Compromises in Democrats' climate bill will hit communities facing most pollution hardest, critics say

Critics question whether the Inflation Reduction Act will help people of color and low-income communities as intended.

The community surrounding the Port of Los Angeles would benefit from pollution mitigation and clean-energy initiatives in the Inflation Reduction Act, said Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán, a supporter of the legislation who represents the Southern California port area.
Bill Keveney

The late addition of oil and gas initiatives to the Inflation Reduction Act helped Democrats pass the sweeping legislation, but advocates for people of color and low-income communities fear the compromise will harm those groups.

The act is the U.S. government's biggest effort yet to fight climate change, and it makes a targeted attempt to help groups historically hit hardest by the pollution fueling global warming — especially communities located by emissions-producing ports, highways and industrial facilities.

Those emissions not only warm the Earth, they also contribute to health consequences. But transitioning to greener transportation and industry has proven a costly and controversial challenge.

The IRA, signed into law by President Biden earlier this month, includes about $370 billion in climate-related initiatives, with $60 billion aimed at assisting communities of color and low-income populations, who tend to live closest to ports, highways and industrial plants as a result of redlining and other historical discrimination.

It also included fossil fuel concessions, which provide for oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska and preference ahead of solar and wind projects on millions of acres of public land. Those were added to ensure the support of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, for a bill that needed the support of all Senate Democrats in the face of total Republican opposition. The fossil fuel provisions will lead to more emissions, which are likely to be felt more by communities already most affected by pollution and climate change, advocates say.  

The concessions are "unacceptable," said Nicole Wong of the Greenlining Institute, a research group that advocates for communities of color in relation to the challenges of climate change.

"Even if we make these big gains when it comes to investing in renewable energy (and) clean transportation, which needs to happen and we support, it shouldn't come at the expense of low-income communities of color who are going to be suffering the brunt of oil and gas pollution," she said. 

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Climate bill set out to help areas near high-emission ports, freeways

Aid for frontline communities, those located closest to pollution sources and suffering the greatest harm from climate change, was baked into The Inflation Reduction Act.

Its overarching objectives include bringing the U.S. closer to greenhouse gas emissions-reduction goals for 2030 and encouraging renewable energy use. But major elements of the law set out to address historic disparities that led to pollution in frontline communities.

The act includes funds for housing and transportation programs to help reduce people's energy bills, local job creation efforts in renewable-energy technologies and cleanup of fossil fuel pollution at ports and near industrial areas. 

Environmental justice priorities in the law include $3 billion for zero-emission equipment and technology at ports; $3 billion for climate justice block grants to address the disproportionate environmental and public health harms in disadvantaged neighborhoods; and $3 billion to reconnect neighborhoods divided by infrastructure barriers and harmed by crowded, polluting transportation routes, long a problem for neighborhoods populated by people of color.

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Those living in frontline communities may benefit from a rebate that now extends to used electric vehicles ($4,000) instead of just new ones ($7,500), said Matt Petersen, CEO of Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), a non-profit pursuing initiatives and technology to create a green economy. The rebate aspect is a improvement over tax credits offered in the past, which required the buyer to have a significant tax bill and wait many months to get the money back.

"That's going to be very tangible, because even if gas is only $3 or $4 a gallon, instead of $5 a gallon, that's such a huge expense for a lot of folks," especially those who have to drive long distances to work, he said. "And a rebate allows you to make it part of the financing of the vehicle … and use that toward the down payment." 

Although the act does not include significant money for public transit and alternate transportation, such as electric bicycles, the rebates and other elements could benefit ride-share and other transportation programs that have become popular in frontline communities, he said.

U.S. Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, D-California, whose bills on ports and climate justice were incorporated into the IRA, said the legislation will provide targeted help to those facing the harshest consequences of pollution and climate change. 

"We are long overdue for climate and clean energy investments. What it means for low-income communities, communities of color is that it's going to help reduce air pollution, it's going to improve public health and it will lower energy costs," she said.

Barragán, whose district includes the Port of Los Angeles and truck-crowded freeways, said she is disappointed with the fossil fuel provisions but that the legislation marks a milestone in the battle against climate change.

"We have to take the progress from this bill and its historic investments in climate, making sure that those dollars are going out to the community and (that) they're used for the intended purpose of going zero-emission and clean energy," she said. "This is a step in the right direction, but we still need to do more."

A long-term Southwestern drought, fueled by climate change, is evident in this photo that show the "bathtub ring," evidence of falling water levels, at New Mexico's Elephant Butte Reservoir in mid-August. The climate change provisions of the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act is designed to counter environmental damage.

Climate bill just 'a down payment' for hard-hit communities, critic says

Beyond the concessions made to secure Manchin's vote, critics say the law doesn't go far enough to help frontline communities.

The $60 billion – an analysis by the Just Solutions Collective pegs direct benefits at just $47.5 billion – isn't nearly enough to meet the White House's stated commitment to marginalized communities, critics say. They also question whether those groups will get access to the full amount available when the law is implemented.

The legislation is a "mixed bag" that doesn't go far enough to provide frontline communities with the assistance needed to mitigate many years of neglect, said Sacoby Wilson, a University of Maryland public health professor and director of the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health.

"The $60 billion for environmental justice? It's a down payment. It's not what the communities deserve who have been dumped on for decades after decades after decades. It should be five times that much as a start," he said, adding that it should be closer to the amount in last year's much larger Build Back Better bill.

Wilson also wants jobs created by the focus on renewable energy and other technologies to be centered in disadvantaged communities that traditionally haven't received such benefits.

Another element drawing concern is a provision for tax credits for carbon capture and storage. The technology separates carbon dioxide, a major contributor to warming temperatures, from industrial processes before the gas gets into the atmosphere. It's then stored in underground geologic formations.

Environmental justice advocates criticize carbon capture's inclusion, saying it encourages continued reliance on fossil fuels without having a proven track record, leaving the most vulnerable communities at risk of more pollution. 

"(Carbon dioxide) gets captured and then it goes in a pipeline and travels across communities to get processed. … We know from other initiatives that (there are) risks to piping it across country and then what does that mean for the communities where there might be a leak or spill?" said Ozawa Bineshi Albert, co-executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance, which advocates for frontline communities.

Indigenous people are especially concerned about the transportation of carbon dioxide through their communities, along with the pollution dangers posed by leasing and drilling in Alaska and on rural public lands, said University of Michigan professor Kyle Whyte, director of the school's Tishman Center for Social Justice and the Environment.

"Those provisions are extremely stressful to tribal communities and affect native people's health," he said.

Meanwhile, the legislation's conservative critics have a wholly different set of concerns.

Congressional Republicans voted against the IRA, with conservatives saying its favoring of renewable energy over oil and gas will raise fuel prices and discourage business investment, hurting the same lower-income groups the act's supporters say they are trying to help.

"It's going to ensure that longer-term energy costs in these communities are going to be higher," said Joel Griffith, research fellow with The Heritage Foundation.

But for advocates fighting for cleaner air in frontline communities, the passage of the legislation is just a start.

Maryland's Wilson sees the IRA's passage in increasingly gridlocked Washington as "a small positive step" on which to build. And, whatever the law's drawbacks, he said the focus should now be on making sure communities that have felt the biggest brunt of pollution, climate change and environmental racism receive the money and support they are due.  

"We have to make sure the implementation doesn't lead to more environmental injustice, more climate injustice, that we can push in the fall to elect people who are going to keep pushing forward to make sure we're getting more dollars to address this," he said. The Black community "has been dealing with environmental racism for hundreds of years."