Skip to main content

Why are the billionaires always laughing?

Because they know the corporate media will never call bullshit on their bullshit.

Why are the billionaires laughing?

It’s easy to laugh when the corporate press treats you as a glorious success instead of the epitome of a broken social order. Billionaires laugh because they know the corporate media prefers to fawn over them rather than hold them to account.

Today, we ask you to support our nonprofit, independent journalism because we are not impressed by billionaires flying into space, their corporations despoiling our health and planet, or their vast fortunes safely concealed in tax havens across the globe. We are not laughing.

We are hard at work producing journalism for the common good. With our Fall Campaign underway, please support this mission today. We cannot do it without you.

Support Our Work -- Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Every donation—large or small—helps us bring you the news that matters.

GettyImages-1232636583-puerto-rico

A person waves a flag reading "Fuera Luma" (Luma out) during a demonstration to mark May Day, or International Workers' Day, in San Juan, Puerto Rico on May 1, 2021. (Photo by Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images)

FEMA Ignores Puerto Rico's Once-in-a-Lifetime Chance to Build a Clean Energy Grid

FEMA plans to spend $9.4 billion on fossil fuel infrastructure instead.

The Biden Administration has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help Puerto Rico transition to a greener and more resilient energy future, but it's on the verge of making a multibillion-dollar mistake.

Since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, many residents and environmental advocates have called for new clean energy sources for the island. Currently Puerto Rico gets more than 97% of its electricity from imported fossil fuel. Power is expensive and unreliable.

As environmental lawyers and professors of law, we are surprised to see FEMA move forward on a path that runs directly counter to the White House's energy and climate policy.

Puerto Rico adopted laws that called for generating 15% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, 40% by 2025, 60% by 2040 and 100% by 2050. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which controls relief funding for the island, appears ready to underwrite a rebuild of the old fossil fuel system.

As environmental lawyers and professors of law, we are surprised to see FEMA move forward on a path that runs directly counter to the White House's energy and climate policy. President Joe Biden has called for a governmentwide approach that promotes clean energy, protects public health and the environment, and advances environmental justice.

In our view, FEMA's actions don't support those goals. They also ignore legal requirements for federal agencies to carefully weigh the environmental impacts of major actions.

Power poles lying across a flooded ditch.
Power lines toppled by Hurricane Maria in Alta Vega, Puerto Rico, Sept. 30, 2017. (Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

Rebuild or replace with a more resilient green system?

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with sustained winds of 155 mph. It tore a diagonal 100-mile swath across the island, demolishing tens of thousands of homes and washing away roads and bridges.

The storm toppled transmission and cell towers, snapped concrete power poles, battered power plants and plunged the island into darkness. It killed an estimated 3,000 people and caused over US$90 billion in damages.

In response, Congress authorized some $23 billion in disaster aid, including at least $10 billion to restore or replace Puerto Rico's electricity grid. It also passed the Disaster Recovery Reform Act to promote a more flexible energy system that could withstand and recover quickly from climate disruptions.

FEMA, which administers the funds, has allocated $9.4 billion for rebuilding Puerto Rico's electricity system and will start approving projects after it receives more details explaining how the work will be performed. So far, none of this money has been earmarked for renewable power, except for a small sum to repair a hydroelectric dam that provides less than 1% of the island's power.

The organizations making decisions in Puerto Rico are the Commonwealth's Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, and Luma Energy, a private company that received a 15-year contract in 2021 to manage power transmission and distribution on the island. PREPA and Luma have proposed hundreds of projects for the coming decade, but none include federal funding for rooftop solar, community solar, battery storage or microgrids. Advocates say that this kind of small-scale local generation would make the island's electricity cheaper, cleaner and more reliable.

A 2015 study by the nonprofit Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found that investing in solar and wind power and energy efficiency could transform Puerto Rico's electrical system into a resilient grid. And in 2020, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that rooftop solar power in Puerto Rico could generate roughly four times as much electricity as residents currently use.

Federal law requires weighing the options

Spending almost $10 billion to rewire an island with 3 million residents is clearly a major federal action with significant environmental impacts. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, agencies undertaking such actions must prepare an environmental impact statement that takes a hard look at alternatives and invites meaningful public input.

PREPA and Luma's proposed plan includes reconstructing and hardening nearly all of Puerto Rico's transmission lines and building at least two new natural gas-fired power plants. Burning more natural gas will affect air and water quality and contribute to climate change. Natural gas is shipped to Puerto Rico in liquid form, so using more of it also means expanding import facilities and pipelines.

Instead of producing a full-scale environmental impact statement, FEMA produced a superficial programmatic environmental assessment—a narrower study that did not weigh other options. It concluded that there would be "no significant impact" from rebuilding Puerto Rico's fossil fuel-based energy system. The study did not mention climate change, which scientists widely agree is making hurricanes larger and more destructive.

Beyond a pro forma invitation for public comment, FEMA made no effort to engage with overburdened communities of color that have disproportionately suffered from pollution and climate change under Puerto Rico's energy system. This directly contradicts Biden's order to place environmental justice at the center of federal energy and climate policy.

The National Environmental Policy Act also requires agencies to "study, develop and describe appropriate alternatives to recommended courses of action." FEMA's environmental assessment only considers rebuilding and hardening the existing grid, and does not mention renewable energy. When some public commenters criticized this omission, FEMA responded that it was not responsible for considering alternative means of generating electricity.

Advancing the public interest

Both PREPA and Luma are proponents of an energy strategy that centers on importing natural gas. Federal law requires FEMA to take a broader approach and ensure that it spends federal money in ways that support U.S. environmental goals.

Courts have held that environmental justice is not simply a box to be checked. In our view, the law clearly requires FEMA to give Puerto Ricans—who have lived with a creaky power system for four years—a seat at the table before it starts writing checks for projects that affect their lives.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
Parenteau_Patrick

Patrick Parenteau

is a Professor of Law at Vermont Law School.

rachel

Rachel Stevens

is Professor of Law & Staff Attorney at Vermont Law School.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'When We Organize, We Win': Ocasio-Cortez Joins India Walton at Rally in Buffalo

The two progressives joined striking hospital workers on the picket line at Mercy Hospital after the early voting rally.

Julia Conley ·


Fatal Film Set Shooting Followed Outcry by Union Crew Members Over Safety Protocols

"When union members walk off a set about safety concerns, maybe 'hiring scabs' isn’t the solution you think it is."

Julia Conley ·


New Whistleblower Sparks Calls to 'Crack Down on Facebook and All Big Tech Companies'

Hours after another ex-employee filed a formal complaint, reporting broke on internal documents that show the tech giant's failure to address concerns about content related to the 2020 U.S. election.

Jessica Corbett ·


'Catastrophic and Irreparable Harm' to Wolves Averted as Wisconsin Judge Cancels Hunt

"We are heartened by this rare instance of reason and democracy prevailing in state wolf policy," said one conservation expert.

Brett Wilkins ·


West Virginia Constituents Decry 'Immorality' of Joe Manchin

"West Virginia has been locked into an economy that forces workers into low-wage jobs with no hope for advancement, and after decades of this our hope is dwindling," said one West Virginian. "The cuts that Sen. Manchin has negotiated into the agenda hurt our state."

Julia Conley ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo