Protests should accompany chemical plants along the Gulf Coast
Folks from Louisiana and Texas don’t have the luxury that executives from Wall Street have in turning away from these polluting projects. These projects are all around us, affecting our jobs and our lives.
There are a lot of injustices that come with living in an area surrounded by polluting plants. Knowing that the air is constantly being poisoned and causing your children to develop health problems is a major one. Living with the fear that major fires and explosions will happen is another. But realizing that the folks who made these threats and fears part of our daily lives are profiting from them but will never have to experience them, is a deep injustice.
Many of these pressure points have pushed advocates to take on the biggest financial institutions over their funding of oil and gas plants in our communities. For Leo Lindner, it was when 11 of his colleagues were killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion off the Louisiana coast in April 2010. For Justin Fitch, a tribal member of the United Houma Nation, it was when millions of gallons of oil spilled into the ocean for three months after the explosion, putting an end to his livelihood as a shrimper. For me, it was when my children’s doctor told me their chronic asthma and skin disease were the result of toxins in the air from the plants that stand within miles of my home.
Black and brown communities were, for decades, deemed not deserving of decent housing, schools, roads or jobs and were seen as a dumping ground for oil refineries and chemical plants. In recent years, the U.S. boom in methane gas – also known as liquified natural gas (LNG), though there’s nothing “natural” about it – has seen a new generation of polluting plants hit vulnerable communities along the Gulf Coast. Folks from Louisiana and Texas don’t have the luxury that executives from Wall Street have in turning away from these polluting projects. These projects are all around us, affecting our jobs and our lives. They contaminate our water, breach air pollution limits and even blow up!
Last year, the methane gas project at Freeport in Texas exploded in what was no “accident.” A lack of safety procedures, training and overworked staff led to oversights that failed to address pressure on a so-called safety value. On May 4 of this year, Shell posted almost $10 billion in profit for the first three months of this year. The following day, there was a massive fire and explosion at their Deer Park plant in Texas. Shell’s top executives didn’t have to witness the terrifying plumes of smoke billowing into the air or breathe in the toxins. They enjoyed that windfall far away from the blurry Texas skyline. But, most importantly, the financial backers who made the Deer Park plant and other polluting plants possible, also won’t have to concern themselves with deciding whether to keep their children indoors because of poor air quality.
So, why focus on banks? Banks lend money to the companies that build these harmful projects. They underwrite bonds and provide financial advice to companies like Shell. Without banks, Shell and other fossil fuel companies would not be able to set up dangerous plants in our communities. Nor they would not be able to plan the newest generation of polluting plants, LNG terminals. They could back renewables projects instead, but they’d rather keep funding a dirty industry that has racism at its heart. So, this year we decided to bring the injustices and the concerns of the Gulf Coast to them.
A delegation of folks from Louisiana and Texas travelled to New York to confront Citi, one of the biggest banks backing the polluting plants in the Gulf, ahead of its annual meeting of shareholders. We are determined to achieve a future where our children don’t have to battle these plants like we do.
Michael Esealuka, Leo Linder, Justin Solet, Bette Billiot, Brandon Marks, Chloe Torres, Michael McKenzie and I joined in protest with concerned communities in New York, who are also reeling from devastating floods and storms linked to climate change. Those floods and storms have killed New Yorkers and destroyed homes.
I believe our fight hit a nerve with top bank executives. The top brass in these banks do not like having the destruction that they’re funding brought to their doorsteps. We chanted and shared stories for hours outside Citi’s headquarters, along with our New York friends. And then folks camped out overnight.
The following day, Citi’s shareholders’ meeting was controlled as tightly as a drum. Citi’s chairman, John Dugan, ran the meeting, which was held online with participants only able to hear but not see the board. And he refused to take questions from the shareholders themselves. There was also a heavy police presence outside Citi’s headquarters. The police guarded the door, fearing mothers like me might dare to speak the about the effect of Citi’s funding on our kids’ health.
Weeks before I went to New York, I travelled to the annual shareholders meeting of Royal Bank of Canada to confront its top executives over the pollution it is funding in Louisiana and the Gulf South. I stood proudly beside indigenous leaders who are fighting the bank’s violation of their land in Canada through its backing of filthy fossil fuel projects.
The meeting was held in Saskatoon, far away from any major urban center – no doubt in hopes that folks wanting to confront the bank’s executives would stay away. But we went and told the bank and its investors about the vulnerable communities of predominantly Black and brown folks who are forced to live next to the dangerous projects they fund. The bank, so terrified of the message we brought, placed the indigenous leaders and me in a separate room, even though we had the paperwork and proxies to attend. In my testimony, I told the bank that segregation is well known to Black folk in the Southern US, but that I didn’t expect such treatment in Canada. Again, the heavy police presence reminded me of the strength of our words and how these words truly terrify the banks.
Not only did we confront these banks on their environmental racism, we also exposed their lies. These banks say that they are champions of efforts to address climate change, but we reminded them of the devastating floods and hurricanes they are funding through their oil and gas projects. We exposed the meaninglessness of their vision when we demanded a healthy future that’s free of toxins for our children. But, sadly, the banks see fit to keep dumping polluting projects on communities of color.
Globally, banks have pumped over $120 billion into methane gas projects since 2016, with Citi, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America taking top spots as the biggest funders at almost $35 billion. Banks are trying to resist accountability about the oil and gas projects they are backing, but they can’t do it for much longer because change is coming. This past March, French bank Société Générale withdrew from a controversial methane gas project in Texas after sustained opposition from local communities. In December 2022, HSBC became the biggest global bank to announce an end to direct funding of new oil and gas fields. These wins give us hope that standing up for our Gulf Coast communities can be successful.
Banks shout loudly about their commitment to diversity and climate change, but no amount of slick advertising will clean the air my family breathes or cure my 10-year-old daughter’s skin condition. Great public relations campaigns won’t stop the deadly hurricanes and flooding we face every year due to global warming. For people like me, there is no choice but to fight. Our children are too precious for us to give up and go home.
Rosietta Ozane is founder, director and CEO of the Vessel Project of Louisiana, a small mutual aid group in Louisiana that supports citizens in need after climate induced disasters. She is also the fossil finance coordinator for Texas Campaign for the Environment. Her work is based along the Gulf Coast.