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The spending bill will cut emissions, but marginalized groups feel they were sold out

A line of petrochemical facilities in St. Charles Parish, La., in 2018. Many people who live near industrial sites, and who are exposed to dangerous pollution, fear that the Inflation Reduction Act will deepen existing environmental inequalities.
Gerald Herbert
A line of petrochemical facilities in St. Charles Parish, La., in 2018. Many people who live near industrial sites, and who are exposed to dangerous pollution, fear that the Inflation Reduction Act will deepen existing environmental inequalities.

The Inflation Reduction Act signed into law Tuesday by President Biden includes more than $360 billion to address climate change. That's the largest single investment ever made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — something the White House and major environmental groups are touting as a huge win for humanity.

But not everyone will feel the benefits of the new bill equally, analysts and advocates warn. People living in neighborhoods that are already dealing with a lot of pollution fear they will face more harm and climate risk, not less. And that could deepen existing environmental inequalities and lock in decades of unnecessary illness and suffering for people who are already marginalized.

"There are some parts [of the law] that are good, and there are some parts that are really bad," says Mijin Cha, a professor at Occidental College who studies how to make the transition to a low-carbon economy fairer for workers and communities. "And the parts [of the law] that are really bad are pretty significant."

The law includes hundreds of billions of dollars to tackle global warming by building more solar and wind power, making buildings more energy efficient and helping people buy electric vehicles. Analysts estimate it will help the United States reduce planet-warming emissions by about 40% compared to 2005 levels by the end of the decade, which is a big step toward a truly low-carbon economy.

But in order to get the critical support of conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the law also invests in fossil fuels. It subsidizes the building of new pipelines, guarantees new leasing of oil and gas drilling, and incentivizes investment in still-nascent carbon capture technology, which would allow existing, heavily polluting fossil fuel facilities to operate longer.

Those fossil fuel investments led dozens of grassroots environmental organizations to reject the bill, arguing that the harms to communities near fossil fuel sites would outweigh the climate benefits. That's especially true for poor people, Indigenous people and Black people who are already more likely to live with more pollution and less access to clean energy.

"We are sitting right now with a lot of contradictions. While [the bill] does designate some funding for disadvantaged communities, it's also subsidizing fossil fuels," says Juan Jhong-Chung, the climate director at the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. "It feels like what the bill is giving with one hand, it's taking with the other."

For example, Jhong-Chung says the new law could pay for air monitoring in Southwest Detroit, where he lives and where industrial air pollution makes people sick. But at the same time, the law invests in the fossil fuel industry, which could help those industrial facilities operate for decades to come.

"It feels like we're being sacrificed, like we're being left behind,"Jhong-Chung says . "It doesn't feel good that this is the best we can get."

The Biden administration disputes the idea that the law doesn't do enough for marginalized communities. "This is a direct investment in helping clean up communities that have been left out and left behind," says Ali Zaidi, the deputy national climate advisor to President Biden.

The White House estimates that the law includes over $60 billion in spending on so-called environmental justice. That includes money to reduce emissions around U.S. ports, plant trees in city neighborhoods that are hotter because of past racist housing policies, make electric vehicles more affordable and install solar panels and make buildings more efficient in low-income neighborhoods.

A separate analysis estimates the law contains significantly less — closer to $45 billion — in direct spending toward environmental justice.

Zaidi acknowledges the law is not perfect, but says it's an "unprecedented amount of investment" that will bring broad benefits to Americans.

"This bill is the product of compromise," he says, referring to the drawn-out Congressional negotiations that finally led to the bill's passage. "Without compromise there would be no bill."

That rhetoric is frustrating for those who feel like they are on the losing end of the compromise. "I think it's really hurtful for people [who live] where you have a lot of poverty, where you have a lot of dirty energy," says Kendall Dix, the national policy director for Taproot Earth, a climate justice organization based in Louisiana. He fears the new law will lead to more pollution along the Gulf Coast, where petrochemical facilities are concentrated, and air pollution already causes widespread illness and premature death.

"Are we going to be fine with some communities being written off?" Dix says. "And which communities?"

Cha, of Occidental University, says there's a long history of concentrating pollution in places where poor people or people of color live, in the name of overall economic and technological progress. "We have this idea of sacrifice zones, which is that there are just areas of the country that just have so much pollution, we're just sacrificing those communities," she explains. "That will continue in this bill."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.