Don’t let communities lose power that helps ensure environmental justice

What’s at stake is the process for protecting our air, water and land from what may be irreparable environmental harm. The fight is so important that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has tied it to the debt ceiling crisis, Ben Jealous writes.

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Activists work to untether an inflated replica of Earth for an Earth Day march at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. on April 22.

Activists work to untether an inflated replica of Earth for an Earth Day march at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. on April 22.

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Picture a mountain valley somewhere in the Alleghenies, Appalachians or Blue Ridge. It’s a safe bet what you just imagined didn’t include a metal pipeline more than three feet wide running down a steep ridge or crossing a pristine stream.

People from West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and several Indigenous nations have been fighting for years to keep that image from becoming a reality by opposing the incongruously named, 303-mile-long Mountain Valley Pipeline across their states and ancestral lands. They’ve been so successful, in fact, that some in Congress want to take away their power to oppose a project that’s recorded hundreds of clean water violations alone.

It’s part of a bigger fight that goes by the mundane-sounding name “permitting reform” that’s playing out in Washington right now. While that description isn’t as stirring as “Star Wars” missile defense or “the Great Society,” the decision being made will determine how the nation can exert oversight on big projects from pipelines to manufacturing plants to minimize their damage to the planet. Some of them may go on federal lands, and many of them will be financed by hundreds of billions that the federal government will invest in infrastructure and clean energy in the next decade.

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It’s a fight so important that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has tied defaulting on the country’s debt to resolving it.

“This is more than just about the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” Maury Johnson, a retired educator and farmer from West Virginia, who’s a leader in the opposition, told a reporter. “This is about the Gulf Coast, North Alaska and every community that has been sacrificed for decades. We can’t continue to sacrifice communities and people.”

If we called it “protection reform,” it might be easier to understand. What’s at stake is the process for protecting our air, water and land from what may be irreparable harm. Some want to erode environmental safeguards that have been in place for more than 50 years and reduce the time allotted to determine the impact the new projects will have during their decades-long lifespan. Some want to treat dirty fossil fuel industries in the same way we think about new clean energy businesses. The fast lane needs to be reserved for renewable energy and the transmission infrastructure to distribute it.

Environmental safeguards are worth the economic cost

We also could call it “participation reform.” President Joe Biden is pushing for greater consultation with communities that will be closest to new projects, and transparency about their locations. Opponents want to extend exclusions that would allow plans to bypass any meaningful public voice, particularly for the Mountain Valley Pipeline project. They even want to limit the ability of communities to challenge projects in court.

Those who are most strident about permitting reform argue that the safeguards we have in place or seek to add come at too high an economic price. Faster approvals will lead to lower energy prices sooner, they claim. But the falling prices of renewable energy show otherwise.

The costs that are too high are not to determine environmental impacts and prevent those most affected from having their say. We know that it’s the poor, people of color, and Native peoples who live in the communities that pay the highest price for these projects. The Biden administration has moved to acknowledge indirect and cumulative impacts on climate and environment as well as direct ones. Under former President Donald Trump, the federal government limited the analyses to only the most blatant damage.

The argument comes down to expediency versus existence. We’ve been careening toward a warmer planet with less biodiversity since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. We’ve subsidized destructive industries by rendering people and places disposable, failing to consider them during project planning. That’s what we can no longer permit.

Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

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