After U.S. climate bill win, environmental groups turn to permit reform

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FILE PHOTO: U.S President Joe Biden signs two bills aimed at combating fraud in the COVID-19 small business relief programs in Washington

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With President Joe Biden expected to sign a long-negotiated climate spending bill later on Tuesday, environmental groups are turning their focus to their next fight – halting efforts to fast-track permitting for major infrastructure projects like pipelines and highways.

Green groups hailed last week’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and its $369 billion for climate and energy spending. But amid the celebration, some frontline and indigenous groups said they felt betrayed.

For Senate Democrats to win backing from their final holdout – West Virginia’s Joe Manchin – they offered compromises that would boost fossil-fuel production, including a pledge to work on legislation for speeding up the years-long process for infrastructure permits.

Some low-income communities warned that the effort could open the door to hasty approvals for polluting industries without local objections being heard.

“The permit reform bill will be harmful and damaging to environmental justice communities and will eliminate the tools that we do have available to fight back against projects,” said Dana Johnson, senior director of strategy and federal policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

A RIFT EMERGES

The celebration that followed last week’s passage in Congress of the climate bill left environmental justice campaigners cold.

Anthony Rogers-Wright, the environmental justice director at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, resigned from the board of environmental policy group Evergreen Action, which had helped shape the bill. He said he no longer wanted to be part of an organization “taking a victory lap knowing full well the pain this behavior causes.”

It was an abrupt moment after several years of unity, after national green groups vowed in 2020 to focus on addressing racial injustice in the wake of the George Floyd murder by police. Together, U.S. environmental campaigners and grassroots groups fought the deregulatory policies of former President Donald Trump.

Evergreen Action did not comment on Rogers-Wright’s resignation, but executive director Jamal Raad said the group’s work advocating for environmental justice is “far from over.”

“We will continue to work closely with leaders across the climate movement … to stop the buildout of any new fossil-fuel infrastructure and to prevent the erosion of bedrock environmental laws and community participation in the environmental review process,” Raad said.

Johnson, of the group WE ACT, said the best way to rebuild unity and trust within the environmental movement is for all groups to work together on ensuring that frontline communities are protected through the permit process reform.

Current proposals for the reform include setting a two-year limit on the permitting process for major projects under the National Environmental Policy Act, and addressing anti-infrastructure litigation that can drag on for years.

That targets the two ways local communities most often voice opposition – through filing lawsuits challenging projects, or through registering objections during the public-comment process that is a traditional part of NEPA’s approval process.

Also included in the reform proposals is a promise to fast-track the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which runs through Manchin’s state and had been nearly halted due to protests and legal challenges.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the mayor of Nuiqsut City, on Alaska’s North Slope, said the roughly 500 Iñupiat residents she represents need to be consulted as the government weighs a new oil project nearby that she said could affect the community’s hunting grounds as well as their air and water quality.

“It is very important that we are engaged effectively,” she said. “When we are not at the table, the severity of impacts are amplified.”

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici in Washington; Editing by Katy Daigle and Matthew Lewis)

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