In September, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan held a press conference in Warren County, North Carolina, 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. Although their efforts failed then in 1982, this resistance has brought to light how polluters – supported by politicians from all political stripes – unfairly target low-income communities and communities of color with dirty energy infrastructure that harms people and the planet.
The Biden administration has since taken notable steps to prioritize environmental justice. But members of Congress — including some self-proclaimed “climate champions” — are now threatening to undo that progress and further embitter our nation’s legacy of environmental racism by backing Sen. Joe Manchin’s dirty deal (DW.Va .) disguised as “enabling reform.”
Manchin garnered strong support for the plan as a side deal to secure his vote to pass the Cut Inflation Act. With strong support from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.), President Biden and other Democrats, Manchin has worked to push through legislation that, rather than enabling reform, could actually destroy safeguards that for decades have protected vulnerable communities from air, water and land pollution. In September, Manchin’s efforts to include his reform in a continuing resolution legitimately imploded. Manchin is now trying to push his deal behind the scenes in inescapable legislation, such as the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), even though community resistance helped defeat the unpopular first attempt in September.
If Manchin gets what he wants, this scheme could undermine fundamental environmental laws, silence crucial community contributions during the permitting process, and accelerate dirty energy projects our planet simply cannot afford. It could even force the completion of the fractured Mountain Valley gas pipeline through Manchin’s home state of West Virginia and parts of Virginia and North Carolina, which the courts have said. previously rejected due to inappropriate consideration of the multitude of environmental damage caused by the project. Any of the above would make a mockery of Biden’s stated commitment to environmental justice and civil rights.
The agreement also targets 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 closely analyze a range of environmental and socioeconomic impacts before approving projects such as power plants, roads and bridges. Basically, it gives citizens their most meaningful opportunity to have their say on the impacts a new project might have on their community. Manchin’s plan could eviscerate those crucial mandates.
Apparently Manchin wants you to think that NEPA is the culprit behind the infrastructure backlog. In reality, NEPA makes our government better by making sure public servants look before they jump. Setting aside enough time and a formal process to fully consider all impacts of a proposed project and gather feedback from stakeholders is essential to rationalizing new infrastructure. In fact, recent peer-reviewed studies have confirmed that project delays are usually caused by lack of opportunities for stakeholder consultation. Manchin claims 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 be clear: no permit reform that sacrifices these safeguards can be considered fair to communities or beneficial to the climate. Manchin, Big Oil’s darling, isn’t interested in accelerating just-sourced renewable energy projects or moving us toward a healthier future. It is both dishonest and ridiculous for any Democrat or supporter of environmental justice to claim otherwise. While clean energy transmission reform work 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 people and communities colored under the bus.
Any elected official who greenlights this brazen fossil fuel wishlist while pretending to stand up for 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 fundamental to our democracy and communities should have a say in what dirty energy projects they might be forced to live with. The only ones to benefit from this side deal are the polluters who profit from the worsening climate emergency and their enablers in Congress who can raise more donations for the fossil fuel campaign.
Elected officials must act now to kill this dirty business for good. Further silencing the voices most affected by the climate crisis would erase the Biden administration’s positive strides in environmental justice, such as the EPA’s new Environmental Justice Office and the Justice40 initiative. Instead, lawmakers should follow the example of environmental, climate and frontline leaders and support legislation like the Environmental Justice for All Act, which would address the disproportionate damage to health and the environment that actions federal governments have on the people most vulnerable to climate catastrophe.
Everyone has the right to breathe clean air, drink clean water and live on uncontaminated land. Our legislators must do what is morally right for people and the planet and reject Manchin’s ill-fated scheme.
Donna Chavis is currently Climate & Energy Justice Program Manager at 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 People of Color Leadership Summit in 1991, which developed the Principles of Environmental Justice. She is also a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.