Reviews | Will lawmakers sacrifice our health and safety to get a debt ceiling deal?
If the United States can figure out how to produce more clean energy quickly, places like Port Arthur, Texas, and Lake Charles, Louisiana might have the most to gain. These communities have borne a disproportionate burden of fossil fuel pollution for decades, and residents have paid dearly for their health. With fewer oil, gas and petrochemical facilities, the air in these communities could become much cleaner very soon.
But a crucial part of that transition has now been swept away by the high-pressure negotiations over the national debt ceiling. The communities that most desperately need a greener future could – if we’re not very careful right now – end up being the most victimized by efforts to get us there.
Several lawmakers from both parties in the House and Senate have pushed to simplify the way our government plans energy infrastructure. They complained that it too often takes years for projects to obtain the necessary permits. The issue has become so urgent that it is now a bargaining chip in the debt ceiling negotiations, with more than six proposals under discussion. It’s also so complex that Congress might try to address it in another bill after the debt crisis is resolved.
Fossil fuel and construction companies are in the fray because they want to make it easier to get approval for new liquefied gas terminals as well as oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure. Renewable energy companies want to get clean energy to consumers faster and modernize power grids. And the Biden administration needs to build many more transmission lines faster to deliver on the Cut Inflation Act promises and meet its climate goal of a 50% cut in carbon emissions by 2035.
The problem is that to get more energy projects built faster, too many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are willing to weaken a key 1970 law. And that could have devastating consequences for many marginalized communities. Some with the most to lose are in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and West Virginia, where the state government offers little protection and the federal government is the only real ally.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to assess the impacts of proposed projects and provide opportunities for public input, and has been the essential tool for communities to mobilize against toxic projects since its enactment in 1970. Data shows that proximity to oil and gas operations has a wide range of adverse health effects, including higher rates of heart disease, asthma, hospitalizations and even cancer. The law has helped affected communities, which often disproportionately include people of color, to delay projects until the government provides more information; in some cases, they have stopped projects altogether.
Perhaps the clearest example is in the 85-mile stretch of Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley”. The region is home to many poor black communities and more than 100 facilities that refine oil or use fossil fuels to make chemicals. According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the risk of airborne cancer in a city is already 50 times higher than the national average, with the highest cancer rates in communities that had more than black and poor residents.
By filing a lawsuit with NEPA, the residents of Cancer Alley were recently able to shut down, at least for the time being, what would have been the largest plastic-producing petrochemical plant in North America. The $9.4 billion, 2,500-acre Formosa Plastics complex is said to have emitted 800 tons of pollution each year, doubling the area’s already toxic emissions. The Army Corps of Engineers changed course, halted the permit, and ordered a full environmental review.
Chaco Canyon, a sacred place in New Mexico to the indigenous peoples whose ancestors lived there, is one of the most mined areas for fossil fuels in the country. In 2019, local communities won a historic environmental victory when the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit found that the Bureau of Land Management violated NEPA by failing to properly consider the impacts of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the region.
And right now, fossil fuel companies are proposing to build gas export facilities along the coast of Texas and Louisiana and a massive underground ethane storage facility somewhere in the Ohio River Valley. . Plans call for the facility to be modeled after a petrochemical complex in Texas that has an alarming history of leaks and explosions. If the expedited environmental review provisions that some lawmakers are calling for are enacted, those reviews may not be cautious or rigorous enough to protect the people who live and work in these communities.
NEPA is not the only legal resource available to communities to fight fossil fuel polluters. But it’s a powerful and proven safeguard, and frontline communities are counting on members of Congress and President Biden not to diminish his power.
It is true that NEPA has delayed some much-needed clean energy projects in the nation. That’s why aspects of the legislation proposed by two Democratic senators, Tom Carper of Delaware and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, that would separate proposed renewable energy projects from fossil fuel projects for consideration, deserve careful consideration. Other bills, such as that of Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, would approve the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline to transport natural gas. And those proposed by Republican senators and passed by the House would give even more power to fossil fuel companies, moving us away from our climate goals.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can also do a lot to bring cleaner energy sources online, including requiring organizations that manage electric transmission systems to favor renewable energy in their rules for new energy sources. ‘energy. But the commission is not complete.
President Biden should immediately appoint someone to fill his remaining seat, and the commission should get to work. It would be even more effective if Congress gave it the power to decide where transmission lines should go, as long as communities have the opportunity to voice their concerns. And Congress should dramatically increase funding for agencies that write the environmental impact statements required by NEPA, to ensure that the environmental review process moves faster.
For too long, political compromises have harmed marginalized communities. As the Biden administration and Congress approach a debt ceiling agreement, they must create a path forward for clean energy sources without sacrificing fundamental environmental protections that make the difference between a longer life. and healthier and lasting environmental damage.
Dr. Robert Bullard is a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. Larry Shapiro is associate director for program development at the Rockefeller Family Fund.
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