August 2, 2022 Could Environmental Justice Concerns Derail the Democrats’ Climate Bill?

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks to reporters about his recent agreement with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) on the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday, July 28, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The environmental justice movement is up in arms over key fossil fuel provisions included in the Democrats’ landmark climate and energy spending bill, foreshadowing potentially ugly fights in the days ahead as lawmakers race to secure what many now see as the party’s best chance to pass meaningful federal climate legislation during President Biden’s first term. While advocacy groups ramped up pressure on lawmakers Monday to strip those provisions, it’s unclear if their opposition will derail the bill, which depends almost entirely on maintaining the approval of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

The Inflation Reduction Act, a surprise deal struck last week by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Manchin, dedicates nearly $370 billion to climate and energy spending, representing an unprecedented federal investment in the fight against global warming. More than $60 billion of that total is earmarked for projects that in some way advance environmental justice and reduce the nation’s long standing environmental and health inequities.

Three separate analyses by think tanks and academic institutions estimate that the climate provisions of the bill could slash U.S. emissions in the ballpark of 40 percent by 2030—just short of President Biden’s goal of cutting them 50 to 52 percent in that time frame. Without the bill, analysts believe the U.S. would lower greenhouse gas emissions by just a quarter over the next 8 years.

And a breakdown of the bill’s environmental justice spending shows a broad scope of different programs that supporters say would greatly improve the lives and health outcomes of many of the nation’s disadvantaged communities. That includes $11 billion to revitalize the long-depleted Superfund cleanup program; $4.75 billion to help states reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in disadvantaged communities; over $3 billion for programs to improve and expand transportation access in low-income areas and reduce the negative impacts of transportation hubs; $1 billion to improve the climate resilience and electrification projects in public housing; and $1 billion to help federal agencies better implement the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock environmental law with major environmental justice implications.

But despite those potential benefits, many in the environmental justice community have come out against the bill in recent days, pointing to provisions in it that they say will harm the nation’s most vulnerable populations.

That’s because in order to get the support of Joe Manchin—the party’s most conservative member, who has made his fortune on fossil fuels and has been the biggest obstacle to President Biden’s environmental agenda—Democrats were forced to include several major concessions to the fossil fuel industry in the package.

Those concessions include opening up more federal land and waters to oil and gas drilling, ensuring fossil fuel and clean energy projects get equal access to public land auctions over the next decade, massive investments in controversial carbon removal technologies and clean hydrogen hubs and a commitment from Democratic Senate leadership to streamline the permitting process for energy infrastructure projects, including fossil fuel pipelines.

Those provisions would be detrimental to environmental justice communities, Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director at the environmental justice nonprofit UPROSE and board co-chair for the Climate Justice Alliance, told me in an interview. Namely, she said, they would encourage further development of pipelines, gas-fired power plants and other fossil fuel infrastructure, which is already disproportionately located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

“You can’t give with one hand and take away with the other,” Yeampierre said. “While it is great that resources have been allocated for frontline communities, there’s also a lot in there that turns our communities into sacrifice zones.”

Research shows that low-income families and communities of color have benefited least from environmental regulations and are disproportionately exposed to industrial pollution, which primarily comes from the burning of fossil fuels in buildings, power plants and vehicles. And for decades, environmental justice activists, including Yeampierre, have said any expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure will further exacerbate those disparities—largely because historically racist housing and zoning practices have made it far more common for polluting industries to be located near environmental justice communities.

Activists are also criticizing the money going toward carbon removal technologies and hydrogen gas development, which they say has allowed polluting industries to continue expanding fossil fuel use on dubious promises to reduce their emissions with unproven technologies.

For Indigenous activists, who for years have been at the forefront of the fight against new fossil fuel pipelines, the Inflation Reduction Act would also bolster projects that they say infringe on their tribal rights, threaten to pollute their ancestral lands and even jeopardize their livelihoods.

As part of the deal with Manchin, Democrats also agreed to reform federal permitting for infrastructure in a way that streamlines the process and makes it easier for fossil fuel projects like pipelines to get approved. Manchin was also specifically given assurances that the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a nearly completed 303-mile natural gas pipeline that runs through Manchin’s home state of West Virginia, would get federal approval, according to several news reports.

That pipeline is entangled in numerous lawsuits from Indigenous and environmental justice groups, and for years its developers have struggled to obtain key permits, including a federal permit that would allow the pipeline to cross through the Jefferson National Forest.

If the Inflation Reduction Act gets signed into law, “this administration locks in the violence of the climate crisis and consequences to Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous nations and frontline communities for decades to come,” Tom BK Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network said in a press release.

Many activists also worry the total amount of funding in the package, currently proposed at a bit more than $60 billion, isn’t enough to tackle the whole-of-government approach the Biden administration has promised to take to reduce the nation’s long standing environmental and health inequities.

In Build Back Better, Democrats proposed around $160 billion that would in some way go toward projects that benefit environmental justice communities, said Lew Daly, deputy director of climate policy for the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank. That means the Inflation Reduction Act has shrunk that funding by roughly two-thirds, he said.

Daly also said that the environmental justice funding in the Inflation Reduction Act is out of line with the standards set by Justice40, Biden’s cornerstone environmental justice program, which directs 40 percent of the “overall benefits” of federal environmental and clean energy spending to go to “disadvantaged communities.” 

“So, if you just do the basic math, $60 billion out of $369 billion, which is the value of the total package, that’s 16 percent for disadvantaged communities,” he said. “That falls well short of the Justice40 standard of 40 percent.”

Still, it’s unclear if the environmental justice community’s objections to the bill will necessarily derail it. With midterm elections threatening the Democrat’s narrow Congressional majority, Democrats may see this as their last opportunity to pass meaningful climate legislation before potentially losing control of one or both chambers in November. That pressure was evident on Monday as lawmakers scrambled to shore up their ranks, with hopes of passing the bill before summer recess begins as early as next week.

For Yeampierre, the situation has left a “hard choice” for her and others working across the nation to build a more equitable society. That includes lawmakers like New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, she said, a key architect of the Inflation Reduction Act.

“I sympathize with Sen. Schumer, and I know that he is working diligently to look out for the most vulnerable communities,” she said. But “there’s something really profoundly unfair to ask us to choose between those two realities, to basically say we have to compromise lives” in order to pass this bill.

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Today’s Indicator

24 tons

That’s the amount of carbon emissions that the Inflation Reduction Act will prevent from going into the atmosphere for every ton of increased emissions caused by the bill’s “oil and gas provisions,” according to a new analysis by the progressive think tank Energy Innovation.