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EXXONKNEWS: Who the IRA leaves behind
The landmark climate legislation, shaped by a coal baron, keeps frontline communities in harm’s way.
Like Congress, Hill Heat is on vacation this month and will resume our regular programming next week. Today, we’re sharing a recent post from the must-read EXXONKNEWS newsletter, by Emily Sanders, the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act marks the first time ever that the federal government has approved legislation to begin addressing the climate crisis.
In reality, the IRA “is more of an energy bill than a climate bill.” It relies on a series of significant domestic investments and tax rebates meant to speed the transition to clean energy through market forces. But the bill also formalizes a toxic trade-off, allowing corporations to continue offloading the consequences of fossil fuel extraction and pollution onto communities, and it fails to end our country’s addiction to oil and gas.
In an ominous sign, several oil giants, including Exxon, BP and Shell — the same corporations that delayed and dismantled climate action for decades, and who would benefit from such a trade-off — seem rather pleased.
So what exactly is going on here?
Just a few weeks ago, it appeared that U.S. Senator Joe Manchin — who made his fortune through a family coal business and has extensive ties to Big Oil — had outright killed our chance at any climate legislation (read our eulogy here). But the senator — and the fossil fuel corporations that back him — could, apparently, tolerate an investment in clean energy in exchange for a wishlist of grotesquely harmful oil and gas projects in frontline communities (including in Manchin’s home state of West Virginia). And because Manchin was the key 50th vote, the only climate bill this Congress could pass involved drastically expanded leases, handouts, and subsidies for fossil fuel interests, as well as newly drawn permitting processes for oil and gas infrastructure in many of the same regions the industry has already plundered.
“This bill reflects an unjust process, where the voices of communities at the frontlines of fossil fuel production and harm were largely ignored,” said Jean Su, Energy Justice program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “While it contains important renewable-energy funding, the bill’s commitment to massive federal oil and gas expansion is dangerously at odds with scientific reality: We must stop extracting fossil fuels to preserve a livable planet.”
The IRA also does next to nothing to protect vulnerable communities against the climate disasters they already face.
Unlike the original Build Back Better bill, which would have funded much-needed resilience programs like a new Civilian Climate Corps, the IRA includes relatively few investments for communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
That abandonment is already being felt in eastern Kentucky, where catastrophic flash floods killed nearly 40 people last month and inundated entire communities, and where families now face a long road to recovery as they attempt to secure federal funding in competition with climate-ravaged places across the country. Only 2.3 percent of households in the 10 Kentucky counties hit by last month’s flooding have flood insurance.
Districts across eastern Kentucky were forced to delay the start of the school year, which should have begun in mid-August, due to extensive damage from the floods.
“Kentucky, from both sides, is being destroyed by climate disasters that fossil fuel industries are contributing to,” says Kentucky State Representative Attica Scott, whose district includes parts of Louisville. Scott says low-income communities across the entire state are being pummeled by extreme weather events — from the flooding in Eastern Kentucky to last year’s tornadoes in the western part of the state, which killed 74 people and wiped out hundreds of homes.
“And then we turn around and give [fossil fuel companies] a break? That is an insult and a slap in the face to people in Kentucky. Of course we can say [the IRA] is historic, and at the same time, we can acknowledge that there were issues with that bill that we have to call out and address, and say do better.”
Compounding the climate crisis in Kentucky is the brutal form of extraction that led to it. The process of mountaintop removal mining for coal in Appalachia, during which mountaintops are blown up for the cheap fossil fuels underneath, poisons local watersheds, destroys forest ecosystems, and causes soil erosion — all of which made last month’s flooding far more dangerous and severe.
“We shouldn’t ask the same communities that have been destroyed by climate disasters to then, even though they’re living in poverty, try to find the means to clean up after those climate disasters,” said Scott, who is a member of Leaders for Climate Accountability, a network of elected officials pushing to hold oil and gas corporations accountable for climate damages communities are experiencing at the local level. “The polluters need to pay. That’s what justice looks like, it means holding those big businesses and corporations accountable.”
Trapped in an endless cycle of disaster recovery, the communities facing the already-baked-in consequences of decades of fossil fuel emissions will need to find other ways to build resilience. Without help from Congress, local governments can raise taxes — which, as Representative Scott points out, may not be feasible or fair in already struggling low-income communities. Or they can turn to the courts to make polluters help pay for the damage — which is exactly what 27 communities, many of whom are caught between deadly wildfires, heatwaves, storms, and floods, have done.
While we can celebrate the IRA as a dent in the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long grip on our climate politics, the fight for justice and accountability is only just beginning. As Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, told the Washington Post, “It’s clear to me that this is both a big step forward and there’s more work to do.”
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