Sources in the environmental justice movement say they’re concerned that some big environmental groups have yet to take a hardline stance against Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) bill to fast-track fossil fuel and other energy projects.
Two activists at separate organizations told TYT the silence from some of the world’s largest environmental organizations could provide cover for congressional Democratic leaders to force Manchin’s legislation through.
Sen. Maj. Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has already said he’ll pressure progressives to vote for it by attaching it to must-pass legislation to fund the government past Sept. 30. Progressive Democrats and environmentalists are pushing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) not to do the same.
If a major environmental organization endorses the Manchin bill – or even if enough big ones stay silent – that could make it politically easier to force it through, the sources said. As TYT first reported, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) lobbied fellow Democrats against the bill, ultimately getting 76 House Democrats to co-sign his letter to Pelosi and Maj. Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) asking them to allow a “clean” vote just on Manchin’s bill.
Hundreds of environmental organizations have also opposed the Manchin bill, which would make it harder for communities – especially Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income – to fight energy infrastructure projects in their neighborhoods. But some of the biggest organizations have yet to speak out, fueling activists’ anxiety.
A source at one multi-national environmental group speaking with TYT last week identified three major organizations that had yet to weigh in: The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and the World Resources Institute. “When those groups splinter off,” the source said, “it allows for politicians to use talking points that environmentalists support it.”
A source at another organization confirmed to TYT that activists worry that a major environmental organization will give Pelosi cover.
Early this week, the EDF issued a statement saying that if recent reporting about the Manchin bill’s substance is correct, the group would oppose it. The Nature Conservancy told TYT it’s too early to comment on the bill and the World Resources Institute said it was unable to do so at the moment because some staffers are away.
The Nature Conservancy website says it employs more than 400 scientists. But in an email to TYT, a spokesperson said its staff “felt it was too soon to comment on this. They haven’t viewed the legislation yet and want to wait until they see it first.”
Given that it’s just two weeks until Democrats will have to pass a continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown, environmental-justice advocates are concerned that by the time the bill's language is revealed, it may be too late. And while the Nature Conservancy response wasn’t especially surprising to EJ activists who spoke with TYT, it was still troubling.
Some are concerned that the institutional silence suggests a willingness to compromise with lawmakers. And that would let congressional leaders add “backed by environmental groups” to their talking points about the Manchin bill.
In a statement to TYT, Institute for Policy Studies Climate Policy Director Basav Sen referred to the side deal Schumer made with Manchin, pledging to pass the bill. Sen said:
"It is deeply concerning that many large, well-funded organizations with a high degree of access to Congressional leadership and to senior officials in the Biden administration are so concerned about not offending these high government officials, and about preserving their own access, that they are afraid to voice strong public criticism of the corrupt, industry-backed 'side deal' to gut environmental protections and facilitate the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure at the expense of environmental justice communities."
If the Manchin bill becomes law, it would severely limit community input on potentially harmful energy infrastructure projects, like natural gas drilling, that disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income communities – creating more of what activists call ‘sacrifice zones.’ It would also ensure the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would carry natural gas over 300 miles, from Manchin’s home state of West Virginia to southern Virginia -- an endeavor environmental justice activists have successfully held off for nine years.
Twenty-nine environmental justice leaders, including eight members of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, wrote to Pelosi last week denouncing Manchin’s bill. More than 650 environmental groups wrote to Pelosi and Schumer in late August asking them not to pass it.
“We encourage Big Greens to oppose the side deal and our eyes are on them because we are aware of their history of betraying grassroots groups for their interest,” Denali Nalamalapu, communications director for Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights, told TYT. “We expect the Big Greens to stand with the frontlines [organizations], especially due to their public statements on racial and environmental justice issues in the past few years.”
Bineshi Albert, co-executive director of Climate Justice Alliance, told TYT “My concerns about the big greens is – because they have access to the administration in a way that grassroots communities don't – my concern is, are they going to oppose [the bill]? And are they clear about [their] opposition?”
Albert also addressed a perceived gap between the big green groups and smaller grassroots organizations. “Are they in relationship with frontline groups? I can't say that 100%,” Albert said. She attributed that to their vast differences in size and scale, and their differing political alignments.
While defenders of the Manchin bill say fast-tracking permitting is necessary to slow climate change, progressives have said it can be done for clean energy without disproportionately hurting disenfranchised communities and without including fossil-fuel projects. One of the major organizations that has publicly denounced the Manchin bill agrees.
Sierra Club Legislative Director Mahyar Sorour told TYT, “We already have the ability to scale up clean energy infrastructure under existing permitting laws, so it's just not true that we need to gut environmental protections in order to build more clean energy.”
Sorour says that instead of weakening laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, which empowers communities to raise concerns about energy projects, the government should invest in “agencies and staff who can help get these projects built in a responsible way that gives the public a say in their construction.”
Manchin’s bill, which was promised to him by Schumer in exchange for supporting the Inflation Reduction Act, requires the president to keep a rolling list of at least 25 high-priority energy projects – fossil fuel and renewable – to be fast-tracked for permitting. In addition to curbing community power to halt or slow these projects, a leaked summary of the bill says it would also impose a time limit for communities to challenge them in court.
On Monday, the EDF joined the list of major organizations opposing the Manchin bill. “Congress should be cautious in providing a fast-track permitting process,” an EDF statement said.
“Any projects chosen for fast-track assessment should have wide community support and should reduce pollution, create jobs, and make our energy system more resilient,” the statement said. “Given these priorities, the current proposal as reported falls short and EDF would oppose it.”
A vote on the continuing resolution could come as early as next week.
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.