Dozens of U.S. House Democrats are calling on party leadership to renege on a deal made with U.S. Senator Joe Manchin to revise environmental permitting requirements for energy projects in return for his votes on key pieces of the Democrats’ climate and tax agenda passed over the summer.
More than 70 Democrats signed onto a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer Friday afternoon calling on leadership to back out of the agreement, which would loosen public comment and permitting requirements for projects under the oversight of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
NEPA, which was passed during the administration of Richard Nixon in 1970, contains numerous bedrock environmental protections that require judicious review of significant energy projects with the potential to create pollution, in order to examine the potential health and environmental implications of those projects. However, energy producers have described the process as overly bureaucratic and have long sought reforms to the legislation they believed were necessary to bring down the costs of completing energy projects and easing uncertainties in the market.
In particular, the provisions of NEPA have served to stall high-priority projects like the Mountain Valley Pipeline between West Virginia and Virginia, which Manchin has long desired. However, the changes would also impact other high-priority projects, setting them up for fast-tracked federal review.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has emphasized the Inflation Reduction Act’s $369.75 billion in appropriation for various energy security and climate change programs over the next decade in a statement after the deal was struck, alongside other legislative victories including a three-year extension of the expanded Affordable Care Act program.
Any changes to the law, however, have long been nonstarters with environmental groups and Democrats. Manchin’s changes, lawmakers argued, would potentially allow various manufacturing and energy development projects to be “rushed through” before residents in the areas they affect are even aware of the plans.
“We remain deeply concerned that these serious and detrimental permitting provisions will significantly and disproportionately impact low-income communities, indigenous communities, and communities of color,” the letter reads. “The inclusion of these provisions in a continuing resolution, or any other must-pass legislation, would silence the voices of frontline and environmental justice communities by insulating them from scrutiny. Such a move would force Members to choose between protecting EJ communities from further pollution or funding the government.”
Environmental groups praised the letter shortly after its release while blaming budgetary cutbacks, rather than the law itself, for the long delays projects experience getting off the ground.
“The health and voice of our communities are more important than any Washington insider deal,” Earthjustice Legislative Director of the Healthy Communities Program Raúl Garcia said in a statement. “The permitting side deal is a trojan horse to harm our health and silence the voices of communities from having a say in the projects built in their neighborhoods. While it is imperative we quickly transition away from the fossil fuels that continue exacerbating the climate crisis, we must not do so on the backs of low-income communities and communities of color.”
If Pelosi declines to renege on the deal, Democrats could potentially vote against passage of a final deal, forcing a government shutdown.