Facing fierce resistance from frontline communities and concerned citizens across the country, Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) withdrew his so called “permitting reform” provision from the must-pass government funding bill Tuesday.
This victory was made possible through weeks of intense grassroots organizing under the leadership of Indigenous and frontline communities. Over 400 scientists and health professionals, including the president of the American Lung Association, sent letters outlining the climate and health risks of Manchin’s permitting bill and called on the Senate to denounce the dirty deal. Last week, leaders of 13 environmental justice organizations participated in civil disobedience protests in Washington D.C and risked arrest. Americans across the country called their Senators, participated in meetings, and urged them to separate Manchin’s harmful provision from the must-pass government funding bill. In the end, 650 environmental justice organizations and 80 members of Congress came out against this provision, and eight Democratic senators called on Senate Majority Leader Schumer to put the permitting reform to a “robust debate.”
While we celebrate this victory for the health of our climate and the well-being of our communities, it is critical that we stay vigilant. Already there is talk that harmful proposals from this bill might be included in future legislation.
Manchin's bill "streamlined" the permitting process for energy projects by implementing the fossil fuel industry’s wish list—undermining the protections of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Clean Water Act (CWA), undercutting opportunities for public comment and Tribal consultation, and setting obstacles to those seeking legal redress. It was an attempt to further silence frontline communities, who even under the current regulatory system bear the inequitable burden of health impacts from fossil fuel pollution.
The permitting "reform" put forth by Manchin would have undercut residents' rights to a healthy environment. People of color are exposed to higher levels of air pollution throughout the country regardless of income level. Black Americans are 75% more likely to live in fenceline communities close to polluting infrastructure. This proximity brings health risks such as heart, lung, and kidney disease, and babies being born with congenital heart defects, amongst many other illnesses. The environmental reform we actually need is one that rights these environmental injustices and guarantees clean air and clean water for all.
The Manchin bill also gave carte blanche to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a methane gas (aka natural gas) pipeline that would have a climate impact equivalent to that of 23 coal plants, recklessly blowing past our already bloated carbon budget. But we cannot afford to build any new fossil fuel projects. In fact, a recent study found that for us to have any chance of holding global heating to just 2.7F (1.5C) degrees, 40% of fossil fuel reserves currently under development need to remain in the ground.
This is not a future problem. The impacts of climate change, the biggest public health crisis of the 21st century, are already here now: deadly extreme heat, poor air quality from wildfires, and extreme weather events threatening displacement and access to healthcare. For our health and that of future generations, we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, starting now.
While many mobilized and organized to oppose Manchin’s give away to the fossil fuel industry, others claimed that passing this bill was simply the price of doing politics: Senator Schumer promised Manchin this "dirty side deal" in exchange for his vote on the Inflation Reduction Act. Putting aside the fact that climate change does not care about our politics, this is the very mindset that has led to Indigenous, low-income and communities of color being turned into sacrifice zones for decades.
If we are serious about a just transition, the task at hand is not only about organizing to fight specific dirty legislations, but also challenging this harmful mindset daily in our practice. We can no longer be satisfied by looking at the bright side of flawed legislations that hurt frontline communities disproportionately. We need to lead with reform that centers the voices of environmental justice communities and scales up renewable energy rapidly. It’s high time we put public health over profits for the fossil fuel industry and honor the promises we have made to frontline communities—and the one we all have made to leave a better world for future generations.