The Most Recent Attempt to Rid this Country of Critical Checks and Balances Comes Under the Guise of Permitting Reform
[Updated Dec. 14, 2022]
A key step in approving federal energy projects is the permitting process, which often includes an assessment of the environmental impact these projects will have on surrounding communities. This ensures that community health and well-being is at least considered in the process. Senator Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) dirty permitting reform bill (which was first pulled due to lack of support in August and again in early December 2022, thanks to the power of grassroots organizing and the environmental justice movement) is rearing its ugly head again and is back up for a vote in Congress in the coming days.
This week, his dirty deal was introduced in the Senate by Democratic Senator Schumer (NY) as an amendment to what many see as a must-pass piece of legislation, the National Defense and Authorization Act. Although Manchin’s previous attempts failed, pundits and others including President Biden are now drumming up support for the measure by implying it is the critical component needed to ensure our nation’s energy independence and transition to renewables. They suggest this is only possible through a weakening of permitting standards that they say will enable our nation to build the renewable infrastructure we need. But really Schumer is just delivering on a dirty side deal made with Manchin earlier this year to secure his vote for the Inflation Reduction Act.
Here’s this thing — Manchin’s proposed “permitting reform” doesn’t have much to do with renewables. What it will do is unleash a wave of unfettered fossil fuel expansion at the expense of frontline communities, those hit first and worst by the climate crisis who have historically been harmed through environmental racism and economic inequality to name a few. This attempt to weaken communities’ rights by further ridding the country of certain checks and balances, would essentially gut the little protection that communities have to protect themselves and their families through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This isn’t the way to transition.
And, at the same time, it has everything to do with renewables because they are being used as the excuse for a further erosion of our rights. As we move into a clean energy future, if there aren’t appropriate safeguards in place that ensure communities are protected from the harmful industrial practices of the subsidized fossil fuel industry, we will see even more frontline communities created to meet the needs of our society.
As we pointed out in a letter to Democratic leadership earlier this year, the little protection afforded communities currently, thanks to NEPA, is key in safeguarding the health and well-being of us all. For example, “The permit review process for the proposed Formosa Plastics Complex in St. James Parish, Louisiana has been critical in protecting the surrounding community, which is about 90-percent Black. If developed, it would produce 800 tons of toxic air pollutants annually, doubling air emissions in the already overburdened community in Cancer Alley. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights called the project ‘environmental racism’ in March and urged U.S. officials to reject the project. Reports of the proposed legislative changes to NEPA and the priority permitting list would perpetuate this environmental racism.”
Moreover, if passed, this legislation would enable more dirty energy projects to be pushed through alongside renewables. This will not actually solve our crisis nor ensure good health for communities. Projects that have NOT been proven to actually reduce emissions in meaningful ways such as risky geoengineering projects like carbon capture and storage, or others including natural gas, hydrogen, nuclear, etc. pose serious health risks to the communities in which they are housed.
As pointed out in a recent article, “Manchin’s proposed legislation mandates accelerated permitting for traditional dirty energy projects such as fossil fuels and biofuels and new dirty energy technologies such as carbon capture and hydrogen, treating them on par with renewable energy and electric transmission projects.” Essentially, it subsidizes billions for false solutions like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) likely to be located in low-income communities of color where too much of the polluting industries are already.
Taking away even the limited power communities have to resist polluting projects like these through this bill will only make violations of environmental justice more likely. Since we already have a crisis of environmental racism in this country, slashing community input even more is only going to make matters worse.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. Instead, we could stop this new form of extremism that aims to strip the most vulnerable of their most basic democratic rights to protect themselves, and invest in expanding community-led renewable projects that leave no one behind.
Successful examples of this abound. Whether in New York where the first ever community cooperative solar was developed and where efforts are now underway to make an offshore wind energy transition more equitable, to renewable energy being developed and installed by Indigenous communities in the SouthWest, or a slew of Just Transition legislation that was recently passed in Oregon that will transition to clean energy in less than two decades. Projects that are truly phasing out fossil fuels while ensuring the safety of those most harmed by them have been proven to work and can be scaled right now without gutting communities rights to protect themselves and their families.
Manchin’s proposal is not about transitioning to a clean energy future, rather it’s just another handout to big oil and gas with renewable energy window-dressing, at the expense of frontline communities who have borne the brunt of the devastation caused by the climate crisis for decades. If we really want to build our nation’s clean energy infrastructure, ensure energy independence and create good jobs that increase economic growth and stability, it’s not through promoting Big Oil’s interests that chip away at our most basic checks and balances and democratic rights, all under the guise of clean energy.
Black, Brown, Indigenous and other rural and urban communities have long worked within the unjust constraints we’ve been given. We’ve been reasonable and creative but we can no longer sacrifice our lives in the name of the “greater good,” especially when this newest attack on our most basic rights has nothing to do with that at all.
At this critical juncture, we call on President Biden and our elected representatives in the Senate to prioritize public health, democratic rights and environmental justice over big business interests. Say no to Manchin’s dirty deal and let’s commit to advancing renewable energy that doesn’t throw already polluted communities under the bus.