As the U.S. plunges deeper into climate catastrophe, with a record-setting number of hurricanes hitting the Gulf this year, workers’ rights are weaker now than at any other point in modern history. These two travesties are intimately linked: they are exacerbated by massive oil and gas corporations who endanger our climate and enrich their investors with billions, while simultaneously laying off thousands of Houstonians.
To keep the money flowing and to ensure laws are written in their favor, energy executives in Houston have enlisted Democratic Congressperson Lizzie Fletcher (TX-07) as a key ally.
Public opinion of Fletcher is generally positive among Democrats — after all, she flipped a Republican stronghold once held by George H. W. Bush. However, she consistently votes with the Republican Party on energy policy and has long represented the interests of oil barons. Fletcher represented Plains All American Pipeline, a Fortune 100 company, many times as an attorney for Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing, a commercial litigation law firm. In the 2019-20 election, Plains was one of Fletcher’s top donors.
Fletcher has received more money from oil & gas than any other congressional Democrat (and more than most Republicans), raking in hundreds of thousands from some of the world’s biggest polluters. She has publicly postured about the need for “big ideas” to tackle climate change, while simultaneously working against a much-needed big idea: the Green New Deal (GND). A key part of the GND is a “just transition” program for fossil fuel sector workers who are laid off, fired, or wish to transition to a new industry. The program will guarantee matching salaries, pension, and benefits for up to five years while providing free education or training as well as rental, mortgage, relocation, and job search assistance. Everyone who takes part in this program will be provided a lifetime guarantee of free public health insurance.
Yet Fletcher is busily ensuring that corporate greed continues to eat away at working families in Houston whose jobs depend on the whims of the investor class. Houston needs to transition from a corporate paradise for world-historical polluters to a hub for green, union jobs. To accomplish this, politicians like Fletcher must begin to defend the interests of the working class and not the profits of energy executives.
The goal of oil & gas executives is simple: profit for shareholders, no matter the cost to workers.
In the midst of the COVID-19 economic downturn, Chevron fired 10-15 percent of their worldwide workforce — including 700 Houstonians. In the same month, they closed a 13-billion-dollar deal on risky, unconventional oil & gas reserves, betting that Fletcher’s tireless advocacy will deliver them a tidy profit in a few years — leaving workers high and dry in the meantime. For companies like Chevron, it’s ultimately cheaper to buy off politicians and hire lawyers to shield them from liability instead of paying and protecting their own workers. They prioritize shareholder value while denying the economic writing on the wall, which shows that the oil and gas industry has been declining for 21 months, long before the COVID-19 pandemic — a reality that will leave oil and gas workers in Houston without a lifeline.
And it’s not only loss of livelihood — it’s loss of life. Local environmental impacts by Fletcher donors make headlines regularly. W.A. Parish, NRG’s massive coal plant in Fort Bend County, is responsible for an estimated 178 premature deaths each year — disproportionately impacting people of color, who comprise two-thirds of those living within 25 miles of the plant. When Cheniere Energy neglects to properly maintain its liquified natural gas tanks, they become catalysts for deadly fires. Company PACs like theirs donate directly to Fletcher, preserving their reputation as heralded ‘jobs creators’ rather than as an outright danger to workers and their families.
These companies turn to Lizzie Fletcher to ensure that federal policy is at their beck and call in determining the nation’s response to climate change and the COVID-19 recession. As Fletcher rakes in cash from her relationships with big energy executives, she sits on Congress’ Oil and Gas Caucus and co-chairs the Natural Gas Caucus, giving her outsized power in shaping the federal government’s response to the havoc these companies wreak.
Fletcher shamelessly claims that, “natural gas has been the biggest driver in lowering carbon emissions domestically,” ignoring the plain truth that natural gas is a main cause of emissions and that to truly transition to renewable energy, massive investments must be made in wind, solar, and other emissions-free power sources. For Houston to meet its climate goals of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 as outlined in the Climate Action Plan 2020, reliance on natural gas as a source of profit must end much more quickly than the steady decline of the industry due to market forces.
The solution is obvious: rework the economy in favor of people and the environment. The Green New Deal is a promising start. It centers the American working class through a federal jobs guarantee, while empowering workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining through unions. With a Green New Deal comes a more democratic economy, one that works to serve communities rather than enrich a select few executives who hoard their wealth.
But for Fletcher and her corporate allies, the Green New Deal is a threat because it directly tackles the structural problem of climate change: an economy and political system controlled by corporate interests. The Green New Deal’s push to give the public sector power over America’s energy would be the largest model of a democratically-owned and governed public utility, where the people have a direct say by the power of vote, and not political donations. The Green New Deal’s investments in sustainable manufacturing and energy production directly respond to the crisis of a dying industry by placing the power of federal public investment into the development of millions of green-collar, union jobs in the renewable energy sector, instead of flushing money down a pipeline to nowhere.
Luckily for politicians, they don’t need cozy relationships with polluting executives: they need votes. And in 2020’s down-ballot races, politicians backing the Green New Deal overwhelmingly won. Fletcher can follow their lead by disavowing her ties to predatory companies and joining the fight of our lives for a sustainable economy, or prepare to be challenged by a progressive Democrat who will.
Madeleine Pelzel, Houston Democratic Socialists of America
Noah Hardaway, Houston Democratic Socialists of America
Marco Garcia, Sunrise Movement Houston
Photo: Noah Hardaway.