Racism and discrimination in the oil and gas industry

    The reality of the oil and gas business is that it has a well-documented history of systemic racism and sexism that it has failed to address.


    With the recent focus on systemic racism in America, the oil and gas industry is depicting itself as leading on the issue of diversity in the workforce. However, its public relations efforts and slick advertisements do not reflect the industry’s actual behavior.

    In early June, as protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police went global, American Petroleum Institute CEO Mike Sommers released a statement vowing that America’s most powerful fossil fuel lobbying organization “has zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind.” 

    Around the same time, the group “shared with Axios upon a request for comment” internal data showing that women and people of color would fill 54% of new jobs created in the sector over the next two decades.

    But Sommer’s claims that the oil and gas industry will not tolerate any type of discrimination haven’t stood up very well. 

    A new report by the group Global Witness highlights the huge gap between the reality of what the oil industry and its main lobbying group says on issues of discrimination and what it really does. Using Chevron as an example.

    Chevron CEO Mike Wirth has been the only leader of a major oil and gas company to make a statement condeming police “killings of unarmed black men and women” in America. But Global Witness details how Chevron donates to politicians whose voting records have earned them a grade of “F” from the NAACP when it comes to their voting records on civil rights.

    These politicians include Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who recently described slavery in the U.S. as a “necessary evil upon which the union was built.” Cotton earned his NAACP failing grade for voting just 7% of the time in support of civil rights. In early June, Cotton described the overwhelmingly peaceful George Floyd marches as an “orgy of violence”  in The New York Times, and advocated for sending active U.S. military troops into American cities to “restore order.”

    Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) has received an NAACP grade of “F” for his voting record on civil rights, and also has received more money from the oil and gas industry in the 2020 election cycle ($705,524) than any other Congressional representative, including $10,000 from Chevron. At a June Senate hearing on police violence, Cornyn rejected the idea that the U.S. had issues of systemic racism within the ranks of the police and society as a whole. 

    Report: Industry guilty of environmental racism while funding police 

    Another new analysis, from the research organization LittleSis, highlights the long history of environmental racism perpetrated by the oil and gas industry including the industry’s ongoing financial support of police departments across America, which contrasts with the industry’s public relations efforts. 

    “Whether it’s posing as green advocates while it intensifies its extraction and burning of fossil fuels, or uttering a few canned words about racial justice as it disproportionately pollutes Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities and helps bankroll police foundations,” Derek Seidman, co-author of the report, told DeSmog. “The fossil fuel industry has a long history of using public relations gestures as cover for its destructive practices.” 

    LittleSis also singles out Chevron, noting that the firm owns refineries known for polluting communities of people of color and funds police departments.

    Chevron is well known for its greenwashing efforts, with its work on the “People Do” campaign in the 1980s earning a distinction of being a “textbook case of successful greenwashing” according to some environmentalists. 

    Image: Fossil fuel funding of police departments.  Credit: Little Sis

    Fracking exec: “What is a Japanese woman doing on this beat?”

    A recent report in The New York Times highlighting the fracking industry’s financial failures drew an openly racist email response from an industry executive, who focused on the journalist’s ethnicityrather than the content of the story.

    “What is a Japanese woman doing on this beat anyway?,” Brian Petty of Wison, an oil and gas industry services firm, wrote to reporter Hiroko Tabuchi. “Can’t the Times find an American journalist?”

    The American Petroleum Institute did not respond to a request for comment on Perry’s message to Tabuchi. 

    But his apparent comfort with racism is of a piece with the industry’s long history of both environmental racism and lack of minority hiring. According to a 2018 US News article, Black workers made up only 9% of the oil and gas industry workforce in 2018 and were paid 23% less than their white counterparts. 

    “It’s not uncommon in a lot of these areas to see people with Confederate flags and things of that nature,” Tosa Nehikhuere, an oil well engineer, told US News. “For a black person working in that environment, a lot of times it can be very uncomfortable because they obviously don’t fit in with that culture.”

    Oil industry continues to claim its motivation is to lift people out of poverty and insecurity

    As we have reported at DeSmog for years, rich white fossil energy executives like to say the reason they want to bring oil, gas, and coal to African nations, as well as other areas of the world without widespread electrification, is to help lift people out of poverty.

    “What you got to remember is that there are people out there that still don’t have electricity, they don’t have running water, they can’t refrigerate medicines, they can’t refrigerate food,” then-CEO of Exxon Rex Tillerson told the crowd at the University of Texas VIP Speaker Series in 2016, and ”…they would like to have access to energy.”

    Meanwhile, the industry’s track record in Africa is full of examples — like Exxon’s alliance with the dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea — that appear to contradict Tillerson’s comments. This relationship led to investigations by both the U.S. Senate and the Securities and Exchange Commission into illegal payments to dictator Teodoro Obiang and his relatives and associates by Exxon and other U.S. oil companies.

    Equatorial Guinea’s oil deals with U.S. energy companies enriched the dictator of what was described in a 2017 Washington Post opinion piece by Tutu Alicante, a human rights activist, as “Africa’s nastiest dictatorship, even as “nearly two-thirds of the population lives in extreme poverty.”

    A 2005 investigation by Mother Jones reported that Equatorial Guinea was “an all-too-real example of how a dictator, awash in petrodollars, enriches himself and his family while starving his people.” 

    As usual, the oil industry says one thing and does another. 

    DeSmogUK recently reported on a paper from the climate-denying UK group Global Warming Policy Foundationthat echoed this industry cant about the benefits of bringing fossil-fueled electrification to Africa. In a stunning lack of awareness, GWPF named the report after Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness,” an overtly racist text involving European colonialism in Africa.

    It’s a strange choice for an organization arguing it just wants to help Africa by bringing it the gift of electricity. But if fossil fuels are used to expand electrification in Africa, it likely guarantees that climate change and extreme heat will make large portions of the continent “warmer than conditions deemed suitable for human life to flourish.”

    API’s claims of diversity ring hollow

    The issue of racism and sexism in the oil and gas industry is well established. A 2017 investigation by National Public Radio (NPR) summed that up with the headline “Big Oil Has A Diversity Problem.”

    Charles Simpson, a Black man working in a mostly white oil and gas industry union in Oklahoma, told NPR about the racist abuse he was subjected to on the job — which led him to quit. 

    “The racism in this job, it’s unreal,” Simpson said, “It’s unchecked and I believe it’s designed to scare individuals off.”  

    That NPR report also stated that “The oil industry can be a difficult place to work for women.”

    The U.S. press has been touting Chevron’s recent acquisition of Noble Energy. Noble Energy is an excellent example of how the industry handles sexism and sexual harassment. 

    In May, Agenda, published a detailed investigation, based on video taken by a female employee, that showed Noble Energy general counsel Arnold Johnson “secretly video-recording her lower extremities” under his desk. 

    With the evidence in hand, this woman then attempted to navigate the corporate culture to hold Johnson accountable. 

    And the evidence was damning. As Agenda reports, Michael Melbinger, a partner at law firm Winston & Strawn, explained that this was clearly a fireable offense (and also a crime in Texas). “I would hope for the sake of the board, there wasn’t evidence,” Melbinger told Agenda, “It’s hard to think of a much clearer — well, embezzlement or maybe shooting someone — but other than that, that’s a pretty clear cause to me.”

    With such a clear case, what did the board at Noble do? Allow Johnson to resign to “pursue personal interests.”

    And they did one other thing. They paid him over $9 million as a parting gift. 

    “According to the report, Johnson was just part of a larger problem of the corporate culture at the company. Women could only kinda look at the glass ceiling, but not really touch it,” a former in-house lawyer told Agenda.

    This is the company that Chevron is currently acquiring for $13 billion.

    White militia in the U.S. oil and gas industry

    There is a strong element of racism in the oil patch as well as in the industry’s C-suites. In a recent investigation, by DeSmog’s Justin Nobel reports on the infiltration of the oil and gas industry by a far-right militant group called the Three Percenters.

    James Brugh, a resident of the community of Four Bears on western North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, described to Nobel the racist attitude of these oil and gas employees. “It’s like the second coming of the cavalry, they treat our land like it’s the Wild West,” he said. “These guys come here to the rez at Fort Berthold thinking they are soldiers of fortune, with this wild gunslinger mentality. I have heard enough of these guys talking about us like we are subhuman, like we are not people.” 

    Diversity in Advertising and Press Releases, Not in the Real World

    Much as the oil and gas industry likes to run ads touting its efforts to address climate change while continuing to fight climate regulations, to control climate change it also runs ads full of diversity. This video clip touting the benefits of natural gas opens with a cast of people of color.

    Video: Short: How Natural Gas Is Used To Generate Electricity  Credit: American Petroleum Institute

    But despite its slick videos and press releases, the reality of the oil and gas business is that it has a well-documented history of systemic racism and sexism that it has failed to address.

    The fossil fuel industry effectively fought the reality of climate change for decades with misleading advertising. Now it appears to be following a similar strategy when it comes to the industry’s efforts to promote itself as supporting diversity, while at the same time funding politicians and organizations opposing such efforts and turning a blind eye to the ongoing discrimination in the industry.  


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