House Democrats Push Environmental Justice Bill, Critics Say It Would Raise Energy Prices and Unemployment
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D, Ariz.) concluded his environmental justice tour with a hearing on Thursday to discuss his newly-introduced Environmental Justice for All Act. The bill was praised by community activists, but was harshly criticized by western lawmakers who fear it would be an insurmountable barrier to energy development.
The legislation was drafted with input from a variety of stakeholders, including environmental justice communities, industry, and activist groups.
“The legislation furthers environmental justice objectives in a variety of ways. The bill includes several provisions to ensure more equitable access to parks and recreation opportunities for underserved communities. The bill requires federal agencies to provide early and meaningful community involvement opportunities under NEPA when proposing an action impacting an environmental justice community,” said Grijalva, who explained that the legislation will also improve tribal involvement.
Fellow Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar (R) disagreed with Grijalva’s assessment of the legislation’s impacts, explaining that though the legislation’s goals were “laudable and bipartisan,” it imposed “a slew of new environmental mandates” that would cripple the energy industry and gut state budgets.
“This legislation will impose fees on the oil gas and coal industries and transfers those revenues to communities and workers that have lost conventional energy jobs,” he said. “These new fees will cause unnecessary job losses in the energy sector and ensure that this new revenue stream for economic development systems is ultimately eliminated by destroying the energy industry.”
The legislation expands the regulatory approval process under the National Environmental Policy Act, something that Gosar warned would cause delays in new infrastructure and energy development projects. Gosar predicted that not only would the legislation lower employment in western states and leave communities woefully short of the tax revenues they need to pay for services including roads and schools, it also opened the door for lengthy permitting battles that would stymie development.
“This bill goes a step further and requires federal agencies develop a so-called community impact report assessing potential environmental hazards for any federal action even those where concerns already have been addressed under NEPA, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act,” he continued. “I think common sense tells us that every project that might make a meaningful difference in improving a vulnerable community will be derailed by endless litigation if this bill passes.”
“Can we really afford to take California’s policies nationwide?” Gosar concluded.
Patrick Hollie, president of Reaching America, an organization addressing social issues facing Africa-American communities, including energy security, agreed, speaking of how domestic energy production provides both employment and affordable energy to low-income Americans.
“When the government creates policies its first priority should be the welfare of the people, and with the uncertainty that comes with this virus it would not be prudent to eliminate safe and reliable energy sources like oil and natural gas for unproven and unreliable renewable sources,” said Patrick Hollie, president of Reaching America, an organization addressing social issues facing Africa-American communities, including energy security.
He stressed that misguided environmental justice mandates hurt more than helped vulnerable communities by reducing jobs and raising energy prices. He explained how renewable energy mandates and natural gas bans made affordable housing more difficult to construct, against squeezing low-income Americans.
“Higher electricity prices and diminished access to affordable energy sources are the last things these communities need,” Hollie said.
However, environmental justice activists say that the bill does not go far enough. Dr. Mildred McLain, co-founder and executive director of the Harambe House, told the committee that the Environmental Justice for All Act was a “promising start,” but “systemic injustices” resulting from federal decisions were a large problem.
“NEPA has been a tool for us and this bill reinforces what NEPA is trying to do and what the current administration is trying to roll back,” she said.
Dr. Robert Bullard , professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University, agreed.
“All communities and all zip codes are not created equal. If a community happens to be poor, inhabited largely by people of color, or physically located on the wrong side of the tracks, river, or highway it’s likely to see less protection,” said Bullard, who noted that minorities are more likely to live near Superfund sites.
He spoke of the need to change permitting requirements to consider potential cumulative impacts to human health, to strengthen NEPA regulations, and to invest in public health, including outdoor access.