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Will the Debt Ceiling Deal Derail Environmental Justice?

If the United States can figure out how to quickly build more clean energy, places like Port Arthur, Texas, and Lake Charles, Louisiana, may have the most to gain. These communities have for decades shouldered a disproportionate burden of fossil fuel pollution and residents paid dearly with their health. With fewer oil, gas and petrochemical facilities, the air in these communities could get a lot cleaner very soon.

But a crucial part of this transition has now gotten swept up in 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 most victimized by the effort to get us there.

Several lawmakers from both parties in the House and Senate have been pushing to simplify how our government plans energy infrastructure. They have complained that too often it takes years for projects to get necessary permits. The issue has become so urgent it’s now a bargaining chip in debt ceiling negotiations, with more than six proposals under discussion. It’s also so complex that Congress may try to address it in another bill after the debt crisis is resolved.

Fossil fuel and construction companies are in the fight because they want to make it easier to win approval for new liquefied gas terminals as well as for oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure. Renewable energy companies want to get clean energy to consumers faster and to update electricity grids. And the Biden administration needs to build many more transmission lines faster to deliver on the promises of the Inflation Reduction Act and hit its climate goal of a 50 percent reduction 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 to provide opportunities for public input, and has been the essential tool for communities to mobilize against toxic projects since it was signed into law in 1970. Data show 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 comprise people of color, to delay projects until the government provides more information; in some cases they have stopped the projects altogether.

Perhaps the clearest example is in the 85-mile stretch of Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley.” The area is home to many poor, Black communities and more than 100 facilities that refine oil or use fossil fuels to manufacture chemicals. According to Environmental Protection Agency data, the risk of cancer from the air in one town is already 50 times the national average, with the highest cancer rates in communities that had more Black and impoverished residents.

By filing a NEPA lawsuit, Cancer Alley residents were recently able to halt, at least for now, what would have been the largest plastic-producing petrochemical plant in North America. The $9.4 billion, 2,500-acre Formosa Plastics complex would 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.

Read entire article at New York Times