As fracking and horizontal drilling in the last decade transformed the U.S. into the world's largest oil and gas producer, it's become a selling point verging on the mythic: The Walmart cashier from Bismarck or Midland or Tulsa suddenly drawing a six-figure salary and driving a gleaming white pickup truck, the engineer or chemist now making three times that of his grad school peers by working in the petroleum sector.
For African-Americans, however, it's a path to upward mobility filled with hurdles.
In spite of well-publicized diversity campaigns and outreach efforts by the industry's largest companies and trade groups, black and African-American workers last year held only 9 percent of the jobs in oil and gas extraction, according to the Labor Department. Through the boom of the past decade, blacks never made up more than a tenth of the country's oil and gas workforce, and an analysis last year found they continue to be paid on average 23 percent less than their white counterparts.
Oil and gas is far from the only industry where black workers account for just a fraction of the workforce: In fact, as recently as 2015 blacks held a larger share of oil and gas jobs than in fields as diverse as law, the social sciences, arts and entertainment, architecture, the physical sciences and the life sciences, according to Census data. The U.S. across the board has seen strikingly little progress in reducing hiring discrimination or shrinking employment and pay gaps between black and white workers.
But there are elements that make oil and gas unique:
Unlike, say, law or finance or even most chemical or engineering firms, the oil and gas sector lobbies hard for tax breaks and environmental exemptions that affect taxpayers' wallets and health, often on the premise that by offering such exemptions, communities will in turn benefit from local jobs. And while there are certainly other sectors of the economy that push for similar subsidies – tech giants, for example, or professional sports teams – few produce the pollution of the oil and gas sector.
A history of building refineries and other industrial sites in communities of color has ensured that minorities continue to bear a disproportionate burden from the sector's impacts. An EPA study this spring found race – not poverty – is the biggest predictor of exposure to certain air pollution from the oil industry.
Laborers, whether in mining or manufacturing or construction, have long sacrificed their bodies and their health for a wage. But when it comes to oil and gas, the trade-off between allowing – or even encouraging through tax breaks – an oil, gas or petrochemical facility to be built in exchange for jobs, it turns out, is no trade-off at all.
"I hear people in this industry talk about how this industry can move people into the middle class, but that's never going to happen if we're not talking about this stuff," says Paula Glover, president of the American Association of Blacks in Energy.
As benchmark oil prices stabilized this year after a crash in 2016 and more rigs and jobs have returned, U.S. News & World Report spoke with close to a dozen African-American roughnecks, engineers, students, professors, university presidents and professional groups to find out why the oil and gas industry remains effectively closed to African-Americans.
They pointed to hostile climates on the job and hiring trends stretching back more than a century, recruitment drives that inherently focus on white workers and outreach that continues to shun the largest pools of black engineering talent.
The result is that in a U.S. labor market upended by automation and the gig economy, the oil and gas industry – seen by many as one of the last reliable roads to the middle and upper class – remains effectively off-limits to the communities most in need of the economic opportunity it purports to promise.
More Jobs, No Changes
While the number of jobs overall were expected to rise, the share of African-Americans in the oil and gas workforce wouldn't crack the current rate of 7 percent, according to data in the report. Latinos, it found, would receive a rising share of jobs as the community constituted a larger and larger portion of the U.S. population overall through the next 20 years. But over the same period, the oil and gas industry's biggest champion effectively – if silently – concluded that virtually nothing would change for the sector's black workers.
"Growth itself isn't going to do it," says Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, of the University of Massachusetts, who has studied hiring in oil and gas. "The money's pouring in and you're just scrambling to keep up while you're in this growth mode – that leads to less reflective management. Growth alone has no effect."
Shortcomings in STEM Support
The most recent U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index from 2016, which tracked interest, enrollment and achievement in STEM tests, degrees and industries, found that racial gaps had remained firmly entrenched since 2000 and, in some cases, even widened.
Oil and gas firms have, with some justification, contended that they've sponsored or even directly created programs designed to overcome such hurdles. Many have come in the guise of STEM programs – initiatives to boost students' science, technology, engineering and math skills, drum up enthusiasm for careers in STEM, and shrink the broad chasm between the white men who make up the bulk of students and STEM graduates and everyone else.
Such efforts, though, have so far met with little success. The most recent U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index from 2016, which tracked interest, enrollment and achievement in STEM tests, degrees and industries, found that racial gaps had remained firmly entrenched since 2000 and, in some cases, even widened.
"The positive growth in STEM occupations and the United States' lagging performance in STEM degree attainment highlight the fact that this issue is bigger than any one industry," Porter, the API spokesman, said in his statement to U.S. News.
In the past year or two, the American Association of Blacks in Energy, the main advocate for African-Americans in the oil and gas sector, has started to come to terms with why that might be, at least in lower-income communities:
In neighborhoods that are chronically underserved, beset by violence, or burdened by intergenerational poverty or trauma, the association has realized, a STEM curriculum can only go so far.
"If you're not reading at grade level, it doesn't matter what your STEM program is doing – there's no way for them to learn the material," Glover, of the American Association of Blacks in Energy, says. "We as an organization are starting to talk about social contacts and social impacts around diversity far more than we ever did."
Glover says she and her organization have begun pitching oil and gas executives – and local politicians trying to woo the industry's business – on the need to find new approaches that reach deeper and offer more support for black workers. What exactly those programs might look like, and to what extent corporations should be responsible for footing the bill, remains far from clear. But the new effort so far has received "at least a polite reception" she says.
"Whether or not that spurs enough interest to do something different, I don't know," Glover says. "I don't know that anyone has heard that and that's been their aha moment."
Meanwhile, spreading even basic awareness about the industry in such communities, where few if any residents work in the oil and gas industry, and the closest facilities might be dozens or hundreds of miles away, remains a deep-set challenge.
"If you have absolutely no knowledge of it," Wallace says, "if you have absolutely no understanding of how this can transition to a good life, it's very difficult to look at that particular situation and say, 'OK, this is a viable opportunity.'"
Find out what it takes in this market to become eligible to embark in a career in this field here as well as read the full report of which you only wish you knew the half of. In addition this full article should be required reading for black and hispanic families and students to become fully aware of the state and need for Black, Hispanic & Female participants and graduates of the S.T.E.M. learning and education process.