Opinion | How Biden Can Put Words Into Action on Environmental Justice

A majority of people who live in the Texas coastal communities of Brownsville, Corpus Christi and Port Arthur are brown and Black. These communities are also locations for proposed terminals to load liquefied natural gas on tankers bound for overseas markets.

This correlation is not unusual. Discrimination in housing forced Black and brown people into areas near polluting industries that threatened their health and safety, and continue to do so today.

I documented this pattern in my book Dumping in Dixie more than three decades ago, finding that “toxic-waste dumps, municipal landfills, garbage incinerators and similar noxious facilities” tended to be located in minority neighborhoods with little access to the levers of government power.

The consequences have been devastating. A study published in April in the journal Science Advances, for instance, found that “racial-ethnic minorities in the United States are exposed to disproportionately high levels of ambient fine particulate air pollution, the largest environmental cause of human mortality.” The researchers found that “because of a legacy of racist housing policy and other factors, racial-ethnic exposure disparities have persisted even as overall exposure has decreased.”

Now President Biden has the opportunity to change that dynamic. A vacancy looms on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates the siting and construction of interstate natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas plants and export facilities. The term of one of the commission’s members, a Trump appointee, expires at the end of June, though he could remain until a replacement is confirmed by the Senate. A Biden appointment would shift the balance of power on this obscure but powerful board to three Democrats and two Republicans.

To date, the commission has never rejected a project on environmental justice grounds. Mr. Biden promised to make environmental justice a cornerstone of his climate change agenda and repair the inequities that have left minority communities bearing the impacts of fossil fuel production. His Justice40 initiative sets a goal of delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of government climate investments to disadvantaged communities.

Brownsville, for example, is nearly 94 percent Latino and would be the home of two new terminals, Texas LNG and Rio Grande LNG. And that’s just one city out of many, along the gulf and across the United States, where marginalized communities bear the brunt of fossil fuel infrastructure that spew harmful pollutants into the air and water.

These terminals would release thousands of tons of particulate and nitrogen oxide into already polluted air. They also pose risks of fire and explosion. Indeed, The Washington Post reported this month that “federal regulators approved the construction of export terminals along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts while relying on industry safety calculations that critics say significantly understate the potential force” of what’s known as a vapor cloud explosion.

Over the past two decades, the F.E.R.C. has approved nearly 500 pipelines and rejected just two. The board’s approval process is flawed and unfair, systematically giving pipeline companies the advantage over landowners. Until recently, the F.E.R.C. had steadfastly refused to consider climate impacts when deciding to issue permits to new gas pipeline projects.

Mr. Biden’s first appointment to the agency, Richard Glick, the new chairman, has taken steps to make the commission’s decisions more environmentally just. In May he appointed Montina Cole, a former lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, to a new position to help the agency incorporate environmental justice and equity concerns in its decision making.

But the commission has a long way to go. In a March hearing before a federal appeals court on the proposed Rio Grande terminal, an agency lawyer made a logical pretzel of an argument that the Rio Grande project in Brownsville did not disproportionately affect minority and low-income populations. The reason, he said, was that all of the communities within the affected zone were minority or low-income. Thus, they were not disproportionately affected.

The F.E.R.C. must also bar utilities from forcing their customers to pay the membership fees to trade associations whose anti-climate efforts promote policies that harm the communities they serve. In a recent petition to the agency, the Center for Biological Diversity urged it to disallow the practice. More than 90 environmental groups across the country endorsed the request.

The F.E.R.C.’s decisions over the coming years will go a long way to determine whether Mr. Biden’s climate goals are attainable. The path to net-zero carbon emissions is impossible if the expansion of fossil fuel facilities continues.

Mr. Biden appears earnest in his climate efforts and protecting Black and brown Americans from further sacrifice. Nominating a progressive environmental justice champion to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is an important step.

Robert Bullard is a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, where he focuses on issues of environmental justice.

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