August 9, 2022 Inflation Reduction Act Commits Just $47 Billion to Environmental Justice, Activists Say

A photo taken on June 6, 2013 shows a general view of French oil giant Total's Texan plant in Port Arthur. Credit: Marc Preel/AFP via Getty Images
A photo taken on June 6, 2013 shows a general view of French oil giant Total's Texan plant in Port Arthur. Credit: Marc Preel/AFP via Getty Images

Senate Democrats could be “overcounting” the funding for environmental justice provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act and misrepresenting the bill’s benefits for low-income families, communities of color and other historically disadvantaged Americans, according to a coalition of climate and environmental justice advocacy groups that is analyzing the 725-page spending package.

Despite the general disapproval from environmentalists over the bill’s provisions that benefit the fossil fuel industry that were included in the final measure passed by the Senate over the weekend, however, the House is expected to approve the bill with little or no alteration sometime this week.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other party leaders have billed their spending package as a necessary compromise that would ensure the United States can keep its promises to tackle climate change and elevate environmental justice. The draft legislation dedicates nearly $370 billion to address rising greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the effects of global warming, including more than $60 billion for projects that in some way advance environmental justice and reduce the nation’s long standing environmental and health disparities.

But a preliminary analysis by the Just Solutions Collective, a nonpartisan think tank that promotes equitable climate policies and acts as a coalition hub for environmental justice groups nationwide, has found just $47.5 billion in the bill that it considers beneficial for low-income families and communities of color.

In some cases, the group says, Senate Democrats appear to be counting the total spending for certain programs where only part of that funding is dedicated to helping disadvantaged communities. For example, all $27 billion for a national green bank appears to be counted, while only $15 billion of that funding pool is dedicated to benefiting disadvantaged communities, according to the analysis. Similarly, all $3 billion for neighborhood access and equity grants appears to be counted, while only $1.1 is earmarked for disadvantaged communities. Same with the $87 million for the low-emissions electricity program, where just $17 million of that goes to those communities. As well as all $281 million for air pollution monitoring, where only $3 million goes to those groups.

If her calculations prove accurate, Sylvia Chi, a senior strategist on federal policies and financing for Just Solutions Collective, said that’s a $12.5 billion shortfall in what proponents of the Inflation Reduction Act say would benefit the nation’s most vulnerable populations. That’s a significant discrepancy, Chi told me in an interview, “especially when you consider what they cut out of Build Back Better, including $9 billion for lead remediation.”

Schumer’s office did not respond to questions about Chi’s analysis. 

Chi said her dissection, which is ongoing, mostly includes funding that had explicit language carving out money for low-income or disadvantaged communities. But she didn’t include funding where those groups were said to be “prioritized” in a competitive grant process because of a lack of guarantees, she said. The analysis also included a handful of programs where such language wasn’t present but the funding would very likely benefit environmental justice groups. The $500 million included for boosting environmental reviews was one example, she said, as was the $3 billion earmarked to mitigate harmful impacts of ports and transportation hubs, which are disproportionately located near low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

For many in the environmental justice movement, the report’s findings only reinforce their opposition to the historic climate and energy spending package, which includes significant provisions for the fossil fuel industry and funding for controversial technologies, such as carbon removal. Those provisions, which include opening up more federal land and waters to oil and gas drilling and a commitment from Democratic Senate leadership to streamline the permitting process for energy infrastructure projects, including fossil fuel pipelines, were included to win the approval of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

As the party’s most conservative Democrat, Manchin has blocked President Joe Biden’s climate agenda for more than a year, largely to protect the fossil fuel industry in West Virginia, where he has extensive coal holdings. 

Activists fear that, even though the Inflation Reduction Act is expected to bring about an overall net benefit when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, its fossil fuel provisions could worsen pollution in areas already saturated by heavy industry, resulting in increased rates of asthma, cancer, premature death and other health problems in those neighborhoods.

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 have said that 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.

If passed as is, the Inflation Reduction Act creates an “existential threat for Gulf Coast communities like mine in Port Arthur, for Appalachia, and for the entire world,” John Beard, founder and CEO of the Port Arthur Community Action Network in Texas, said in a press release this week. “Compromise is about who’s getting what and who’s going to give up what. And what are we getting out of it when you expand fossil fuels: you’re putting us in peril.” 

Port Arthur, where a third of the population is Black, has long been home to a disproportionately high number of industrial polluters—including the largest oil refinery in the country—in relation to its population. Activists say it could also be one of the locations where developers choose to expand fossil fuel infrastructure with help from the Inflation Reduction Act.

Still, the bill has been widely accepted by the environmental community, including some of the nation’s most influential climate hawks, who see it as the best chance of passing national climate legislation during President Biden’s first term and ahead of a midterm election where Democrats could lose their narrow majorities in one or both chambers of Congress. That view is supported by at least three independent analyses of the bill’s climate provisions, which all found that the legislation could cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions some 40 percent by 2030—within striking distance of President Joe Biden’s pledge to cut emissions in half.

The result has been a mixed bag of excitement and disappointment within the climate movement. In a tweet over the weekend, Varshini Prakash, a prominent environmental and social justice activist who co-founded the youth-led Sunrise Movement, said: “This isn’t the bill my generation deserves but it is the one we can get. It must pass to give us a fighting chance at a livable world.”

With Manchin still holding much of the power in what ultimately gets passed by Congress, many environmental justice activists have also resigned to the fact that they may not have the power to stop the legislation from moving forward.

“There’s a very slim chance of anything changing in the bill as it goes to the House,” Adrien Salazar, policy director for the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, told me in an interview. “I think we’re at the point of recognizing that some of the writing’s on the wall.”

Instead, Salazar said, groups are now beginning to focus their energy on how they can mitigate any potentially harmful outcomes from the bill after it passes, such as organizing around stopping future oil and gas lease sales and keeping up pressure to halt any fossil fuel infrastructure development in their neighborhoods. Activists also want to make sure they’re at the table when Democrats begin finalizing their deal with Manchin over reforming the federal permitting process for energy projects, he said.

Manchin has said federal permitting for pipelines and other fossil fuel development has been too cumbersome and needs to be streamlined. Salazar said much of their groups’ focus will now be on making sure that doesn’t happen, while also looking for opportunities to boost renewable energy development in the deal.

“We know this is a handshake deal between Manchin and Schumer,” Salazar said. “And so we think that there’s still an opening, even if it’s narrow and even if it’s going to be another uphill battle, to try to stop this deal.”

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Today’s Indicator

70 percent

That’s how many electric-vehicle models wouldn’t qualify for a $7,500 tax credit for U.S. buyers under the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, according to a statement from some of the world’s largest automakers, including General Motors, Toyota and Ford.