Climate Change

Social justice and labor rights activists are protesting a major Houston energy conference

As leaders from the biggest oil and gas companies gather in Houston for the World Petroleum Congress, others took to the park outside the convention to demand action on climate change and better labor practices.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
The George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston on March 2, 2020.

Black and indigenous leaders in Houston are calling on the fossil fuel industry to do more in the fight against climate change, as the world's biggest oil and gas companies meet for the 23rd World Petroleum Congress at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Dozens of groups representing Black and Native communities impacted by climate change – including the Carrizo-Comecrudo Tribal Nation, the Port Arthur Community Action Network, and the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas – say the energy industry must cease fossil fuel projects and invest in an equitable transition to clean energy.

On Monday morning the voice of John Bear with the Port Arthur Community Action Network boomed through Discovery Green as he read a statement, followed by a list of demands, crafted by the groups and their supporters.

"I and others in the environmental and social justice movement are here to serve notice," Beard said, "to demand that the heads of Big Oil cease their polluting, their exploitative practices that are destroying our communities, harming our environment, and threatening the future of humanity."

Their demands include things like a halt to fracking in Texas and nationwide, as well as stopping specific projects like proposed oil and gas export terminals on the Gulf Coast.

Climate change disproportionately impacts indigenous communities, which are often the first to experience adverse effects of global warming, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Additionally, the U.N. notes Native communities have largely been left out of global negotiations.

Outside the convention center, Christa Mancias with the Carrizo-Comecrudo Tribal Nation addressed her statement directly to congress attendees.

"We are the original peoples of this land and you need to listen to us," she said. "We are communities who have been impacted by the petrochemical buildout that you have pressed – oppressed – on our homes, and in our food and our water, and the things that we drink. Our families are dying and trying to survive."

The World petroleum Congress program does include panels that at least on paper appear to address climate change, including a panel on “Climate Actions from the Oil and Gas Industry,” and another on “Drivers & Outlook for Climate Change Actions.” But critics have long criticized the industry’s approach to its role in exacerbating climate change.

Companies like Exxon Mobil Corp. have pledged to reduce emissions in the coming decades. But critics say those plans are not ambitious enough. And in January, Exxon released its most comprehensive emissions report ever, which for the first time included the estimated emissions from people who use the company’s products. The company found that consumer emissions led to an estimated equivalent of 1,300 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019.

But the company has also come under fire for its role in what climate activists say has been promoting climate change denial. New York State sued Exxon for allegedly misleading shareholders about the financial risks of climate change. Exxon won that case in December of 2019.

The company has since been the target of an activist investor, which has unseated at least board members in an attempt to force the company into treating climate change more seriously.

Social justice and environmental groups weren't the only ones protesting outside the conference.

Workers who have been locked out of work from the Exxon refinery in Beaumont for more than six months also brought their message to downtown Houston on Monday.

The United Steelworkers Union joined with area labor activists to demand that Exxon end the lockout and negotiate for a fair contract. On May 1 more than 600 refinery workers were locked out of work after contract negotiations failed between the Steelworkers Union and the oil major.

Meanwhile, other Houston leaders like Mayor Sylvester Turner welcomed conference attendees to the Bayou City. Turner also highlighted climate change as a major concern, and said companies represented at the convention will be discussing the transition to clean energy.

"What happens in this city at this conference doesn’t impact just the city of Houston, but it has global ramifications as well," Turner said. "And in this city, we partner with our energy sector. We’re not trying to move away from the energy sector, but we’re working with the industry in the energy industry to move things forward in a very positive way that can benefit the average Houstonians that lives in our city."

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