.

What do you say to people who say “we’re a business, we don’t have the time or money to focus on social issues”?

But they are social forces. The jobs the energy industry provides are critical social services in our society. And they receive huge subsidies and tax incentives – that we all pay for – for the jobs they create. Federal, state and local laws forbid employment discrimination. Consequently, they’re morally obligated to know and do the right thing, especially companies who have a direct connection to the issue.

But from a business perspective, it’s terribly short-sighted for companies to not take proactive actions to employ African Americans and Latinos and invest in their communities. Black and brown communities have huge spending power and their numbers are growing. Why would a smart businessperson ignore an issue that so directly affects such a large part of their market?

Despite these facts, many companies continue to fail to provide equal employment opportunities to people of color and to invest in their communities.

In the wake of George Floyd, for example, I searched for corporate responses in several industries. I saw statements from banks, sports teams, computer companies, telecom companies. Big announcements about how they would change policies or support specific initiatives. I could not find one chemical plant or oil and gas company that even made a STATEMENT about racial equality. I hope I missed some, but I think that’s a reflection of their thinking. It really concerns me that an industry that is so powerful and has brought so much financial benefit to white communities doesn’t even see how connected it is to race. That’s the kind of indifference and lack of commitment to racial equality I hope we avoid in the growing clean energy industry.

I’ve heard you talk about how optimistic you are about climate progress, which is a nice change of pace here in Texas. Why are you optimistic, and does that optimism extend to addressing racial inequality?

The short answer is yes….if we do this right, we can address the climate crisis in a meaningful way, grow the economy here in Texas and beyond, and pull black and brown communities into the fight so they can both participate in the solution and reap the economic benefits.

In my entire career, I’ve never seen environmental progress, economic growth and social equity issues so beautifully aligned. The solutions we need to reduce climate emissions will create local jobs, expand our economy, clean the air in communities that have suffered through the fossil fuel economy. It’s win – win – win.

But I’m not naïve. None of this will just happen accidentally, especially when there are billion-dollar fossil fuel companies who still see a clean future as a threat and clean energy companies who are not taking concrete and meaningful actions to engage with communities of color. If we want to reap all the benefits of a clean energy economy, we need to work toward that goal. We need to build equity and justice into the model, so to speak.

Let’s end with a call to action. Imagine you’re speaking to a class of minority graduating business school students. What would you tell them about the work world they are about to enter?

I would say… Congratulations, you have done well and have positioned yourself to succeed. Spend the next 10 years getting better and becoming an expert. Go make money. But a focus on “self” is not enough. Expand your horizon and priorities to include the well-being of others…to community. None of us have the luxury of just thinking about ourselves or our family. We have a collective responsibility to see the changes that need to happen and make them happen. Career success and making money are good, but they do not provide fulfillment. Personal success, coupled with contributing to the well-being of others, does. We have huge problems and huge opportunities in this state and in this country ….we don’t just have a chance to work on them….we have a responsibility to.

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