President-elect Joe Biden is beginning to fill top positions for his administration, including sending a climate signal. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat, will reportedly serve as director of the Office of Public Engagement, Bloomberg reported on Monday evening. According to Politico, that role will include serving as a “liaison with the business community and climate change activists.” But activists say he’s the wrong person for the job.
“He’s a bad choice,” said Anne Rolfes, executive director of environmental justice nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade who lives and works in Richmond’s district.
Biden will enter the presidency at a crucial time, and climate activists helped elevate him there. They’re continuing to put pressure on him to address the climate crisis, but Richmond’s position stands in contrast to their demands.
Richmond represents Louisiana’s second district, which covers most of New Orleans and stretches west and north to Baton Rouge. It includes a stretch of communities along the Mississippi River known as Cancer Alley because of the increased cancer risk that residents face due to their proximity to a hub of polluting fossil fuel and petrochemical plants. Richmond is no climate denier—he received a 74% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters and has supported measures to preserve wildlife and protect public lands. But when it comes to legislation that impacts fossil fuel and petrochemical companies like those who have set up shop in Louisiana’s chemical corridor, he’s sung a different tune.
“We’ve seen Richmond do things like vote for the repeal of crude oil export ban in 2015, which has led to this explosion in development along that corridor,” said Jane Patton, senior environmental health campaigner with the Center for International and Environmental Law who has lived in Richmond’s district her whole life. “When that crude oil export ban was repealed, all this new development was suddenly planned along the corridor … a lot of that growth we’ve seen is being driven by this whole new market for crude oil exports.”
Richmond didn’t just vote to open the door for expanded fossil fuel activity in his district. He’s also ignored residents’ cries about the resulting pollution. Rolfes, for instance, has spent years campaigning against Formosa Plastics’ proposal to open up a $9.4 billion chemical complex in Cancer Alley’s St. James Parish, which would be one of the largest plastic plants in the country. ProPublica found that the new plant’s emissions will more than triple exposure to cancer-causing chemicals in what is already one of America’s most polluted zip codes. It would also release an enormous amount of climate-warming emissions—13.6 million tons each year, per a Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality permit. That’s the equivalent of three and a half coal-fired power stations.
“Rep. Richmond has not lifted a finger to help the community that would be destroyed. He has refused to even meet with St. James residents,” Rolfes said. “He has been content to roll out the red carpet for polluters and turn his back on the residents of this historic Black community.”
Darryl Malek-Wiley, an environmental justice organizer with Sierra Club in New Orleans, said this is particularly frustrating because Richmond occupies the only safely Democratic seat in Louisiana.
“He could be very outspoken and still get elected, and yet, he’s never been there,” he said. “He hasn’t pushed for accountability, he hasn’t been there fighting the oil and gas impacts on coastal wetlands, on stopping pollution.”
Malek-Wiley said that Richmond “hasn’t even been helpful in the fight to monitor air pollution,” let alone quelling it. For years, Malek-Wiley has been working with concerned residents to improve monitoring emissions of chloroprene, a chemical that can increase risk of cancer and reproductive damage, from a rubber plant started by DuPont and later sold to a Japanese company called Denka. The Environmental Protection Agency installed new monitors around the plant earlier this year, but outside experts said those new monitors haven’t picked up chloroprene spikes though independent monitoring has.
“Cedric [Richmond] wrote one letter last year on issue, but hasn’t been actively engaged,” said Malek-Wiley. Since then, he’s promised to become more engaged, but so far hasn’t delivered. “He may have had one meeting with organizers, but there’s been no ongoing discussion.”
With this experience in mind, Malek-Wiley said he had to laugh when he saw reports that the Biden administration would expect Richmond to be a liaison between industry and activists.
“Liaison? He doesn’t liaise,” he said. “He’s never liaised with any environmental justice groups working on issues with the petrochemical industry in Louisiana. He might have liaised with business, but he hasn’t talked with us.”
If money is any indication, Richmond has done plenty of liasing with business. Over the course of his 10-year career, Richmond has taken in $340,750 for the oil and gas industry, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics. A deeper look shows specific donors include Exxon ($35,500), Chevron ($33,350), Phillips 66 ($25,000), and Marathon Petroleum ($35,500). He’s also received $15,000 from the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s front group that has helped stall out climate action.
In addition to oil and gas donations, Richmond has also accepted money from other companies and trade groups that have at various points denied climate change, lobbied against climate and environmental protections, poisoned communities with toxic waste and emissions, or, in one case, are embroiled in a massive bribery case.
There’s a 2018 donation from DowDuPont ($7,000), a chemical giant that’s since split up, and is at the center of numerous environmental justice fights, including the one that inspired Dark Waters. There’s Lockheed Martin ($22,000), a weapons manufacturer that’s currently facing two lawsuits alleging it created an “environmental nightmare” in Florida by releasing heavy metals and chemicals in the Orlando area. Richmond has also received money from the freight rail industry, the biggest contributor of which is CSX ($62,500), a group that played a lesser-known but still crucial role in spreading climate denial for decades.
Richmond has also received a massive influx of money from utilities that are some of the most egregious machines of climate denial and pollution in the country. Those ranks include Entergy ($82,750), a Louisiana utility that paid actors to show up to support a natural gas power plant at a public hearing opposed by the actual public. Then there’s Duke Energy ($23,000), which activists have fought over coal ash spills in Carolinas and Virginia. It’s also curious that a utility that doesn’t work in Louisiana would donate so much to a member of Congress there. And finally, there’s FirstEnergy ($6,500), a utility that again does not serve Louisiana but is embroiled in a huge bribery scandal in Ohio over a coal power plant bailout.
Among the only environmental groups who have kicked money to Richmond’s campaign is the Center for Sportfishing Policy, a group that appears to be largely a front for boat manufacturers based on its board and membership levels. To give you a sense of its credentials, the group handed out its Jack Lawton, Jr. Conservation Award this year to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who has overseen the downfall of key climate agency and invested in shady companies tied to oil and gas. To say it doesn’t reflect the view of grassroots climate activists is an understatement.
The next four years are absolutely crucial for climate action. They’re the beginning of a decisive decade. To meet the scale of that crisis, the Biden administration must work to abolish the fossil fuel industry and rapidly draw down our greenhouse gas emissions while protecting workers and the most vulnerable. That’s the message from grassroots organizers and the best available science, but if Biden is appointing Richmond as a liaison, it seems the incoming president may not be ready to hear it.
“With the limited time that we have left to address the climate crisis, it is absolutely essential that people with fossil fuel connections not be the ones driving decision-making,” Patton said. “The last thing we need is another person who’s putting the interests of the fossil fuel industry first.”