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With Build Back Better on back burner, Dems fire up environmental justice

New legislation carves out resources for communities that are disproportionately left to shoulder the burden of climate change and pollution.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Facing the all-but-certain death of the $1.85 trillion Build Back Better Act, Democrats are pushing to get parts of their climate agenda formalized into law.

The House Natural Resources Committee met Tuesday to consider the Environmental Justice for All Act, legislation first introduced in 2020 and revived now in the wake of the failure by Democrats to unite behind the Build Back Better Act, which would have invested massively in the fight against climate change and transition to clean energy.

The bill would authorize $75 million a year for environmental justice and public health grants, require federal agencies approving permits to consider health problems that could arise, and encourage a transition to alternative energy sources by making oil, gas and coal companies pay fees.

A unique provision of the legislation would also reverse the Supreme Court’s 2001 ruling in Alexander v. Sandoval, which found that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not give people the right to sue based on disparate impacts.

This reversal would create a pathway to court remedies for communities of color and low-income communities that disproportionately shoulder the burdens of pollution and climate change.

"It's based on a very simple principle and premise — all people have the right to clean air, clean water and an environment that enriches their lives. Far too many across our country, for all those people, these rights are not realized or, in fact, acknowledged," Democratic Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, chairman of the committee, said of the legislation he sponsored.

People of color in the United States are more likely to live near landfills, toxic waste sites and in places with contaminated water than non-Hispanic white people.

A recent EPA study found that people of color across the country and across all income levels are disproportionately exposed to higher rates of air pollution and fine particulate matter in the air that can cause severe heart and lung issues.

Communities of color also bear the brunt of climate change.

With a 2-degree Celsius rise in global warming, Black people in the U.S. are 34% more likely than non-Black people to live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma and 40% more likely to live in places with the highest projected increases in deaths from extreme temperatures, according to the EPA.

Representative Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, speaks during a committee meeting considering the Environmental Justice Act on Feb. 15, 2022. (Screenshot via Courthouse News)

But Republicans on the committee rejected Democrats' emphasis on racial disparities, accusing lawmakers of using it as a mere political tactic.

"I joined this hearing largely out of curiosity over how the leftist majority can turn anything, even natural resources policy, into a racial issue," said Representative Ronald McClintock, a Republican from California.

Representative Jared Huffman, a Democrat from California, pushed back against McClintock, asserting that race has always been intertwined with the history of American economic growth and its environmental repercussions.

"The story of economic development for most of our country's history is that people with money in power, who were always white, did what they wanted and the impacts were borne by people without money and power, who were generally Black, Brown and indigenous," Huffman said.

GOP members also critiqued the bill by focusing in on ConocoPhillips' Willow Project, a massive oil project planned for North Slope, Alaska, that was sent back to approving agencies for review after a judge found the government had not thoroughly assessed its environmental impacts.

Republicans wielded the project as an example of Democrats using environmental protections to shut down projects that could fuel local economies.

Harry Brower Jr., mayor of North Slope Borough, Alaska, told the committee that 95% of his community's income comes from the oil and gas industry and he was never consulted about the Willow Project.

"Here we have an effort to take away local control, and we have wealthy environmental groups that want to advance the green fantasy on America, where we're only going to run on windmills and solar panels," Representative Tom Tiffany, a Republican from Wisconsin, said.

Representative Pete Stauber, a Republican from Minnesota, expressed his opposition to the legislation, arguing its fees on fossil fuel companies would keep gas prices high and hurt the economy.

"When Americans want to get back to work, it creates more red tape. When Americans are getting gouged at the pump, it doubles down on their pain by increasing the cost of production. And then, when it claims to speak to so-called environmental justice, it plainly misses the mark. For starters, it creates more opportunities for radical special interest groups to do what they do best, that is to file lawsuits and get their lawyers paid while keeping workers on the benches," Stauber said.

Dr. Nicky Sheats, director of the Center for the Urban Environment at the John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research at Kean University, said Stauber's focus on the community-driven areas of the bill was misplaced.

"Think about the pressure that ill people put on our health system and the cost of caring for these people. Even though in our communities they tend to not have as much health care as in other communities, this is still imposing costs on our society. Now, the ultimate costs are being borne by folks in these communities because they're the ones getting ill. And you know, what we're saying is that these people should not be sacrificed anymore. That is not fair and it's unconscionable," Sheats said.

Environmental justice has been a pillar of President Joe Biden's agenda and driver of his Justice40 Initiative, a series of environmental policies that promise disadvantaged communities access to at least 40% of federal investments in climate and clean energy.

But the doomed fate of the Build Back Better Act is now a problem for Democrats' push to pass environmental justice legislation in the face of widespread Republican opposition.

The massive social and climate spending package was a reconciliation bill, meaning it was exempt from the filibuster. But smaller individual bills, such as the Environmental Justice for All Act, aren't so lucky, making the filibuster a substantial obstacle against Democrats' agenda as Republicans remain largely opposed to legislation aimed at combatting climate change.

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