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The Hill: Let’s not threaten an energy sector that delivers for Americans

by Mario H. Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund

The web of environmental, energy and infrastructure issues taking center stage in President Biden’s domestic agenda is an opportunity for commonsense commitment to the health of our planet, as well as a chance to celebrate mankind’s victories in safeguarding its future. These issues take on an added dimension for underserved communities because those populations have benefited especially from an energy revolution that created jobs, helped to lift millions out of poverty, and provided a path for responsible environmental stewardship.

Tackling environmental issues is a shared challenge that spans racial, geopolitical and party lines. Our priority indeed should be to recognize that protecting the environment does not mean that it is necessary to hinder economic growth, especially as more people deservedly want to pursue the American Dream of upward economic mobility.

Interestingly, the energy sector that powers our modern economy is itself relying on people of color. The Community Energy Center — a joint project of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and National Association of Hispanic Publications Media LLC — notes in one report, for example, that half of job opportunities in the oil and gas industry may be filled by people of color in coming years, including nearly a third of those job opportunities filled by Latinos. Those jobs are more than just numbers — they represent a chance to achieve a six-figure salary with only a high school degree. That can transform families and potentially break patterns of generational poverty. 

In California alone, Latinos today hold 30 percent of the state’s 518,000 jobs in the direct and indirect oil and gas sector. Those numbers are expected to grow in coming years, especially as the oil and gas sector makes critical investment in STEM education to prepare its future workforce. As New Mexico’s 2019 Teacher of the Year, Jessica Sanders, explained, “New Mexico’s oil and gas industry not only provides critical funding for education, but they provide future career opportunities for our students.” 

The oil and gas industry, through programs such as federal leasing, has given many young people a pathway to a better future — one that could disappear if federal officials are not thoughtful about the future of such programs. Officials should also bear in mind that a solar rooftop installer in California makes, on average, $19 per hour. But do those jobs provide benefits and long-term employment opportunities? Reliable jobs in the fossil fuel industry can provide higher wages and salaries than renewable energy jobs, according to a report released this month. In fact, salaries in oil and natural gas industry jobs can pay between $75,000 and $100,000, creating tremendous opportunities for many underserved and diverse communities.

It would be a mistake for federal policy to threaten an energy sector that is delivering in a big way for American communities. But maintaining the balance of economic growth with responsible protection requires effort by policymakers to constructively engage with each other.

In the vehement debate over carbon pricing, for example, lawmakers could take a good-faith examination for proposals that both sustain jobs and take steps to lower emissions.  Perhaps the right legislative circumstances and substantive possibilities exist to design the right carbon pricing program, but taking growth, stewardship and, of course, the science and historical lessons of similar policies into account is paramount to even starting the conversation.

Too often, conversations about sustainability have been less than inclusive when it comes to underserved populations. Whether it is renewable energy or organic food, we must recognize that not all sustainable movements are economically accessible to everyone. Many people are focused on career, food, safety, education and child care needs that demand daily attention; high-minded thoughts about climate change become a luxury. If we are to make real environmental progress, our approach cannot be tone-deaf to these realities. 

Energy is inescapably critical to America’s growth. From the fuel that powers our vehicles to the array of energy sources that keep our lights on and businesses running, we all depend on energy.  Similarly, clean air, water and land is beneficial to all, especially those from communities that face additional challenges. 

As we continue to recover from unprecedented economic hardships brought by the global pandemic, we should remember that environmental stewardship and generating economic activity do not have to be at odds with each other.

Mario H. Lopez is the president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a public policy advocacy organization that promotes liberty, opportunity, and prosperity for all Americans. Follow him on Twitter @MarioHLopez.

Read the full op-ed here.