UPDATE: On Thursday, Rep. Grijalva said the number of signatories is now above 60.
More House progressives are signing onto a letter urging House leadership not to attach a measure that would fast-track permitting for energy projects to a must-pass piece of legislation to keep the federal government funded past September 30.
More than 40 House Democrats had signed on to the letter as of Wednesday, according to the office of the letter’s organizer, Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). As TYT first reported, the letter is addressed to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Maj. Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and says fast-tracking permits will hurt Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income communities disproportionately.
The permitting reform was promised to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) last month in return for Manchin helping Sen. Maj. Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) pass the Inflation Reduction Act, a scaled-down version of Pres. Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.
Pelosi endorsed the Manchin-Schumer side deal, but progressives say no one asked them whether they’d go along. Their concern now is that they’ll have no choice if Pelosi attaches Manchin’s bill to the government funding legislation.
In an interview Monday, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) told TYT that Pelosi has not yet communicated any interest in attaching the Manchin bill to a continuing resolution (C.R.) extending government funding. But Khanna also said Pelosi could seek Republican votes if progressives threaten to kill the Manchin bill.
Defenders of the Manchin-Schumer side deal say that fast-tracking permitting is necessary in the race to slow climate change. Progressives have said clean energy can be fast-tracked without disproportionately hurting disenfranchised communities and without fast-tracking fossil-fuel projects.
An internal summary of the side-deal legislation obtained by Bloomberg says it would fast-track permitting specifically for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which Manchin has supported. When finished, the MVP will carry natural gas more than 300 miles through Virginia and Manchin’s home state of West Virginia.
Khanna told TYT that he didn’t hesitate to sign the letter asking Pelosi and Hoyer to let them vote on the Manchin bill alone. He also confirmed TYT’s previous report that progressives have not been in on the talks so far.
Khanna also said he hopes other House members will get on board. “I don't think this is a hard call for progressives," he said. "I mean, I would hope that all progressives can be unified in standing with the environmental community, again, because of the human costs.”
The initial deadline for lawmakers to sign on to Grijalva’s letter was Aug. 26. But Grijalva’s office now says the deadline will likely extend beyond this week. Khanna says they’re aiming to get the letter to Pelosi right after Labor Day.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson from Grijalva’s office told TYT that since he started seeking signatures a week ago, “There are over 40 sign-ons at this point.” That’s nearly 20% of the 220-member House Democratic Caucus.
According to the leaked summary, the legislation calls for the president to keep a rolling list of at least 25 high-priority energy projects, both fossil fuel and renewable, to be fast-tracked for permitting. In addition to curbing community power to halt or slow potentially hazardous projects, the bill would also impose a time limit for communities to challenge them in court.
Climate justice activists and lawmakers alike have said the Manchin bill, according to the draft legislative language, would effectively silence Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income communities already disproportionately impacted by energy infrastructure projects. Khanna agrees.
According to Khanna, “What we're talking about are reforms that are going to ride roughshod over a lot of communities. ... Communities that have been fighting three, four, or five years to block fossil infrastructure in their neighborhoods are now going to be bypassed and you're gonna see the construction of that through these communities and that is really not fair.”
As an example of the kind of projects he’s concerned about, Khanna cited the Stellantis plant in Detroit, where Khanna says strong odors can be smelled from the street. The community there, he said, is just one case of a frontline neighborhood already suffering the health implications of environmental pollutants.
According to Grist, the Stellantis plant sits in the heart of a low-income, majority Black neighborhood “already plagued by pollution from nearby industry, including a General Motors assembly plant, two metal processors, and two major highways that run through the area.” A 2019 survey by the Eastside Resident Environmental Health Working Group found asthma rates there were three times higher than the state average.
“If we were to pass this side deal, it would mean more plants like that harming Black and Brown communities, putting pollution in the air where kids can't be in their backyards,” Khanna said. “We're not just talking about some abstract policy here. We're talking about allowing refineries, fossil fuel projects and heavy industry to destroy neighborhoods.”
In his letter, Grijalva calls for Pelosi and Hoyer to keep the government-funding C.R. free of Manchin’s permitting reform legislation, which Grijalva says contains “anti-environmental and anti-environmental justice provisions.” The letter also says dirty-energy projects will get rushed through “at the behest of the American Petroleum Institute.”
While some progressive lawmakers, including Khanna, say they’re willing to discuss fast-tracking permits for critical clean energy projects like wind and solar, they say that needs to be part of a separate, stand-alone process. Khanna says, “You can't hijack the C.R. process to an ideological perspective. I mean, I can't say ... 'okay, let's put free college [on the C.R.] and make everyone vote for it or we're going to shut down government.' So just like you can't do that for progressive goals, you can't do that for something that is so opposed by many members of the caucus.”
Khanna also cited the growing number of signatories. “It's one thing if there were just [Rep.] Rashida Tlaib [D-MI] and me speaking out, but you have over 40 members with serious concerns,” he said.
Even if progressives rebel, however, Pelosi has another route to passing the Manchin bill: She could make up the difference with Republican votes. “She could,” Khanna said. “They've done that. That's how they pass the defense budget every year. I oppose it, because I don't think we should be having a defense budget approaching a trillion dollars and progressives like [Rep.] Barbara Lee [D-CA] oppose it, but they pass it with three hundred votes because they get Republicans.”
Still, Khanna suggests, seeking Republican votes would be a risky move in the current political environment. He said, “My sense is, though, to do it on an issue like this would be very divisive, headed into a fall midterm.”
Pelosi and Hoyer have not responded to TYT’s requests for comment.
TYT Washington Correspondent Candice Cole was previously a correspondent and senior White House producer for the Black News Channel and has worked at a number of local news outlets. You can find her on Twitter @CandiceColeNews.