Marginalized communities inundated with air pollution could be some of the biggest beneficiaries of the tax and climate bill.
Environmentalists say the bill would bring potentially transformative local air quality gains, despite a tradeoff of benefits to the fossil fuel industry.
Along with climate provisions such as incentives for clean energy and methane reduction, the Inflation Reduction Act (H.R. 5376), carves out a host of funding opportunities for community-level air quality actions in polluted areas. The Senate passed the measure on Aug. 8, and the House is slated to take it up Aug. 12.
The deal—an historic move toward lowering planet-warming emissions by 40% by 2030— also would reduce air pollution through port electrification, the transition to electric vehicles, cleaner household appliance alternatives, and increased community air monitoring.
“If you view the Clean Air Act as, as is often said, the most successful public health law in the history of the United States, then this is sort of a distant out-of-town but cool cousin,” said Gillian Mittelstaedt, executive director of the Tribal Healthy Homes Network, an organization that advocates for healthy indoor air in tribal communities.
‘Huge Health Benefits’
To achieve the gains, Democratic lawmakers had to tussle with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) for months to eke out a deal that also boosts the fossil fuel industry. The legislation would speed up permitting for energy projects, increase fossil fuel exploration, and fast-track a pipeline project that runs through Manchin’s home state of West Virginia.
Those compromises make the bill far from perfect, but the wins for local air quality health in areas overburdened by port and vehicle pollution are worth celebrating, according to Laura Kate Bender, national assistant vice president of healthy air for the American Lung Association.
“When you factor in air pollution reductions in the transition and the upstream impacts, we see huge health benefits even apart from the climate benefits,” Bender said.
Even with the fossil fuel tradeoffs in the IRA, advocates are hopeful about hyper-local air pollution mitigation, especially the prospect of transforming the energy use of low-wealth households not normally targeted for cleaner household appliances and electric cars.
The $369 billion climate package would extend a $7,500 tax credit for new electric vehicles and $4,000 in credit for lower- and middle-income buyers for used EVs. It also would include tax credits for individual consumers to retrofit their homes with energy efficiency measures such as heat pumps, rooftop solar, and electric cooling.
Environmental justice communities would get $3 billion from the bill, which would focus on community air monitoring efforts and climate adaptation. Advocates have long pushed for better air monitoring around facility “fencelines” and in pollution-burdened neighborhoods to fill gaps they say are left by lax enforcement and spotty self-reporting from the companies.
The bill would reduce mobile emissions, diesel emissions, and port emissions, meaning cleaner outdoor and indoor air in communities of color next to industrial facilities, ports, and major roadways, Mittelstaedt added.
Poor indoor air quality remains a thorny issue for pollution mitigation, partly because the US doesn’t regulate indoor air under the Clean Air Act despite global recognition of the harmful impacts of indoor pollution from things like gas-fired stoves and poor ventilation.
Extreme weather exacerbated by climate change is pushing more people indoors more frequently and for longer periods of time. This increases creation and exposure to indoor pollutants, especially in urban heat island environments with poor investment in energy-efficient housing.
Give and Take
The bill still has some notable limitations in its incentives for household energy efficiency, according to several advocates following the measure.
“There was clearly a missing leg in this legislation, because it does not recommend that the energy efficiency measures ensure adequate ventilation infiltration of homes, schools, and buildings,” Mittelstaedt said.
According to an analysis by the Climate and Community Project—a network of policy experts and academics—the bill provides around $9 billion in tax incentives for energy efficiency, but that level of funding won’t fully reach low-income homeowners and renters.
The deal is “visionary and dangerously status quo all at the same time,” according to New York City Environmental Justice Alliance executive director Eddie Bautista, who told Bloomberg Law that the provisions on increased fossil fuel exploration and permitting were big defeats for other environmental justice communities at the edge of such projects.
There is a lot of “existential angst from some of the environmental and climate justice constituencies around the country that are going to be impacted by this,” Bautista said."Not all of us are being impacted favorably”.
Still, for some communities the spending will infuse revenue into underfunded projects that environmentalists have long said are necessary to clean up local air, including state-level climate efforts.
Bautista said that proposed infrastructure in New York’s landmark climate law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, will get a “jump start” from the spending bill while local funding is tied up in the state legislature.
“The IRA giveth, and the IRA taketh away,” Bautista said.
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