Recently, Dr. Charles Steele Jr., the president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a civil rights organization co-founded by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Frederick Shuttlesworth, among other prominent leaders and ministers, authored an op-ed arguing against the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan using unfounded cost claims.
None of his claims are true, of course.
To the contrary and as reported by Utility Dive, an independent study by University of Maryland economists and Industrial Economics, an energy consulting firm found that the Clean Power Plan would result in “a net gain of 74,000 jobs in 2020, and projects that these annual employment gains will increase to 196,000 to 273,000 jobs between 2025 and 2040.” Based on EPA data, the Union of Concerned Scientists found that the benefits of the Clean Power Plan range from $27 billion to $50 billion in 2020 and $46 to $84 billion in 2030. Another report on the Clean Power Plan developed by Harvard University and Syracuse University found that controlling power plant pollution would “save 3,500 lives per year from heart attacks and lung cancer and decrease hospitalizations by 1,000 each year.
Pollution and Communities of Color
On that latter point, it’s important to emphasize that fossil fuel pollution disproportionately harms the health and well-being of communities of color. As the NAACP found:
- 78 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant in comparison to 56 percent of whites;
- 71 percent of African Americans live in counties that do not meet federal air pollution standards, while only 58 percent of whites do and;
- Not coincidentally, asthma, worsened by pollution, affects African Americans at greater percentages than whites (i.e., 36 percent higher rate of incidence, three times higher rate of hospitalization and two times higher rate of deaths).
Given all this, it’s baffling and shocking to learn that the head of an organization dedicated to bettering the lives of African Americans would fight against a policy designed to clear the air of pollutants that harm all people (but communities of color most of all). Yet, that’s exactly what’s happening. You may ask why Dr. Steele would compromise the integrity and values of the organization he represents. The answer is disturbing.
Ties to Energy Interests
The Institute for Southern Studies researched Dr. Steele’s ties to energy interests and learned that he has a very close relationship with the fossil fuel industry. Also, that he overstated the costs of coal ash regulation at an EPA hearing where he represented Working People for Fair Energy, an organization with “close ties to industry interests with a financial stake in fighting coal ash regulation.” At that EPA hearing, Steele cited research from the Affordable Power Alliance, which is affiliated with another organization that “has supported anti-environmental initiatives such as expanded oil drilling while accepting money from Exxon Mobil and other corporations.”
Citing Ebony magazine, the Institute also noted that the funding for SCLC’s $3 million headquarters came from a capital campaign run by Georgia Power president and CEO Mike Garrett, with whom Steele developed close ties during his time in the Alabama State Senate.
Unfortunately, we should expect to hear more dirty energy talking points from Dr. Steele and others who have, or whose organization has, received funding from the fossil fuel lobby. We expect that these individuals will continue attacking clean energy policies that would benefit communities disproportionately impacted by dirty fuels.
It may be educational for Dr. Steele to go back and read the words written by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., about cities “gasping in polluted air and enduring contaminated water.”
Joel A. Francis is a senior fellow at the Checks and Balances Project, a national watchdog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from pro-clean energy philanthropies and donors.