Ohio Legislative Black Caucus President Thomas West.
Ohio Legislative Black Caucus President Thomas West.

The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus is the country’s oldest Black caucus of elected state officeholders. Founded in 1967, its mission is to promote and sponsor educational, civil and political activities that enrich Black and marginalized communities in the state.

But the group’s agenda, particularly on energy issues, looks to improve life for many Ohians — not just people of color, Rep. Thomas West explained. The Democrat from Canton is president of the caucus and also assistant minority leader of the Ohio House. He spoke with the Energy News Network about the group’s recent work on energy and utility issues.

Q: Broadly speaking, how does the caucus approach energy issues?

A: “Currently the caucus is concerned with any issue, including energy issues, that would shift costs from large corporations to the citizens of Ohio, especially those in indigent circumstances or low-income communities,” West said. “Notice I did not specify Black. The OLBC is for the betterment of all Ohioans, while our main focus is the Black community.”

“We have come to the realization that as we address and break the chains of issues disproportionately impacting the Black community, we impact the lives of so many others outside of our base,” he added. Low-income areas include substantial portions of the state’s urban areas, as well as large areas in Appalachian Ohio where people of color make up small minorities, the U.S. EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool shows.

Q: Could the legislature take action this session to limit utility cost shifting?

A: “The caucus will be closely following the debate over HB 317, which could be a real opportunity to completely reform the electric ratemaking process — making it into one that is fair for all Ohio ratepayers,” West said. The bill would end so-called Electric Security Plans, which have let utilities avoid traditional rate-making and shift costs among different classes of ratepayers and facilitated subsidies of generation affiliates.

The substitute version before the Public Utilities Committee in February now requires any economic and job retention programs to be cost-effective, but also limits the exception to “customers or potential customers that are energy intensive or have a distinct energy load profile.” Also, termination of current programs that wouldn’t meet the standard must be gradual. Additionally, the bill expressly lets affiliates of electric utilities own or operate generation facilities.

Q: How do you see the caucus promoting energy justice within the legislature this term?

A: “The caucus is supporting HB 429, the Energy Jobs & Justice Act, which is designed to ensure that clean-energy benefits are directed at those historically and disproportionately harmed by Ohio’s current energy market. Under the bill, we would create the Office of Energy Justice to ensure decisions made by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio follow the principles of energy justice.”

Q: What do you mean by an “affluence gap pertaining to green energy subsidies?”

A: “Energy policy favors affluent first adapters of new green technology with subsidies,” West said. “Those within minority communities lack access to electric vehicles and the infrastructure needed at their homes to charge these vehicles. Also, these individuals may lack home ownership, or if they own a home may not have the money to install solar panels.”

“The caucus supports initiatives like HB 389, which would incentivize electric utilities to offer energy efficiency programs that will ultimately reduce both costs to consumers and our carbon footprint,” West added. Ohio’s electric utilities stopped offering those programs after House Bill 6 gutted the energy efficiency standards. Targets under the pending bill would be lower than those prior to the passage of HB 6.

Q: As you think about the intersection of civil rights and energy issues, what impacts do you see from pollution from fossil-fuel power plants and industrial facilities?

A: “Low-income communities are often near power plants and highways and other industrial areas because of historical discrimination around employment and housing,” West said. “Blacks and other minorities live in these communities. Studies have shown the Blacks in these areas are more likely to suffer from respiratory health issues and even cancer due to pollution from power plants and highway diesel fumes. Therefore, we need policies that reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change, which disproportionately impact Black and Brown communities.”

Q: As Black History Month winds up this year, what do you want to note about the lingering effects of systemic racism in the context of energy?

A: “Eminent domain, a practice still used to this day, was used to break up close-knit Black communities, forcing them to sell their homes for much less than market value to make way for highways, railroads and other large construction projects,” West said. As a result, many families went “from home ownership in neighborhoods that had a sense of community, to no longer being able to afford a home … and [losing] their community support.”

Q: What other issues do you want to highlight about utility infrastructure?

A: “Aging infrastructure is a major concern for communities of color, as deteriorating lead pipes add toxic particles to the water supply in urban areas. There are also problems with aging electric grid infrastructure causing blackouts in less affluent communities.”

Q: Where do energy issues fit into the broader context of racial problems that the caucus has had to deal with in the past few years?

A: “Simply put, energy and utility issues have taken a back seat to the racial injustices OLBC has been fighting against, including police brutality, calling for police reform, racial barriers in the healthcare system during the pandemic, Black infant mortality rates, access to housing in a climbing housing market, access to equitable employment and education, and Black access pertaining to business capital,” West said. “To all of our energy partners out there: Before we can shift focus and attend to your concerns, we must fix the racial injustices that exist in our society.”

“I encourage those in the energy sector to reflect on what you can do to address systemic racism within the constructs of your industry,” West added. “Connect with Black communities and legislators to discover ways to become an ally. Do the work, learn and take initiative to make a meaningful change to energy issues that impact minority communities.”

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.