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Energy Policy Reform: The New Civil Rights Frontier

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

On Wednesday, January 14, over a dozen nationally-known, civil rights and religious leaders from around the country descended on Salt Lake City, Utah to voice a public complaint against Hollywood icon, Robert Redford. The protestors included Niger Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Dr. Cal Beisner of the Cornwall Alliance, Bishop Philip Porter (former chairman of Promise Keepers), and a host of other bishops and ministers. I joined the group because I believe that no one is currently speaking to the needs of the poor with regard to America’s evolving energy policies.


Radical environmental groups believe the country should produce less energy, driving prices up in order to force energy conservation. While higher energy costs will not bankrupt the average or median income family because they devote only a nickel of every dollar of their income to energy costs, the average low-income family spends 20 - 50% of their dollar for energy.

We are convinced that higher energy prices discriminate against the poor. Some answer by saying we should give the poor handouts. The poor people we talk to don’t want handouts - they want a hand-up. They don’t want an energy welfare system; they want to be able to afford the necessities of life, like everyone else. Therefore, the key to affordable energy is making sure we produce enough energy to meet the needs of all Americans. This means developing safer nuclear energy and more clean natural gas, domestic oil, wind power, and clean coal.

If we realize that energy is the master resource of modern society, it is easy to see how limited access to energy ensnares the poor in a viscous economic trap. Energy policy discussions should no longer be the exclusive territory of scientists and geeks, but become a major concern of civil rights activists. Policies that restrict access to America’s abundant energy by driving up prices could roll back the financial advancement of black and Hispanic Americans. These wrong-headed policies could cause widespread layoffs, leaving unemployed workers and their families struggling to survive, as the cost of everything they eat, drive, wear, and do spirals out of control.


With this backdrop, let me explain why we gathered to protest environmental activists’ vehement opposition to exploration of clean-burning Utah natural gas. Actor Robert Redford and others have been fighting to stop the sale of leases to oil and gas companies in Utah, claiming that 110,000 acres should be conserved because of a high concentration of prehistoric archaeological sites and rock art. But restricting the supply of natural gas in the Rockies can raise prices for home heating fuel across the nation.

For example, it is estimated that approximately eight billion cubit feet (BCF) per day of natural gas flows east out of the Rockies. Utah's production comprises about one BCF of those exports to the East. The greater Chicago area alone consumes over four BCF of natural gas per day. Utah gas ends up flowing to many cities like Chicago to help families heat their homes.

It is possible that Redford himself does not understand the impact of his environmental grandstanding. Therefore, we asked for a summit meeting with him to discuss our concerns and explain how energy prices disproportionately impact low-income families. Unfortunately, Mr. Redford has not yet accepted our invitation to have a dialogue. It is easy for well-to-do people like Redford to attempt to save face by justifying inconsistent or hypocritical positions.

In fact, we chose the day before the kick off of the Sundance Film Festival to hold our protests because it would give us a forum to inform the nation of Redford’s hypocrisy. He flies hundreds of people to the festival yearly, using a huge amount of fuel on private jets. The price means nothing to him. While he complains about the way the rest of the nation uses energy, he forces others to sacrifice for his energy vision. While Mr. Redford can afford to heat his 13,000-square-foot, Utah mansion no matter how high heating prices get, grandmothers on a fixed income and single mothers dependent upon public assistance cannot afford to pay their energy bills. They count on energy production in states like Utah to continue so that heating costs stay as low as possible.


Between his Utah mansion and the Sundance Resort, Mr. Redford and his business partners use more natural gas in a month than a single mother of two in South Chicago uses in a year. I would like to challenge Mr. Redford to live in a middle class neighborhood for just two weeks before he makes any additional energy recommendations. An alternative is to allow CORE and the Cornwall Alliance arrange for his team to talk to 100 people from Cabrini Green in Chicago, the southeast section of DC, or the Church Hill community in Richmond.

I am delighted whenever celebrities “weigh in” on the moral issues of our day. I would be even more delighted if these entertainment heavyweights were more informed. I am sure that our national respect for them would go through the roof, if they walked a mile in our shoes before they speak out. We need Hollywood actors to become advocates for people who are living really difficult lives now because of the high cost of living, joblessness and the economic recession. Our cultural icons need to open their eyes a bit and see beyond the lure of quick environmental headlines.

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