WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
The U.S. is poised to pass its first real climate bill in decades. The Frontline dives into what comes next given the Inflation Reduction Act’s harmful fossil fuel provisions.
Depending on whom you ask, the United States is on the verge of passing one of its most beneficial climate bills—or one of its most harmful. The Inflation Reduction Act is historic, hands down, but it’s also imperfect in the way it continues to prop up the fossil fuel industry at a time when we need to urgently invest in new energy sources.
The Senate voted to pass the bill Sunday (which all Republicans opposed), and it’s now in the hands of the House of Representatives, which is slated to vote on it later this week. For the first time in my lifetime at least, the U.S. government is on course to pass a climate policy that can actually reduce emissions on a national scale—but at what cost?
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re still awaiting climate justice. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. President Joe Biden promised us sweeping climate action, and he finally delivered. However, the Inflation Reduction Act is not built on the foundations of climate and environmental justice. It continues the traumatic legacy of sacrificing Black and Brown communities—of handing over their lives to the fossil fuel sector. Leaders on the frontlines are preparing to fight back.
Since December 2021, organizers in the South had been preparing a campaign to push the Biden administration to include a ban on oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico as part of its five-year offshore drilling plan. Such a ban would not only help reduce greenhouse gas emissions—but it would also protect lives.
There are the rig workers whose workplace deaths are undercounted, according to a 2021 investigation by Sara Sneath for Drilled News, Southerly, and WWNO. There are also the low-income communities made up of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color that are forced to live next door to the oil and gas infrastructure that accompanies such offshore oil and gas development: refineries, export terminals, pipelines.
Already, this part of the country bears a disproportionate amount of air pollution and illness due to fossil fuels. The Inflation Reduction Act promises even more—and environmental and climate justice advocates don’t plan to sit back and allow it.
What’s Inside the Inflation Reduction Act
The bill will revive offshore oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and Arctic that activists had previously beaten in court. The bill also requires that any prospective offshore wind lease sales come only after the government has held oil and gas lease sales on at least 60 million acres. Even wind and solar development on federal lands can come only after leases for oil and gas have been sold on federal lands. This specific part of the Inflation Reduction Act has left climate justice advocates with mixed emotions over its passage through the Senate.
“It’s real bittersweet because it puts Gulf South communities at continued risk from environmental harms,” said Kendall Dix, the national policy director for Taproot Earth, a new international climate organization that originated in the region as the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy.
That’s not to say that the bill, which is likely to pass through Congress this week before heading to the president’s desk for his signature, is all bad. It would invest a whopping $369 billion into energy and climate change—$60 billion of which is earmarked for frontline communities dealing with pollution. If implemented properly, the bill has the potential to reduce cumulative greenhouse gas emissions by about 6.3 billion metric tons over the next decade, according to one analysis from Princeton University.
Another report from the environmental economics think tank Resources for the Future found that the bill’s clean energy provisions may also save American households up to $220 a year over the next decade as it drives down electricity costs. Some 9 million jobs could come out of the bill’s implementation (though they’ll likely go mostly toward men, as Jessica Kutz reported for the 19th).
“We’ve lost some things in compromises over the last year and a half,” said Andie Wyatt, policy director and legal counsel for GRID Alternatives, an organization dedicated to equitable renewable energy deployment. “But there’s still just a ton in here that really does push the energy transition in the direction of clean energy benefiting everyone, including frontline and fenceline communities.”
So, yeah, the bill is full of genuinely awesome opportunities to reduce emissions and help communities embrace a clean energy future. And yet, the Inflation Reduction Act also doubles down on fossil fuels when scientists have made clear that policymakers need to do the opposite. The impacts will be hardest felt in the Gulf and Arctic where these fossil fuel lease sales are planned. That’s what’s left frontline communities feeling enraged, heartbroken, scared, and betrayed.
“We come from strong people,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which advocates for the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “We come from people who survived some of the coldest, harshest winters, and they fought to survive so that we can be here. We owe that same dedication and respect to our future generations.”
As Kate Aronoff wrote for The New Republic, the climate movement’s recent success is largely due to progressive young organizers who have taken bold action to propel forward public support of climate policy through the Green New Deal framework—from the 2016 Standing Rock uprising in North Dakota to the 2018 sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Now, their demands to protect the most vulnerable have been ignored. We have a climate bill that promises to save most while sacrificing some. It continues the legacy of environmental racism that has plagued Black and Brown Americans for decades.
“We have a serious dichotomy where we say, Here is a grant to improve your communities, but we are also going to have to give you some additional pollution if you want those resources,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, the executive vice president for the National Wildlife Federation, where he focuses on environmental justice. “There has to be a moment when Black and Brown folks no longer carry the burdens for others’ lifestyle choices and comforts.”
This reality underlines why the Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition of 82 groups across the globe, ultimately chose to oppose the Inflation Reduction Act. This wasn’t a decision organizers took lightly.
“We have always taken a position that centers the health and well-being of frontline communities,” said Ozawa Bineshi Albert, the alliance’s co-executive director. “To combat climate change, we have to phase out fossil fuels—not cater to the profit interests of the dying and outdated dirty energy industry. There are far too many false solutions [in the bill] that continue to bring harm to frontline communities.”
Though some groups haven’t taken a clear stance against the bill, they aren’t supporting it, either. Taproot Earth, for instance, hasn’t yet chosen to oppose or support the bill. “We are truthfully saying what the good parts of the bill are and what the bad parts of the bill are,” Dix said. Healthy Gulf, an environmental group focused on the Gulf South, supports the bill’s clean energy provisions but opposes its oil and gas pieces. There, organizers are especially concerned about the Inflation Reduction Act’s investment in carbon capture and storage technologies—a “poison pill,” as described by Executive Director Cynthia Sarthou.
“Those kinds of trade-offs are not acceptable for any frontline community.”
Research has not yet proven the effectiveness of these technologies, yet the bill offers tax benefits to those who pursue carbon capture and storage projects (i.e., fossil fuel companies). The Inflation Reduction Act’s promised emissions reductions also rely on the deployment of such tech, which has largely been relegated to the already-industrialized south. Louisiana has even been called the “carbon capture capital of the South.” Companies in the state are using the tech to help sell new dirty projects rather than cleaning up their existing ones, advocates argue. The tech is continuing the harmful industrialization of their communities and is not safe, as laid out in a 2021 HuffPost story on a carbon dioxide pipeline rupture that sickened a community.
“We’d like to see them reduce pollution at the source rather than try to capture it and put it back in the ground,” said Dustin Renaud, the communications director for Healthy Gulf. “It just seems like a really roundabout way to pollute our communities more.”
None of this, however, is set in stone. That’s worth remembering. In the bill’s implementation, advocates will have the opportunity to speak out against local projects that attempt to come out of the bill—including carbon capture and storage facilities. The same is true for oil and gas lease sales. Though the bill mandates lease sales, it doesn’t explicitly mandate that drilling occur on these leases.
As Grist reported, if oil and gas companies are smart, they won’t spend time and money exploring the Gulf or the Arctic. They’ll go where they know there’s oil and gas—and where opposition won’t be so high. Once a company buys leases, projects can take years (if not a decade or more) to culminate. That leaves activists with plenty of time to build resistance—either in the courts or on the ground. Campaigns to target banks and the financing of projects have also created a landscape where investors are nervous to attach their names to controversial developments. For instance, many U.S. banks have pledged to keep their dollars out of Arctic drilling projects.
“There are two global and major centers of power in this country,” said Alec Connon, the co-director of the Stop the Money Pipeline coalition, which hasn’t taken a stance on the bill. “There is Washington, D.C., and then there’s Wall Street.”
Organizers are already preparing for the fight to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a roughly 300-mile gas pipeline that tears through the Appalachian Mountains. Though local advocates had essentially killed the project in the courts, Sen. Joe Manchin—whose corruption and loyalty to fossil fuel donors have long delayed climate action—gave his vote for the Inflation Reduction Act with the agreement that Congress would pass a separate bill later this session. The draft text for that bill suggests it would weaken environmental regulations and bolster future oil and gas projects across the nation—like the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
“Those kinds of trade-offs are not acceptable for any frontline community,” said Russell Chisholm, the Mountain Valley watch coordinator for Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights, a coalition dedicated to stopping the pipeline. “People following the discussion and debate that’s going to happen around this bill should be asking whose pet project comes next.”
How Frontline Organizers Are Responding
Before this particular sector of the climate movement can begin looking ahead, they have to first grapple with immediate needs. Top of the list is rebuilding the movement, said Rev. Lennox Yearwood, the president and CEO of grassroots-led Hip Hop Caucus, whose history began with the racist fallout of Hurricane Katrina.
The response to the Inflation Reduction Act has severely fractured the movement. Some groups have celebrated the bill and refused to call out its shortcomings, abandoning those who will feel its harm. That’s not what solidarity looks like.
For the movement to go forward, there needs to be a space for healing and reconciliation—but that won’t be easy.
“There’s a tremendous amount of pain right now in the movement,” Yearwood said. “How do you rebuild the movement now?”
There’s also the bill’s implementation. The Inflation Reduction Act offers plenty to marginalized communities, in theory, but they need to know what’s available if they’re going to access those resources. That’s why the next step for Indigenous rights organization NDN Collective will be community education and awareness.
“There’s a lot of dollars and resources in this bill available for organizations, and that’s a really exciting opportunity to take advantage of,” said Jade Begay, the collective’s climate justice campaign director. “We’re making sure that our constituency and our people know what is in here and how to access it and how to use it to our advantage.”
A long fight remains after the healing and community engagement work. The bill is one piece of the climate puzzle. President Biden holds executive powers that he’s still not used. Advocates are hoping that he may make a play once the Inflation Reduction Act is secured. They’re demanding he finally declare a climate emergency. This would open the door for the U.S. government to reject new fossil fuel projects. It would also unlock federal powers to bolster renewable energy development and end fossil fuel exports. The federal government may have to go to court to protect its actions, yet organizers need Biden to take that risk.
“What is the executive branch going to do to mitigate those lease sales from happening?” said Adrien Salazar, the policy director for Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, which brings U.S. climate justice voices to the international stage. “That’s where it’s really up to the administration to show whether it has the courage to stand up for frontline communities.”
“How are we going to organize to get Manchin out of that decision-making seat?”
Speaking of the courts, advocates fully expect to challenge the problematic parts of the bill in the courts. They may also fight the permits and proposals of specific projects this way, too. Though we’ve seen how the courts can fail, the courts are a tool in the toolkit—and the moment calls for an all-of-the-above approach to defend the most vulnerable communities from further fossil fuel encroachment. Santiago Ali of the National Wildlife Federation suggested that groups assess the bill’s discriminatory components and litigate using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
The courts are only one avenue, though. There’s also, of course, the polls. Midterm elections hit full speed come November. In 2024, the White House will be up for grabs, too. The main focus, however, should be on local and state elections, which have a direct impact on individuals.
“We will have to use our organizing and voting power to address new or amended actions and laws on the state level,” Santiago Ali said.
NDN Collective has got its eyes on one office, in particular: Manchin’s.
“This is Manchin’s doing,” Begay said. “How are we going to organize to get Manchin out of that decision-making seat?”
For the Hip Hop Caucus, there’s a desire to attack the fossil fuel industry’s pockets. The industry has got its prospects set on petrochemicals for the future. The goal is to stop the expansion of these projects so that the industry can stop growing. Once the shift to renewables takes off, the fossil fuel industry won’t die—not if its petrochemical ventures into single-use plastics and fertilizers succeed.
That’s what will ultimately save people: resistance. Throughout the environmental movement’s history, that has always been the case. The Inflation Reduction Act won’t end that. It demands that people keep putting themselves at risk at a time when protest is becoming more and more criminalized. That’s what’s so painful about this moment. In many ways, the movement has come so far, yet it’s left behind the same people it always does.
And yet, we must prevail. Giving up is not an option. For some, the Inflation Reduction Act is a win. For many others, it marks another battle in a very long and tiring war. People will have to take direct action and put their bodies on the line—because the reality is, their lives already are.