In September, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan held a press conference in Warren County, NC, to announce the creation of a new national office charged with advancing environmental justice and civil rights. That same month, the county commemorated 40 years since its predominantly black residents marched to a nearby landfill to protest the dumping of toxic waste in their communities. Though their efforts failed then in 1982, this resistance shed light on how polluters – backed by politicians across the political spectrum – unfairly target low-income communities and communities of color with dirty energy infrastructure that damages people and the planet.
The Biden administration has since taken some notable steps to prioritize environmental justice. But members of Congress — including some self-described “climate champions” — are now threatening to undo this progress and further inflame our country’s legacy of environmental racism by backing the senator. Joe Manchin’s (DW.Va.) dirty business masquerading as “allowing reform.”
Manchin won strong support for this plan as a side deal to secure his vote to pass the Inflation Reduction Act. With strong support from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.), President Biden and of other Democrats, Manchin has been working to pass legislation that, instead of reform permitting, could actually destroy the safeguards that have protected vulnerable communities from air, water and country pollution for decades. In September, Manchin’s attempt to include his reform in a permanent resolution rightfully imploded. Manchin is now trying to cram his behind-the-scenes deal into mandatory legislation, such as the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), even as community resistance helped defeat September’s unpopular first attempt.
If Manchin gets his way, this scheme it could gut fundamental environmental laws, silence crucial community input during the permitting process, and expedite dirty energy projects that our planet simply can’t afford. It could even force completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline fracking pipeline through the home state of Manchin, West Virginia, and into parts of Virginia and North Carolina, which courts have previously dismissed due to incorrect consideration of the range of environmental damages caused. from the project. All of the above would make a mockery of Biden’s stated commitment to environmental justice and civil rights.
The agreement also addresses one of our country’s most important bedrock conservation laws: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). For more than 40 years, NEPA has required federal agencies to carefully analyze a variety of environmental and socio-economic impacts before approving projects such as power plants, roads and bridges. Basically, it gives citizens the most meaningful opportunity to provide input on the impacts a new project could have on their community. Manchin’s plan could eviscerate these crucial mandates.
Apparently, Manchin wants you to think that NEPA is to blame for the infrastructure delay. In reality, NEPA improves our governance by ensuring that public officials look before they leap. Setting aside adequate time and a formal process to fully consider all impacts of a proposed project and gather input from stakeholders is essential to streamlining new infrastructure. Indeed, recent peer-reviewed studies have confirmed that project delays are generally caused by a lack of opportunities for stakeholder consultation. Manchin says he wants to speed up infrastructure construction, but it’s obvious his plan would make it easier to build fossil fuel projects and lead us in the wrong direction.
Let’s face it: no permit reform that sacrifices these protections can be considered fair to communities or beneficial to the climate. Manchin, the darling of Big Oil, isn’t interested in accelerating source-only renewable energy projects or moving us to a healthier future. It is both disingenuous and ridiculous for any Democrat or environmental justice advocate to pretend otherwise. While work to reform clean energy transmission may be necessary, it should not and will not be led by Manchin, and it cannot go through a rushed process that throws low-income and communities of color under the bus.
Any elected official who greenlights this blatant fossil fuel wish list while doing formal service to environmental justice cannot call themselves a “climate champion.” True environmental stewards do not seek to eliminate the public’s primary entry point into the federal permitting process. Public participation is central to our democracy, and communities should have a say in the dirty energy projects they may be forced to live with. The only ones who benefit from this side deal are the polluters who profit from the worsening climate emergency and their congressional promoters who can raise more donations to the fossil fuel campaign.
Elected officials must act now to kill this dirty business forever. Further silencing the voices most impacted by the climate crisis would undo the Biden administration’s positive strides on environmental justice, such as EPA’s new environmental justice office and the Justice40 initiative. Instead, lawmakers should follow the lead of environmental, climate and frontline leaders and support legislation like the Environmental Justice for All Act, which would address the disproportionate health and environmental harms federal actions have on those who are more vulnerable to climate catastrophe.
Every person has the right to breathe clean air, drink clean water and live in uncontaminated territory. Our lawmakers must do what is morally right for people and the planet and reject Manchin’s ill-fated ploy.
Donna Chavis is currently the Climate and Energy Justice Program Manager with Friends of the Earth US and a recognized leader in social and environmental justice change and practice. She was a member of the planning committee for the first National Summit on Leadership of Black People in 1991, which developed the principles of environmental justice. She is also a member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina.