The debt ceiling deal, officially known as the Fiscal Responsibility Act that passed Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in early June, included a “permitting reform” provision that opponents call West Virginia “Sen. Joe Manchin’s Dirty Deal.” The measure had nothing to do with the debt ceiling itself but made critical changes to the nation’s bedrock environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA, passed by Congress in 1970.
NEPA gave communities impacted by all manner of development projects a real voice in trying to stop or change those projects they deemed harmful to their health or environment. Besides requiring completion of the fracked gas Mountain Valley pipeline in Virginia and West Virginia, and reducing the time allowed for and the extent of reviews, the core requirements of NEPA would be amended to limit the government’s obligation to consider environmental impacts to those that are “reasonably foreseeable.”
Between The Line’s Melinda Tuhus spoke with Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of Uprose, an environmental justice organization based in Brooklyn, New York, and board co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance, a network of more than 70 community-based organizations. Here she discusses the changes that weakened the NEPA in the debt ceiling deal.
[Web editor’s note: The audio version of this interview has been edited for broadcast time constraints.]
ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: We know that the president signed the Fiscal Responsibility Act June 3, not that long ago. And then less than five days later, on June 7, the sky is orange in NYC, and those of us from environmental justice communities are struggling to breathe inside our very homes. I think it’s important to put those two things together for people to understand that we’re talking about protections for fossil fuel companies when we need statutory support and protections, when it’s literally our communities that need more, not less, and our communities that are literally choking from the consequences of the extractive economy.
What this piece of this statutory thing did was it literally took advantage of the moment, right? It took advantage of a moment necessary to avoid a government shutdown to chip away at environmental protections, including making the first statutory changes to NEPA in nearly 40 years, which, as you discussed, now makes it easier for projects to get permitting and reduces federal oversight on the environment. And so there are a lot of consequences as a result of that, right?
We know that the permitting reforms are in the service of pipelines and sustaining the extractive economy and the fossil fuel industry, and that the changes to NEPA help fast-track things like the Mountain Valley pipeline by streamlining the permitting process, including limiting community input on fossil fuel projects.
So, while people can sort of get lost in the pages (of the law), what it means for us is that they are fast-tracking protections for the fossil fuel industry at the moment when scientists are telling us that we have seven years before extreme weather events – and we’re seeing this now, right?
We’re seeing the lack of protection of wetlands and how that affects places in the Gulf South, in Puerto Rico and even in Brooklyn. And so, this makes it more challenging for communities that have already been challenged as a result of the legacy of environmental racism. So it is really concerning and it is really important to talk about how this is going to have an impact on our ability not just to survive but to thrive.
MELINDA TUHUS: Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute. It says for bigger projects the Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, have to be completed within two years and for smaller projects that only need a smaller assessment, the Environmental Assessment, or EA, has to be completed in one year. That sounds kind of reasonable. Shouldn’t we be able to figure out these things within two years or one year? Is there anything inherently wrong with trying to speed things up so we can get – including green projects – up on the grid?
ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: (Sigh) That’s a good question, except even peer-reviewed studies show that some of these project delays happen because of a lack of opportunities for stakeholder consultation and this particular piece really strips us of meaningful community engagement. It is difficult sometimes to get communities engaged quickly. You have to think about who people in our communities are. They are working two and three jobs; they have two or three children; they are dealing with everything from extreme policing to ICE raids. And now we have to ask them to weigh in on the disparate impact of emissions on their health. And so it takes them a minute to process the information; it takes us some time to break it time and make it accessible and digestible so that they could then weigh in as equals in terms of decision-making in terms of its impact.
So, fast almost always works for deeply privileged communities and a pace that really works with our communities provides them with access and opportunities to weigh in in meaningful ways. This does not do that. This is an homage to the power of the fossil fuel industry and the lack of backbone of the administration to declare a climate emergency.
There is this way of referring to us as the No People, the people who fight against everything, when we are really led by a vision about how to deal with renewable energy, a plan for Congress on how we can build a just renewable energy system that prioritizes energy conservation, distribution, and responsibly sited energy. All of those things are our vision for the future. We’re not just saying No; we’re saying we’ve got alternatives that are viable, that are operational. A just transition is not just aspirational; it’s operational and we should be funding it.
And then there’s this misleading message that somehow this is funding for renewable energy and we should be happy about that. But the impact on renewable energy is dwarfed by how they are supporting the fossil fuel industry. And so it’s sort of like a misleading statement, giving people the impression that somehow we don’t see what’s good. We see it, we just think it’s small and is dwarfed in comparison to the investments in the fossil fuel industry and the harm that the fossil fuel industry is doing and will continue to do.
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