Guest Essay

Will Lawmakers Sacrifice Our Health and Safety to Get a Debt Ceiling Deal?

A photograph of a modest tan house with a red car parked in an overgrown driveway stands across the road from large oil refinery towers emitting plumes of white smoke.
An oil refinery towers over the Harrisburg/Manchester community just south of the Houston Ship Channel in East Houston.Credit...Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Robert Bullard and

Dr. Bullard is a professor at Texas Southern University. Mr. Shapiro is an associate director at the Rockefeller Family Fund.

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.

Chaco Canyon, a sacred place in New Mexico for Indigenous people whose ancestors lived there, is within one the most exploited areas for fossil fuels in the country. In 2019, local communities won a landmark environmental victory when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit concluded that the Bureau of Land Management violated NEPA by failing to properly account for the impacts of horizontal drilling and fracking in the region.

And right now, fossil fuel corporations are proposing to build gas export facilities along the coast of Texas and Louisiana and a massive underground ethane storage hub somewhere in the Ohio River Valley. Plans call for the facility to be modeled on a Texas petrochemical complex that has an alarming history of leaks and explosions. If the fast-tracking provisions for environmental review that some lawmakers are pushing for are enacted into law, these reviews may not be careful or robust enough to protect the people who live and work in these communities.

NEPA is not the only legal resource communities have to fight fossil fuel polluters. But it is a powerful, proven safeguard, and frontline communities are counting on members of Congress and President Biden not to diminish its power.

True, NEPA has delayed some clean energy projects that the nation so badly needs. That’s why aspects of legislation proposed by two Democratic senators, Tom Carper of Delaware and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, which would carve out proposed renewable energy projects from fossil fuel projects for review, deserve careful consideration. Other bills, such as one from 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 corporations, taking us further from our climate goals.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can also do a great deal to bring cleaner energy sources online, including requiring the organizations that run electric transmission systems to favor renewables in their rules for new power sources. But the commission is not fully staffed.

President Biden should immediately nominate someone to fill its remaining seat, and the commission should get to work. It would be even more effective if Congress gave it the authority to decide where transmission lines should go, so long as communities have an opportunity to express concerns. And Congress should significantly increase funding for agencies that write the environmental impact statements required by NEPA, to ensure the environmental review process moves more quickly.

For too long, political compromise has hurt marginalized communities. As the Biden administration and Congress approach a deal on the debt ceiling, they must create a path forward for clean energy sources without sacrificing bedrock environmental protections that mean the difference between a longer, healthier life and lasting environmental damage.

Dr. Robert Bullard is a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. Larry Shapiro is an associate director for program development at the Rockefeller Family Fund.

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