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The Energy Marketplace and Public Policies Have Unique Impacts on African-Americans

African Americans have a big stake in an energy sector that keeps fuel and electric power flowing reliably and affordably to working families and creates opportunities for economic advancement.

As the country’s energy needs inevitably continue to grow, it will create jobs, many of them in cutting-edge work requiring STEM proficiency. These positions represent opportunities for professional and advancement for the next generation of African American workers.  The Department of Energy’s Office of Minority Programs (OMP) has pursued policies aimed at increasing minority participation in the energy economy. When more people of color are working reconfiguring power plants for generation powered by natural gas, erecting wind turbines, or constructing pipelines, there will be more money spent in diverse economies.

Ample supplies and an adaptable, modern delivery infrastructure translates into lower utility bills and gasoline prices. This is especially helpful to minority households who spend more of their income on energy costs. For example, shale oil reserves has yielded huge amounts of natural gas. A 2017 report from the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania’s Gas Decade: Insights into Consumer Pricing Impacts from Shale Gas (2007- 2016), found that development of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation led a 40 percent drop in residential prices in Pennsylvania compared to the prior decade. While natural gas use varies from region to region, nationwide the downward pressure on commercial and residential power bills has continued into this year.

Likewise with the price of gasoline, analysis by the Urban Institute found poor commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas than more financially secure commuters. While gasoline prices are relatively low compared to the 2008 when the study was done, a substantial price hike would mean a disproportionate increase in the burden for below-poverty commuters.

According to a 2016 report, the vast majority of low-income households (defined as having income at or below 80 percent of area median income), were African American and Hispanic households. On average, low-income households pay 7.2 percent of household income on utilities – more than three times the amount that higher income households pay (2.3 percent). In dollar terms, that is about $1,700 annually, which is a considerable sum for a family with medium income of roughly $25,000.

There were many reasons for this. Low-income people are more likely to live in older housing with poor ventilation and aging, inefficient appliances and heating systems. Such disparities are often symptomatic of and inadvertently reinforce systemic racism, namely decades of housing discrimination and employment discrimination, poor school systems, trouble getting credit, and biases in the criminal justice system. 

The report also noted that high energy burdens can increase financial stress, cases of asthma, respiratory problems, heart disease, arthritis, and rheumatism. Children and the elderly are most susceptible to these health impacts caused by improperly heated or cooled homes. In addition, when people are unable to pay rising utility bills on time, utilities can shut off power. Tragically, this has result in deaths or people forced from homes, as documented in a 2017 NAACP report, Lights Out in the Cold: Reforming Utility Shut-Off Policies as if Human Rights Matter.

In summary, there are more reasons than ever to sustain an energy industry that makes life easier and more secure in all communities, and in particular for communities of color.