University of Houston Law Center Logo
Give Now  
HOME Faculty

Environmental scholar explains “inevitable intersection” between energy, social and racial justice as part of EENR Center speaker series

May 24, 2021 - Professor Rebecca Bratspies of the City University of New York School of Law said that underrepresented communities often face the negative outcomes from energy industry activity during a lecture last week hosted by the University of Houston Law Center's Environment, Energy & Natural Resources Center. The presentation is part of the Energy Transition and Governance series, sponsored by the European Union through its Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant and the efforts of UH EENR Fellow (and Universite de Lyon III professor) Aubin Nzaou.

“As energy, environmental, international or human rights lawyers, it's essential that we appreciate how much of the burden associated with energy extraction and production has been borne by communities of color and how little of the benefit in terms of access to energy those communities have accrued from all of that burden,” Bratspies said.

Bratspies discussion, “Renewable Rikers: Making a Just Energy Transition That Builds Restorative Environmental Justice,” described the racist and environmentally harmful history of Rikers Island, the highest-populated jail complex in New York City. She said most of the island was used for trash and prison labor. She elaborated on the dangerous conditions at the jail and the Close Rikers movement. With the passing of Local Law 192 in 2019, which mandated that Rikers be shut down by 2026, Bratspies said the question arose of what would happen to the island once the facility closes.

Bratspies also discussed New York City as a whole, noting that most power is consumed in Manhattan. However, most power plants are located in places like Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx - areas with high populations of people of color - which creates pollution and burden for communities that are not benefiting from the plants.

Bratspies also talked about PowerNow! 2000, which was a plan in 2000 to temporarily install 10 peak power plants around the city. Despite the plan for them to be temporary, they still exist and are spilling pollution into overburdened, environmental justice communities.

However, with the shifting legal landscape in New York, many plants will have to shut down, and this will in turn reduce harmful emissions.

“There’s real change happening and it’s very exciting,” Bratspies said.

Bratspies said the Renewable Rikers initiative, which is aimed at transforming the island into a space of sustainability, is still a work in progress. In February 2020, she testified at a hearing that reviewed topics such as wastewater treatment, renewable energy, and transferring Rikers Island to the Department of Corrections. While the pandemic has slowed the process, it charges on. There is also a movement by environmental justice groups to replace the PowerNow! plants with renewable and battery-powered systems.

“You should have audacious goals,” she said. “If you don’t have big, visionary demands, you won’t get big, visionary change.”

Bratspies is an internationally recognized expert on environmental justice and the founding Director of the Center for Urban Environmental Reform. At CUNY, she teaches property, climate change, environmental justice, administrative law, and environmental law.

Click here to watch “Renewable Rikers: Making a Just Energy Transition That Builds Restorative Environmental Justice.”

The next speaker in the series is Professor Lisa Benjamin of the Lewis & Clark Law School, who will deliver her remarks at 10 a.m. June 17.
Prior speakers in the webinar series are Professor Uma Outka of the University of Kansas School of Law, Professor Joshua Galperin of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Professor Alexandra Klass of University of Minnesota Law School, Professor Lee Paddock of the George Washington University School of Law and Professor Roy Partain of the University of Aberdeen School of Law.
Click here for a list of future and previous presentations.

Back to News Homepage