U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the Grand Staircase of the White House in Washington, D.C. on May 24, 2023. ​

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the Grand Staircase of the White House in Washington, D.C. on May 24, 2023.

(Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Progressives Rip Effort to Insert Dirty Deal Into Debt Ceiling Hostage Agreement

"These dangerous and dirty permitting deals are a matter of life and death for millions of people across our country who are already overburdened by decades of fossil fuel pollution," warned one campaigner.

Climate action advocates responded with outraged alarm Thursday to reporting that U.S. President Joe Biden and congressional Republicans may try to strike a "dirty deal" on permitting reforms as part of an agreement to raise the debt ceiling.

The deliberations continue as fears of an economically catastrophic default are growing, with just a week until the U.S. government could run out of money to pay its bills if Congress doesn't increase the debt limit, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

"We should not be throwing people and the planet under a gas-guzzling bus just so that polluters can more easily build destructive projects."

Citing two unnamed sources close to the talks, The Washington Post reported:

The emerging deal would ease the process of building the interstate transmission lines needed to carry clean electricity across the country—a top priority for Democrats and a boon for President Biden's climate agenda, said the two individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private negotiations.

To sweeten the deal for Republicans, the agreement would make modest changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, a 1970 law that requires the federal government to analyze the environmental impact of its proposed actions. GOP lawmakers have long blamed the bedrock environmental law for the yearslong delays that plague new highways, pipelines, and other infrastructure projects nationwide.

The transmission policy would be based on the forthcoming Building Integrated Grids With Inter-Regional Energy Supply (BIG WIRES) Act from Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), the newspaper noted, adding that the agreement "would include only incremental changes" sought by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and fellow Republicans.

House Republicans notably included H.R. 1—their fossil fuel-friendly energy package—in the so-called Limit, Save, Grow Act, the "debt ceiling scam" the GOP passed last month and which established the party's priorities for the ongoing negotiations.

In response to the Post's reporting, Friends of the Earth government and political affairs director Ariel Moger said that "once again, lawmakers are expected to make the unconscionable decision to tack unpopular and environmentally harmful policies onto a must-pass bill. This deal will put communities already suffering from environmental racism at further risk by gutting essential laws."

"We should not be throwing people and the planet under a gas-guzzling bus just so that polluters can more easily build destructive projects," Moger argued. "Biden and congressional Democrats should stand up for environmental justice, reject this dirty deal, and pass a clean debt limit increase."

Oil Change International U.S. program co-manager Allie Rosenbluth stressed that "these dangerous and dirty permitting deals are a matter of life and death for millions of people across our country who are already overburdened by decades of fossil fuel pollution, the impacts of climate change, and compromised public health."

"The increased exposure to oil spills, gas leaks, air pollution, and water contamination would exacerbate existing environmental injustices and the climate crisis," Rosenbluth continued. "We must draw a red line and say no to Republicans taking our economy hostage to line the pockets of the fossil fuel industry."

“President Biden must enforce a clean debt ceiling package that does not allow for any rollbacks to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or other bedrock environmental laws," she added. "While his recent climate track record has been nothing short of disastrous, it is not too late for him to turn it around and hold true to his environmental justice campaign promises."

The Biden administration has recently come under fire for backing ConocoPhillips' Willow oil project and a liquified natural gas (LNG) proposal, both in Alaska, as well as the incomplete Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) in Virginia and West Virginia.

The MVP is a longtime priority of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a "coal baron" and recipient of fossil fuel industry campaign cash who only supported the Inflation Reduction Act last year in exchange for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) agreeing to push through permitting reforms friendly to the coal, gas, and oil companies.

Although opposition from frontline communities and progressives in Congress blocked versions of Manchin's "dirty deal" three times last year, he has since renewed his effort, introducing the Building American Energy Security Act—which calls for completing the MVP—earlier this month. A Biden aide said the White House backs the bill.

House Natural Resources Committee Democrats and the League of Conservation Voters highlighted Thursday that 83 lawmakers have signed a letter urging Biden, Schumer, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) "to oppose ongoing attempts to attach H.R. 1 or any other extreme proposals that gut our bedrock environmental and public laws to must-pass legislation."

The panel's ranking member, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), led the letter and congressional opposition to last year's dirty deals.

"The growing list of my Democratic colleagues and I couldn't be more clear: Our environment and health are not the GOP's bargaining chips," Grijalva said in a statement Wednesday. "Gutting our bedrock environmental laws isn't permitting reform—it's a polluter payout. Speaker McCarthy and his extremist faction need to end this reckless scheme to force their MAGA-manufactured, polluters-over-people agenda on the American people now."

Though Jeffries is on the receiving end of the letter, he made clear Thursday that his caucus won't automatically support a Biden-backed deal, telling reporters that "it's a miscalculation to assume that simply any agreement that House Republicans are able to reach will, by definition, trigger a sufficient number of Democratic votes—if that agreement undermines our values."

Meanwhile, the Roosevelt Institute this week published an issue brief by Jamie Pleune, associate professor of law at the University of Utah, debunking the claim that reviews required by NEPA are hampering the transition to renewable energy.

"After examining 41,000 NEPA decisions conducted by the Forest Service over 16 years, we found limited correlation between the intensity of the NEPA process in question and the existence of delays," said Pleune. "Furthermore, some projects that were eligible for expedited analyses encountered delays, while some intensely studied projects were completed quickly. This indicated that the true causes of delay were external to the regulatory requirements of NEPA."

"Reducing analytical rigor or weakening environmental standards, which are some of the permitting reforms on the table in debt ceiling talks, won't address the true blockages to the buildout of renewables," she added. "In my brief, I provide progressive permitting reform, with demonstrated effectiveness, that will strengthen and improve NEPA processes while preserving community engagement and environmental protections."

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