Environmental justice and open internet activists rallied outside the Department of Health and Human Services building in Washington, D.C. on Saturday to urge President Joe Biden to issue a nationwide moratorium on utility shutoffs as the few remaining state-level restrictions are lifted, leaving tens of millions of households vulnerable to losing water, power, and broadband.
Advocacy organizations have been demanding a nationwide ban on "inhumane" utility shutoffs for months as the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crisis have left countless families unable to afford monthly payments. While some states took early action to prevent utility companies from disconnecting customers during the crisis, many of those restrictions have since either expired or been rolled back. Pennsylvania, for instance, is set to lift its limited moratorium on utility disconnections at the end of the month, putting over a million people at risk.
"It's been one year since Covid started ravaging the country, but Congress, the president, and local officials are still not protecting access to life-saving utility services."
—Gaby Sarri-Tobar, Center for Biological Diversity
The federal government, meanwhile, has yet to take sweeping action to prevent utility shutoffs. The newly approved American Rescue Plan includes some funding to assist low-income households struggling to afford water and electricity bills, but that is well short of the national moratorium that advocacy groups are demanding.
"We need a national moratorium on utility shutoffs so everyone has access to water, electricity, and broadband," said Jean Su of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), one of the groups that helped organize Saturday's rally.
In a press release, CBD noted that currently "only nine states and D.C. have moratoria on disconnections."
"But D.C.'s will expire soon unless the city government renews it," the group said. "Almost 72,000 residential D.C. customers owe a collective $30 million in debt to Pepco, the District's Exelon-owned electric utility. Meanwhile, Pepco Holdings reported $81 million in earnings in its fourth quarter."
In DC, 85% of low income residents are in debt to @PepcoConnect. It could not be more clear that we have a utility debt crisis. We need @JoeBiden & @HHSGov to enact a moratorium on utility shutoffs & #CancelUtilityDebt. pic.twitter.com/S0vI0IRLkv
— Jean Su (@ajeansu) March 13, 2021
.@POTUS has the power to issue an executive order mandating that @CDCDirector stop utility shutoffs across the country. It has been ONE YEAR in the pandemic & the time is now! #NoShutoffs pic.twitter.com/7KFDx5ZyQB
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A week before the president took office in January, a diverse coalition of more than 600 advocacy groups implored Biden to support a nationwide moratorium on utility shutoffs, calling the proposal "an important and urgent measure to help slow the spread of Covid-19." The groups even presented Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris with a draft executive order (pdf).
But Biden has not assented to the demand, with the White House agreeing only to support new spending to help families cover unpaid bills that have been piling up since last year.
"It's been one year since Covid started ravaging the country, but Congress, the president, and local officials are still not protecting access to life-saving utility services," Gaby Sarri-Tobar, an energy justice campaigner with CBD, said Saturday. "We urge President Biden and Health and Human Services to put a shutoffs moratorium in place."
"We also need universal utility reform to build a just, equitable energy future where households aren't forced into choosing between keeping their lights on or feeding their families," added Sarri-Tobar.