A controversial fossil fuels deal is paused thanks in part to this Virginia congressman

Politics is all about compromise. Big wins often come with strings attached.

When the Inflation Reduction Act was passed in August, representing the largest investment in climate change in U.S. history, there was one such string. As part of negotiations to push the $485 billion bill through Congress, senior officials in the Democratic Party made a deal with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin in exchange for his vote.

It was a promise to bring forward the Energy Independence and Security Act 2022, which, according to Sen. Manchin’s fellow Democrats, had the potential to bring serious environmental harm to Americans.

That was until the bill was withdrawn late Tuesday night.

While the proposal was something the Republicans had wanted to get passed, both parties showed little interest during recent budget negotiations, and Sen. Manchin withdrew it.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t bring it back. It represents a significant personal agenda to Sen. Manchin, whose state relies on fossil fuel-related jobs and pipelines.

But what does the bill do exactly?

U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, a Democrat from Virginia, spoke to Reckon about the proposed bill and what harm it could bring to Americans if it’s reintroduced in the future.

Can you explain what this bill will do and why you and Democrats oppose it?

The Energy Independence and Security Act is nothing more than a dirty side deal, developed with absolutely no consultation with rank-and-file Democrats in either chamber. The proposal would shortcut the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and our environmental review processes in an attempt to expedite the development and construction of energy infrastructure. Put simply, it would make it easier for harmful fossil fuel projects to be carried out with little consideration for or input from the communities that will be impacted by them.

I am deeply skeptical of this proposal because it makes it easier for corporate polluters to fast track potentially harmful projects that would disproportionately impact vulnerable, low-income communities. Furthermore, I have been working with Natural Resources Chair Grijalva on landmark environmental justice legislation called the Environmental Justice for All Act for over two years. We undertook a historic process to visit environmental justice communities nationwide and solicit feedback, gather input, and tailor our legislation to ensure it serves the people who need it the most – low-income communities, communities of color, and Tribal and Indigenous communities. Among its many provisions, the environmental justice for All Act would strengthen NEPA protections, explicitly direct Washington to engage with impacted communities, and provide them with legal avenues of recourse to confront environmental injustice in their areas.

This process under which the permitting proposal by Sen. Manchin was put together is the antithesis of environmental justice for All and would undermine the progress we have made towards environmental justice. We are at a critical moment, when we should be fighting to empower and uplift the voices and lived experiences of historically underrepresented communities, not further disenfranchising them.

The inflation Reduction Act appears to be a great piece of climate legislation, but will it be worth it if this so-called anti-environment legislation gets passed in the future?

The Inflation Reduction Act is the single largest investment in climate change in our nation’s history. It includes robust investments for clean energy tax provisions, which will help accelerate our nation’s transition to cleaner, greener energy sources; environmental justice priorities, like urban forestry, block grants, electric school buses, improved air pollution monitoring and mitigation; and more. The legislation represents an important turning point in our fight against the climate crisis, and it will firmly set us on the path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – an ambitious climate goal set by the Biden administration and backed by the environmental and scientific communities.

That is all to say that we cannot allow the progress we have made on environmental justice with the IRA to be eroded by this permitting proposal. Recently, I have called on House Leadership to separate the side deal from any must-pass bill, so we can vote based on its own merits. It is a terrible proposal, and it should not be rammed through on a government funding bill or other piece of legislation.

What does it mean for our environment and the communities that will be harmed?

This proposal would drastically limit input from communities and community oversight of energy projects nationwide. Impacted communities would have opportunities to voice their concerns curtailed and timelines for judicial redress compressed. It takes away the people’s power to fight back and would embolden corporate polluters to continue putting profits over the health and well-being of Americans.

We all know our climate is in crisis. We need to be taking immediate steps to help our nation transition to a clean-energy, zero emission future, not providing a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry at the expense of vulnerable communities.

I’ve read that the legislation will expand power lines around the country. Isn’t that key to spreading the use of renewables as well?

It is an important component to renewables and our transition to a clean-energy future, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure we can build out the transmission capacity necessary for this transition. However, the process under which this legislation was conceived has resulted in a bill that would harm the most vulnerable communities and the communities that have historically borne the brunt of energy development in our nation. We cannot strip already vulnerable communities of what power they have in these processes in the name of expedited development of new fossil fuel infrastructure.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) is behind the permitting reform bill. Why is it that a harmful organization like the API can operate and control such important parts of Congress?

For too long, fossil fuel companies have had a disproportionate say on where, why, and how energy projects are constructed. As it exists, the approval process has tilted toward those who stand to gain the most, not the poor families that have to live with the impacts of the projects. It is just another reason why we need to advance the Environmental Justice for All Act.

Will Democrats be asked to vote for it in the future since it was part of a deal to pass IRA?

This proposal is certainly not something I was consulted on. It was developed as a side deal between a select few Members of the Senate with absolutely no consultation with House Members. I feel no responsibility to vote for it when I had nothing to do with it.

Republicans said they won’t vote for the bill. Why do you think that is?

I do not assume to know the inner workings of the Senate Republican party, but my guess is that it is a sort of revenge for Sen. Manchin’s support of the Inflation Reduction Act.

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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