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The fossil fuel lobby preached its gospel in Virginia. Now, black churches are fighting back.
Rev. Paul Wilson fastens enough buttons on his jacket to stay warm on a chilly fall afternoon but still keep his clergy collar visible. He’s whipping up a crowd of demonstrators in downtown Richmond, Virginia, where they’re waiting to make a short march from Richmond’s Capitol Square Bell Tower to the nearby National Theatre. His eyes covered by sunglasses, and his head by a newsboy hat, Wilson speaks to the assembled about their Christian responsibility to protect the planet.
They’ve gathered for the Water Is Life Rally & Concert, an event to protest the proposed construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The development, a joint venture between several energy companies (including Richmond-based Dominion Energy), would carry natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina.
The pipeline’s proposed route runs directly between Union Hill and Union Grove Baptist churches, the two parishes where Wilson serves as pastor in rural Buckingham County, 70 miles south of Richmond. The proposed site for the pipeline’s 54,000-horsepower, gas-fired compressor station is also set to be built right between them.
Wilson fears the station could put his congregation and the surrounding community at risk of a range of ailments, especially asthma, because those living near natural gas facilities often suffer from chronic respiratory problems.
“God gave man dominion over the earth, but not permission to destroy it,” Wilson later tells me as we discuss the pipeline over coffee at a diner in a suburb north of Richmond.
Even though the Water Is Life Rally was held in the Bible Belt, Rev. Wilson was the only speaker who cited scripture and invoked Jesus Christ. Drums and tambourines reverberated in unison to chants of “No justice, no peace! No pipelines on our streets!”, and the event’s other speakers railed against the greed of Big Oil companies and U.S. imperialism.
At another rally focused on fossil fuels a year earlier in Richmond, religion was front and center.
In December 2016, gospel music stars descended on a local community center in Richmond’s East Highland Park neighborhood. Hundreds of residents from throughout the area had answered the call to attend a concert marketed as an opportunity for enlightenment, both spiritual and environmental.
As a sea of hands waved through the air as eyes closed in prayer, what many in the crowd didn’t know was that they were the target of a massive propaganda campaign. One of the event’s sponsors was a fossil-fuel advocacy group called Fueling U.S. Forward, an outfit supported by Koch Industries, the petrochemicals, paper, and wood product conglomerate founded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.
The gospel program was designed to highlight the benefits of oil and natural gas production and its essential role in the American way of life. During a break in the music, a panel discussion unfolded about skyrocketing utility costs. The lobbyists and businesspeople on the panel presented a greater reliance on fossil fuels — billed as cheap, reliable energy sources — as the fix. Later, a surprise giveaway netted four lucky attendees the opportunity to have their power bills paid for them.
The event was one big bait and switch, according to environmental experts and local activists. Come for the gospel music, then listen to us praise the everlasting goodness of oil and gas. Supporting this sort of pro-oil-and-gas agenda sprinkled over the songs of praise, they say, would only worsen the pollution and coastal flooding that come with climate change, hazards that usually hit Virginia’s black residents the hardest.
“The tactic was tasteless and racist, plain and simple,” says Kendyl Crawford, the Sierra Club of Richmond’s conservation program coordinator. “It’s exploiting the ignorance many communities have about climate change.”
Rev. Wilson likens that gospel concert to the Biblical story of Judas accepting 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus. Like many African Americans in Virginia, he initially didn’t connect environmental policy with what he calls the “institutional racism” — think racial profiling, lack of economic opportunity, etc. — that can plague black communities nationwide. Now he considers “the sea level rising or the air quality in the cities” another existential threat.
So in response to the Koch brothers’ attempt to sway their flocks, Wilson and others affiliated with black churches in Virginia have channeled their outrage into a new calling: climate advocacy. For Wilson, environmentalism has become a biblical mission.
“The climate is changing,” he says. “And it’s black folk in Virginia who will lose the most.”
The billionaire Koch brothers are one of the driving forces behind right-wing campaigns throughout the country. One of their primary activities is promoting fossil fuel production. According to Virginia environmental groups, that involves efforts to deny the existence of climate change and stifle renewable energy policies.
In struggling cities and towns, Big Oil bills itself as a savior, raising the hope that new plants and pipelines, like the Atlantic Coast project, will bring jobs and tax revenue. With an extensive network of advocacy groups throughout the country, the Koch brothers can spread that message anywhere, outsourcing efforts to sway public opinion without people realizing they’re pulling the strings.
Fueling U.S. Forward, until recently, was one of those campaigns. When HuffPost first reported on its existence in early 2016, the group had an annual budget of roughly $10 million and was run by Charles Drevna, a former petroleum industry lobbyist, and James Mahoney, a board member and former executive for Koch Industries. Later that summer, Drevna spoke at the Red State Gathering in Denver, telling the right-wing activist conference — in a speech where he referred to EPA employees as “clowns” — that the fossil fuel industry was losing ground because it was failing to connect with the public, especially minority communities, on a cultural, emotional, and personal level.
“We’ve done a terrible job in working with individual communities, working with the minority communities on how important energy is to them,” he said in a Facebook Live chat during the gathering with Fueling U.S. Forward’s communications director at the time, Alex Fitzsimmons. “And who gets hit the hardest when there’s a spike in energy costs? They get hit the most, and they get hit the hardest.”
A year ago, the New York Times reported that the nonprofit had started making inroads among African Americans. The group had helped sponsor the National Black Political Convention in 2016 where delegates added language to their platform characterizing policies that subsidize electric cars and residential solar as benefiting the rich at the expense of African Americans.
At the Richmond gospel concert, Fueling U.S. Forward sought to link energy production to the everyday issues that it said stymie economic mobility for African Americans — such as prices at the gas pump, heating, and electric bills. That message was delivered in part through discussions featuring prominent African-American business leaders.
“It was a deliberate strategy to manipulate black Virginians into supporting fossil fuels,” the Sierra Club’s Crawford says.
One of the participants was Derrick Hollie, a career marketing consultant who is also the founder of Reaching America, a nonprofit that describes itself as “focused on innovative solutions for African Americans not based on right or left wing views but what makes sense for a more united America.” Reaching America cosponsored the Fueling U.S. Forward gospel concert along with Radio One, an entertainment network targeting African Americans now known as Urban One. The corporation once employed Hollie as a national sales manager.
Despite Reaching America’s nonpartisan claims, Hollie has been associated with the black conservative network Project 21 and identified as a right-winger on TV news shows. And much of Hollie’s environmental advocacy has been in line with the Koch brothers’ priorities. His arguments focus on what he calls “energy poverty” — when low-income households spend large portions of their disposable income to keep the lights on and fill up their gas tanks. He’s invoked the phrase while speaking in support of fracking in Maryland, Rick Perry’s appointment to lead the Department of Energy, and most recently, the Trump administration’s planned withdrawal from the Paris accord. Hollie did not respond to requests for an interview.
While Hollie has remained visible since the Richmond event — launching a Reaching America podcast series and palling around with Perry and other Cabinet secretaries — Fueling U.S. Forward has gone dark. Calls and emails to Fueling U.S. Forward and its president Charles Drevna to comment for this story were not returned.
Fitzsimmons, the group’s communications director, has moved to Perry’s Department of Energy, where he’s the chief policy advisor in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The organization’s website appears to have been shut down last fall, all videos from its YouTube page have been removed, and its social media platforms haven’t been updated in more than a year.
But Fueling U.S. Forward’s message lives on. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, employs talking points that echo those Drevna used while promoting the organization in conservative circles, complaining that the EPA’s regulations pick “winners and losers” in the energy space.
Rev. Faith Harris remembers first hearing ads about the Fueling U.S. Forward gospel concert on urban radio stations back in 2016. A minister, teacher, and environmental activist at Virginia Union University, a Richmond-based historically black college, Harris was among many African Americans in the region angered by what she calls a “purposeful misinformation” campaign. She says it was surreal to hear a D.J. invite listeners to “learn the truth” about whether the country is using enough fossil fuels.
“I called the radio station to ask, ‘How could you do that?’” she recalls. “The debate isn’t whether there are enough fossil fuels, but about the health and environmental impact they have on the way we live on this planet.”
In the months after the gospel concert, the backlash bubbled slowly through neighborhoods, led mostly by community activists and clergy like Rev. Harris. It picked up steam following the Times article. Ultimately, Fueling U.S. Forward’s strategy of influencing one of the black community’s most sacred institutions — the church — would prove to be folly.
Within environmental advocacy circles, Harris says, there was an increased urgency to tell neighborhood leaders that the concert was part of a public relations campaign for oil and gas interests. The campaign had the unintended effect of rallying the Richmond black community against the Kochs and their goals.
Revs. Harris and Wilson now regularly tell their congregations how the fossil fuel industry harms low-income communities and people of color. Sea-level rise on Virginia’s coast has put low-lying cities in the Hampton Roads area, including Norfolk and Newport News — both of which are more than 40 percent black — at risk of extreme flooding. A hurricane during high tide could see entire neighborhoods populated primarily by African Americans and the poor swallowed up by the Chesapeake Bay.
“We in the church community have a moral responsibility to be out-front on protecting our flock from climate change,” Harris says. “I call it an authentic pro-life agenda. The Christian church, for too long, has allowed ‘pro-life’ to be defined solely as conception when, in fact, life is much more complex. It includes our quality of life while we’re here.”
The state’s African-American residents already face high rates of respiratory problems related to the processing of fossil fuels, like those that would flow through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In Norfolk, clouds of dust from coal residue from nearby shipping yards and factories often cover parked vehicles. With such close proximity to toxic air pollution, nearly 11 percent of the state’s black population has asthma, higher than the national average of 7.6 percent.
Richmond remains one of the deadliest places in the U.S. for people suffering from asthma, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, a consequence of a high poverty rate and a large proportion of uninsured. The chronic respiratory condition is linked to living near industrial factories, as well as urban planning that drove interstate highways — and their accompanying diesel pollution — through many black neighborhoods.
“We have a coal factory right in the neighborhood,” says Antonio Branch, a community organizer with Richmond-based Virginia Civic Engagement Table, an organization aimed at educating vulnerable communities about risks to their health. “I’m asthmatic. My mother is asthmatic and she grew up in the same area. My son is asthmatic, and I have a baby boy who may soon be diagnosed.”
Branch considers the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline “part of a larger environmental attack” on minority communities in Virginia and neighboring North Carolina, two states on planned pipeline route. Many of the region’s proposed oil and gas projects sit near poor and rural areas. In Virginia’s Buckingham County, home to Rev. Wilson’s churches, the community closest to that facility is 85 percent African American. By contrast, the state’s overall black population is 19 percent.
“This isn’t a coincidence,” Branch says.
While gospel provided the soundtrack to the Fueling U.S. Forward event in Richmond, it was bluegrass and folk that pumped through the loudspeakers at December’s Water Is Life Rally. Rev. Wilson was one of a dozen or so African Americans taking part in the event. Most of those assembled to protest the Atlantic Coast Pipeline were white millennials and baby boomers who donned anti-establishment paraphernalia and waved “No Pipeline” signs to the honking cars that passed by.
Kiquanda Baker, the Hampton Roads organizer for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, helped put together the Water Is Life Rally. She sees African-American leadership as an essential part of changing the narrative surrounding climate change. But she admits that while the community is becoming more engaged in green issues, it hasn’t quite begun to break down the archetype of the white environmentalist.
Adding environmentalism to the fight for social justice that’s part of the African-American experience, she says, is the most critical aspect of swaying communities of color to fight global warming.
“Our role as community leaders is to show that all of these issues are connected,” Baker says. “The more aware we are of environmental injustices, the less likely our communities can be tricked into rallies by the Koch brothers.”
Baker says outreach efforts are slowly making progress throughout the state, even if community members aren’t yet the most vocal activists. But she’s encouraged that African-American residents are increasingly active where it counts most: the voting booth.
“A few folks I talk with, they may not be at the point where they’re ready to canvas or march,” she says. “But they are better informed about who they’re voting for and which corporations and interests would also be getting their vote.”
Virginia’s black community is also becoming more active in pressing elected officials on the environment and climate change. Two months after the gospel concert, clergy members joined the Virginia Conservation Network — a coalition of organizations and community members that advocates for clean energy and environmental justice — for a panel discussion on how to inoculate themselves from Fueling U.S. Forward–type messaging. Freshman Democratic Congressman A. Donald McEachin, who’d recently been elected to represent Virginia’s 4th District — which runs from the southwestern suburbs of Richmond to the southeast corner of the state — joined the discussion. He has since joined with two other freshman representatives to form the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Congressional Task Force.
After Harris and other activists spent months petitioning the state government, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe established an Advisory Council on Environmental Justice in October. Its role is to provide the governor with independent recommendations on combating “disproportionately high or adverse effects from pollution” that fall on low-income residents and communities of color. Harris is one of the advisors, and she sees her participation as part of a larger theological crusade.
“In black communities, the clergy has always been the leading voice of the oppressed,” she says. “So when it comes to making sure our flock have a planet to call home, it’s a fight we have to be in front of.”
Rev. Wilson has also been preparing for the battle ahead. He’s already been arrested for protesting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline at the Virginia Governor’s Mansion. (He was sentenced to community service.) But as he made the trek back to Buckingham County after the Water is Life Rally, he was worrying about what the future holds, both for the pipeline he’s battling and his community.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is already a year behind schedule, and last November’s statewide elections could signal that momentum is swinging back in environmentalists’ favor. Democrats picked up seats in the House of Delegates, which could alter the timeline of the pipeline’s development. Several bills are currently up for vote that would require pipeline operators to obtain more permits before construction could begin.
When he’s not tending to his two churches, Wilson is a fifth-generation owner of a funeral home. He expects his daughter to take over the family business in the coming years, and his grandson has already chosen to study mortuary science, making it likely he’ll be the seventh generation to oversee the funeral home. Wilson hopes that by the time his grandson is running things, the environmental threats to his family and church members won’t have business booming at the funeral home for all the wrong reasons.
“God didn’t put me on this earth to pimp death for profit,” Wilson says. “That’s what the Kochs and these energy folks are doing to my people now. It’s up to us in the church to stop it.”
Kenya Downs is a multimedia journalist in Washington, D.C.
First published in Grist. Included in Vox Populi for educational noncommercial use only.