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Democrats’ Environmental Justice Bill Approved by House Panel

July 28, 2022, 12:08 AM

Environmental justice legislation that would put the cumulative impacts of air and water pollution for marginalized communities front and center for environmental permitting was approved Wednesday by the House Natural Resources panel on a party-line vote.

The Environmental Justice For All Act (H.R. 2021), introduced in March 2021 by Committee Chair Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), advanced in a 26-21 vote.

Democrats voted down most of the roughly two dozen Republican amendments offered, the bulk of which were meant to weaken the broad legislation Grijalva revised last week into a substitute amendment, making minor changes.

The bill would apply new fees to oil, gas, and coal companies to help communities transition away from fossil fuel economies. It would amend Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, upending U.S. Supreme Court precedent and clearing the way for citizens to more easily sue over environmental discrimination, and direct federal agencies to give greater weight to the pollution burden of permitting decisions on marginalized communities.

McEachin and other Democrats said Wednesday marginalized communities have for too long borne the brunt of pollution with few tools to force regulatory agencies to consider health and other impacts from nearby chemical plants, refineries, and other industrial operations.

The Natural Resources Committee markup was the first time expansive environmental justice legislation has been approved by a congressional panel, though the outlook for further progress including passage by either chamber is unclear. There has been little progress on a Senate companion bill (S. 872) introduced by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) in 2021.

Grijalva told Bloomberg Law he is pressing House Democratic leaders for a floor vote shortly after Labor Day, once some jurisdictional issues between his panel and two others—House Judiciary and the Energy and Commerce Committee—are resolved.

“My ask is simple, and leadership knows about it—we are asking for a September up or down vote on the floor,” he said. The jurisdictional issue centers on bill provisions requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to examine cumulative impacts for disadvantaged communities before issuing or renewing water and air pollution permits, Grijalva said.

The thornier jurisdictional conflict is with the Energy and Commerce panel, the chairman said, which has primary authority over changes to federal clean air and clean water legislation. Grijalva noted that many of the bill’s biggest backers in his committee, including McEachin, are also Energy and Commerce members and that the bill was modeled after a state landmark environmental justice law passed in New Jersey in 2020, home to Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone (D).

Energy Cost Concerns

Republicans decried provisions in Grijalva’s bill to apply new fees to oil, gas, and coal production to help communities transition to greener alternatives, saying the higher costs would drive up already high energy and fuel prices. They also warned the bill’s proposal to give EPA new authority to deny water discharge and air pollution permits would trigger burdensome litigation.

“For starters, it creates more opportunities for special interest groups to do what they do best and file lawsuits and get their lawyers paid,” while adding layers of complexity and costly delays for projects that could help economically stressed communities, said Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn.).

Other Republicans cast the legislation as divisive, saying its attempt to give additional considerations to marginalized communities conflicts with the nation’s history of providing equal justice under the law. “This only serves to divide Americans based on race, wealth, ethnicity, and many other factors,” said Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.).

Panel Democrats added a handful of amendments while rejecting Republican efforts to water down the measure. An amendment by Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) broadening the bill’s definition of communities of color to include those of Middle Eastern and North African descent, was approved by voice vote.

Also approved by voice vote was McEachin’s amendment strengthening requirements for reviewing cumulative impacts of pollution in environmental permitting under the National Environmental Policy Act. It would strengthen provisions already in Grijalva’s bill that would require agencies to provide early and meaningful community input when a project impacts an environmental justice community.

The committee also adopted several relatively minor Republican proposals, including an amendment by Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) approved by voice vote to require an examination of whether low-income, other disadvantaged communities, and senior citizens have access to reliable energy sources and affordable electricity.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bloombergindustry.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergindustry.com