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Vol. 13, No. 23 Week of June 08, 2008
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Civil rights icon Innis unlikely ally for energy extraction

Roy Innis believes affordable energy is a civil rights issue.

Innis brings some legitimacy to that claim. For the past 40 years, he’s been the national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, one of the oldest civil rights organizations in the country. For decades he’s fought for social and political reform for black people in America, including the historic battles of the 1960s.

Innis, 74, now believes cheap energy is the “third leg” of those civil rights goals from decades ago, or “economic civil rights.” He’s advocating for a national energy policy geared toward increasing domestic supplies of traditional fossil fuels with the goal of lowering the price of gasoline, electricity and heat.

Higher energy costs disproportionately harm low-income and minority households, Innis says, which is why he believes that without cheap energy those households can’t take advantage of constitutionally protected social and political reforms enacted decades ago.

“This is civil rights that applies not only to black people, not only to Hispanic people, but it applies to the majority of Americans,” Innis said at the annual luncheon of the Resource Development Council of Alaska on June 4, where he was the keynote speaker. “This is the civil rights for everybody.”

It’s an uncommon stance. The financial debates around increased drilling usually concern the bottom lines of corporations or the stock packages of executives. “Green collar” economy groups and environmental investment firms predict an economy based on low cost sustainable energy and “green collar jobs,” which Innis supports, but doesn’t believe is currently realistic.

The “moral high ground”

Innis first presented his idea in a new book called “Energy Keepers-Energy Killers: The New Civil Rights Battle,” published this year by Merril Press in Bellevue, Wash.

In less than 100 pages, Innis lays out a history of America where the “moral high ground” used to propel the civil rights movement in the 1960s transitioned into early efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to expose air and water pollution.

Now he believes the environmental movement has become radicalized and has lost touch with average Americans by opposing traditional fossil fuel development in Alaska and across the country, which he says leads to affordable energy and jobs.

“Not all of them are bad people, but they’re wrong,” Innis said about environmentalists to applause at the Resource Development Council luncheon.

Innis does not believe humans are responsible for climate change. While he likes the prospects of renewable energy, he doesn’t believe the technologies are sophisticated enough to replace fossil fuels “any time soon” without unintended consequences.

He wants to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf of Alaska, California and Florida. He wants to increase the production of coal, in addition to oil and natural gas.

Innis says these beliefs represent the new “moral high ground.”

Unlikely ally

This argument has led Innis to become an unlikely ally of the development community.

In March, he spoke at the International Conference on Climate Change in New York, an event sponsored by the conservative think tank The Heartland Institute and designed to challenge popular thoughts and science on warming trends and human involvement in global climate change.

Innis gained local attention from his speech when he threatened to sue the Bush Administration if it listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Department of the Interior made that listing in May and Innis said CORE is now deciding whether to file its own suit or support an existing suit.

Innis recently brought his message north, speaking on local talk radio programs and to a packed crowd at the annual luncheon of the Resource Development Council.

The alliance between the resource development community and an activist for black causes isn’t so strange, according to John Shively, past president of the Resource Development Council.

During the early 1960s, Shively and Innis both worked for CORE and even went to jail together during a protest in Washington, D.C.

“Although Roy and I since that time have traveled vastly different paths, we have come, basically, to the same conclusion about what tying up resources does not only to states like Alaska, but particularly, of course, to people,” Shively said.

New grass roots efforts

Innis believes a new grass roots effort, like those of the 1960s, is necessary to push an agenda of increased domestic supply and lower cost energy.

“When I speak of the new civil rights movement I’m talking about a rekindling of the premise of the civil rights movement,” Innis said.

He plans to take his message across the country, particularly the West, hoping to start grassroots efforts aimed at increasing domestic production of fossil fuels. He asked the audience at the Resource Development Council to “pull together and form alliances to demand economic civil rights for the majority of us.”

In his book he describes an “Energy Keepers Network,” a coalition of pro-development groups working for lower costs through increased supplies. He says he’s already started community groups in Colorado and Utah and is talking to groups here in Alaska.

Some challenge drilling-price connections

Increasing domestic supplies of energy is the forefront of debates over the rising cost of gasoline, fuel oil and natural gas.

Prices go down when supplies outpace demand. That’s about as basic as economics gets. But the global nature of oil complicates the matter, because every barrel of oil produced in America can be offset by a barrel not produced abroad.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently presented that scenario as one reason why opening ANWR might help domestic energy security and tip the balance of trade in favor of the U.S., but probably wouldn’t lower prices.

That’s why some challenge domestic production for reasons other than environmental.

Speaking before the House Committee on Foreign Relations on May 22, Anne Korin, co-director of the energy think tank The Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, said the high demand for energy in America means the country will never produce all of its supply, and therefore increasing domestic supplies doesn’t address the “strategic value” of fossil fuels and oil in particular.

Those traditional fossil fuels accounted for more than 85 percent of the energy consumption in the United States through the first two months of the year, the most recent figures available from the EIA.

—Eric Lidji

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