Q&A: Al Gore Describes a ‘Well-Known Playbook’ That Fossil Fuel Companies Employ to Win Community Support

The former vice president said the Byhalia Pipeline that would run through Black neighborhoods in Southwest Memphis poses a threat to the city's water supply.

Former Vice President Al Gore claps while at a rally organized by the Memphis Community Against the Pipeline at Alonzo Weaver Park on Sunday afternoon. Gore and his organization Climate Reality have spoken out against the Byhalia Connection Pipeline project that is proposing a route through southwest Memphis neighborhoods that are primarily Black. Credit: Andrea Morales for MLK50

Former Vice President Al Gore claps while at a rally organized by the Memphis Community Against the Pipeline at Alonzo Weaver Park on Sunday afternoon. Gore and his organization Climate Reality have spoken out against the Byhalia Connection Pipeline project that is proposing a route through southwest Memphis neighborhoods that are primarily Black. Credit: Andrea Morales for MLK50

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This article originally appeared in MLK50, a nonprofit newsroom in Memphis focused on poverty, power and public policy.

MLK50: Justice Through Journalism had an exclusive interview with former vice president and long-time environmentalist Al Gore on Sunday after his speech at a rally in Southwest Memphis in opposition to the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline

Gore has been devoted to tackling climate change since leaving office in 2001, and is the founder of The Climate Reality Project, an international organization devoted to developing solutions to the crisis. His 2006 documentary about his campaign against global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” won two Oscars, and in 2007, he received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

Gore is one of the highest-profile names to oppose the controversial crude oil pipeline proposed to run through predominantly Black Southwest Memphis neighborhoods. During his remarks, he called the project “reckless, racist and a rip-off.” He is among several influential people and celebrities outside of Memphis asking local authorities to stop the pipeline.

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Byhalia Pipeline — a joint venture of Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation — revealed its plans for the Byhalia Connection Pipeline in 2019. The proposal is for a 49-mile route between the Valero Memphis Refinery and a Valero facility in Marshall County, Mississippi. The route runs through several Black Memphis communities including Westwood, Whitehaven and Boxtown.

Gore has worked on environmental issues with another influential supporter of Southwest Memphis’ fight — Rev. Dr. William Barber II, who co-leads the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival.

Last year, the two and their organizations rallied around residents of Union Hill, a Black community in Buckingham County, Virginia, that fought to keep a piece of the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline out of their community. Formerly enslaved people built Union Hill, just like Boxtown in Memphis.

With long roots in Tennessee, Gore was a Democratic U.S. senator and a representative in a seat once held by his father. Before entering the political arena, he worked as an investigative reporter for the Tennessean in Nashville.

MLK50: Justice Through Journalism: On Twitter and in your speech you called projects like the Byhalia Connection Pipeline “racist.” That’s very direct. Tell me more about why you chose that wording.

Gore: Black communities often find themselves in a situation where there is a legacy of deprivation. Where the political and economic power to resist polluting facilities is less, simply because of the legacy of racism. 

(For example), the family wealth gap, the political empowerment gap, including voter suppression laws that continue the effort to minimize the political power of Black communities. So I think that it’s not a mystery that an outsize percentage of polluting facilities are located in Black, brown and indigenous communities.

A local public affairs advisor for the project is a Black woman who formerly was president of the Memphis NAACP chapter (Deidre Malone) and a Black county commissioner (Edmund Ford Jr.) has spoken in favor of the project. Some observers might ask how the project can be racist with Black representation and support. How would you answer them?

Gore: Well, I don’t want to get into criticizing Black leaders who take employment with corporations that are pursuing projects. Plenty of white men and women and white leaders do the same thing. But there is a well-known playbook that is used by fossil fuel companies, including pipeline companies, and it’s a standard way of trying to minimize the resistance in the community. … In my faith tradition, I’ve been taught to hate the sin and love the sinner. So I’m not going to get into criticizing individuals that play their role in the playbook.

Byhalia Pipeline has donated more than a million dollars to area nonprofits, many of which are doing good work. That includes the local NAACP chapter, community development corporations, food banks and a statue to a Black historical figure (journalist Ida B. Wells), which was later returned. When you see the company making donations like that, what’s the first thought that comes to your mind?

Gore: You can see something similar in the donations by oil companies to environmental programs at universities and all manner of public relations activities to try to greenwash their activities. It is a very sophisticated blueprint for continuing their destructive business model.

I think that people are waking up to it. Some of the organizations that received money from these pipeline companies have now decided to return the money. And I think you’re likely to see more of that.

These organizations don’t get as much money as they need. And they should be getting more support from other parts of the community. When some polluter comes in and says, ‘Here’s some money, to do your good works.’ And now, ‘If you can see your way clear, don’t criticize what we’re doing as a corporation.’ Again, it’s part of the playbook. The overall result is environmental racism. And that’s why people are waking up to it and trying to figure out ways to change it.

You used the term “greenwashing.” Could you tell me a little bit more about what exactly you mean by greenwashing?

Gore: Well, the term greenwashing, as I’m sure you’re aware, refers to activities that are designed to present an appearance of environmental responsibility when the activities underlying the appearance they’re creating are not good for the environment at all.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland spoke on the pipeline publicly for the first time last week. He said he’s looking into the project and intends to “follow the science.” What do you think of that response and what does the science say to you?

Gore: Well, I have respect for Mayor Strickland. I think that if he does follow the science, he will use the authorities of the city mayor to block this pipeline. I won’t be surprised if he actually does come out against the pipeline. I hope he does.

I think that in general, people have been starting, just recently, to wake up to the threat posed to the Memphis water supply. As I said in my remarks, this has been a classic case of a valuable resource lying out of sight, out of mind. We’ve always taken groundwater for granted. But the Memphis Sand aquifer is extraordinarily valuable. And it is extremely reckless to put it at such risk. And the science tells us that putting a high-pressure large oil pipeline — built by companies with a demonstrated record of leaks and violations and prosecutions — is reckless.

I hope that both the city and the county will take actions available to them to stop this pipeline.

Mayor Strickland said he would rely on earth science and engineering experts at the University of Memphis. However, Byhalia Pipeline gave a donation to the Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research at the university. Does this concern you?

Gore: First of all, I don’t know the individuals at the University of Memphis who will be asked for their science opinion and I don’t know if they personally benefit from any donations made by the pipeline company. But I will say that, as a general matter, any scientist who receives money from a corporation and is then asked to evaluate the activities of the corporation that has donated money has a conflict of interest.

Byhalia Pipeline says along with its donations, the project will have a $14 million economic impact in the Mid-South, and bring in $500,000 in annual taxes and jobs to the county. Is it likely they’ll deliver on these numbers? And is it enough to justify the pipeline in a city with high rates of poverty?

Gore: That is another part of their playbook. They often will grossly exaggerate benefits they say will come to a community. But how would you put a value on the loss of the purity of the sole source of drinking water for a city of a million people? It is absurd. 

This is a case where Memphis is asked to accept an absolutely intolerable degree of risk in return for rewards that don’t go to Memphis. They go to the shareholders of these two large fossil fuel corporations, while the oil goes for export to other countries in other parts of the world, where it will be burned to create yet more risk by adding to the causes of the climate crisis.

Should there be a federal effort to stop this pipeline and others like it? If so, what should it look like?

Gore: They should revoke the Nationwide Permit 12 for all of the pipelines that have relied upon it for their permits. This Nationwide Permit 12 was intended originally for things like telephone lines. The notion that it can be used as a fast-track approval for oil and gas pipelines without consideration of the environmental harm done to local communities is absurd.

Are you or your organization in communication with the Biden administration regarding projects like this?

Gore: I have done it verbally and I will do it in other ways, as well. I do think the most immediate solution for this is with the city and the county. The city has the authority to stop this. The county also has the authority to stop it. And the courts have the authority to stop it. I’m hopeful that the community will prevail.

You and the Rev. William Barber II visited Union Hill in Virginia, another Black community that fought a pipeline company in 2019. Now, that project is canceled. What similarities do you see between Union Hill and Memphis’ fights and what do you think the key to Union Hill’s victory was?

Gore: Union Hill and Boxtown are in a very rare category of being historically significant Freedmen’s communities. There were many such communities, most of them formed immediately after the slaves were freed … so many of these communities that survived slavery have since succumbed to the Jim Crow laws and the racism since the Civil War.

But Boxtown and Union Hill are two of the freedmen communities that have remained stable and resilient in all the years since the end of the Civil War… (It’s awful) for them to suffer this environmental injustice at the hands of pipeline companies that see them as the path of least resistance.

(It’s) a phrase I’m sure that this pipeline company wishes it could take back. But it can’t because it accidentally told the truth about why it chose Boxtown. I hope that Boxtown and Westwood and Southwest Memphis are victorious in their struggle as Union Hill was victorious in its struggle.

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com