The southern coasts of Texas and Louisiana are hot and sticky. It’s physically uncomfortable to stand under the blistering sun for hours on end. It becomes even more so when the topic of conversation is about the generation of intentional failures that have left people battling cancer, unemployment, and lackluster housing conditions alone. At night, there is a moment of relief as the sun goes down, cut short as one looks to the distance. Silver towers illuminate the skyline like a metropolis and red flares light up the sky like a wildfire. At some moment you realize what is perpetually true in so-called “fenceline” communities – there is no rest in the shadow of the petrochemical corridor.
In June of 2023, DOE’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity (ED) led a first-of-its kind contingent of nearly fifty members from across the federal government and philanthropy to Port Arthur, Texas and Lake Charles, Louisiana. This was the second stop in the Energy Justice to the People Roadshow following April’s events in Rio Grande Valley and Corpus Christi, TX. Over the course of two days and one night, the Energy Justice to the People Delegation dived deep into place before engaging meaningfully with community members, elected officials, utility board members, advocacy organizations, and local government officials.
The arc of the events was as simple as it was novel for federal government engagement. Rather than dive directly into traditional presentations about what DOE and other agencies can offer communities, which most of us have never been to before, we spent extensive time listening to community concerns about past trends and hopes for the future. Only then could we have open discussions from a place of true knowledge and understanding.
Port Arthur, TX: Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Director Shalanda Baker Get Up Close and Personal
The Roadshow officially kicked off on the evening on the evening of June 12th with a driving learning session that took the delegation from the refineries to residential areas in Port Arthur, TX. There’s a phenomenon that occurs in Port Arthur according to some locals at around 5pm every workday, somewhat of a mass exodus. The streets typically light with traffic suddenly fill up with bumper-to-bumper traffic. The cause? Hundreds of workers from the nearby oil and gas industry leaving the town for their homes. A stark reminder that while jobs abound in Port Arthur some residents feel they rarely go to people from Port Arthur.
John Beard Jr., an environmental advocate, resident, and the founder of the Port Arthur Community Action Network graciously led the delegation on the listening session. Mr. Beard described the impact of industry on residents; including air pollution, safety hazards, and the daily complications they face as they grapple with their current environment.
The next day, June 13th, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, DOE’s Secretarial Advisor on Equity and Director of Office of Economic Impact and Diversity Shalanda Baker, Under Secretary for Infrastructure David Crane, EPA’s Senior Advisor to the Administrator for Environmental Justice Robin Collin, EPA Region 6 Administrator Dr. Earthea Nance, and HUD Deputy Region 6 Administrator, Lesley Bradley, made a “house call” to visit residents of the El Vista neighborhood of Port Arthur, TX, which is located near oil refineries and storage tanks. They met with Mrs. Shirley Watts Payne to learn about her experience as a fenceline resident, the impacts of living adjacent to industry, and natural disaster relief issues.
The DOE Delegation reconvened at the historical Carver Terrace Public Housing site to learn about the direct impacts of the fossil fuel industry on this once fenceline community. In 2012, Carver Terrace Public Housing was closed due to lead and asbestos contamination and its close proximity to oil storage tanks and refineries. Residents were relocated to a new complex to be built on the northern side of town, farther away from the refineries. But many of the residents questioned if moving a mile or two away would be enough to solve the ongoing health problems many of them faced.
Hilton Kelley, who grew up in Carver Terrace and the founder of Community In-Power Development Association, Inc., shared hopes of a low-income serving community solar garden being developed on the property of the former public housing site. Mr. Kelly worked with DOE’s Solar Energy Innovation Network (SEIN) to conceptualize the “Solar Powered Substation,” a future site for community members to charge electric vehicles, phones and other electronics.
In the early afternoon, ED Director Shalanda H. Baker, also a Texas native with deep family roots in Port Arthur, TX delivered a keynote address at the Lamar State College Port Arthur (LSCPA) campus where she emphasized the Department’s commitment to advancing equity.
“At DOE, we recognize that the racial and economic disparities we see throughout the United States result from the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and a myriad of other government-sanctioned policies and systems,” said Director Baker. “Just as these policies were created intentionally, our efforts to undo their harm must be intentional.”
The 300+ attendees heard from community members, local government officials, elected officials, DOE staff and other federal family members about the importance of embedding equity and justice into policies that affect frontline and fenceline communities. Leaders also engaged in conversation with attendees about what a clean energy future looks like for the city of Port Arthur, TX.
“With energy communities like Port Arthur, we’re really interested in helping the community in whatever way the community feels is necessary,” said Secretary Granholm. “We want Port Arthur and communities like it to power our nation for the next hundred years.”
At the conclusion of the day’s events, Mayor Pro Tem Tiffany Hamilton and Councilman Donald Frank, Sr., on behalf of Mayor Thurman Bill Bartie, presented Proclamations declaring June 13th as Port Arthur’s inaugural "Energy Justice Day" and keys to the City of Port Arthur, TX to Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Director Shalanda Baker.
Lake Charles, LA: Hope for a Clean Energy Future
On June 14th, the DOE Delegation visited Lake Charles, LA, where DOE hosted a series of townhall-style listening sessions that covered a variety of topics from DOE funding and investment opportunities to personal stories from residents.
Community members expressed their concerns regarding the acute impact energy pollution has on their lives; in turn, DOE and other federal agency officials listened to their heartfelt stories and vowed to follow up with information about various grants and resources that are available to address concerns and provide community-based solutions to advance equity in their communities.
“To paraphrase what our president said, I am going to govern this whole nation. I’m making commitments to fight the climate crisis. I’m making commitments to tackle racial justice and structural equality. And I’m also making the commitment to bring new economic opportunity to places that didn’t have it before,” said Director Baker.
The DOE Energy Justice to the People Roadshow is just one example of how the Department is embedding equity into the clean energy transition. The primary goal of this effort is to share information about DOE program offices that offer grant funding and procurement opportunities and ensure disadvantaged communities benefit from these investments.
ED’s collaboration with industry leaders, local governments, community stakeholders and local businesses will result in real change that advances environmental justice, invigorates economic revitalization, and creates good jobs in frontline communities.