Ana Baptista and Dana Johnson
There is a heightened focus on justice and equity in the Biden administration—but what does that look like for communities living with the realities of systemic and institutionalized discrimination?
For generations, environmental justice (EJ) communities have borne the brunt of policies and practices that have relegated our homes, workplaces, recreational spaces, and places of worship to the shadows of fossil fuel and petrochemical infrastructure. As the administration and lawmakers advance opportunities to “decarbonize” the energy sector—the largest source of climate change-causing greenhouse gases in the U.S.—many communities are given little insight into the plans and technologies marketed as the solution. As a result, environmental justice communities—those predominantly composed of people of color and those with low income—have to navigate a maze of new federal investments in obscure policies and plans.
Specifically, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), utilization (CCUS), hydrogen hubs, and direct air capture projects are being rolled out without transparency and our communities are targeted as development zones. It’s time for real change—not a rebrand of the same discriminatory plans that slow the clock on fighting the climate crisis and reinforce the status quo.
The emergence of carbon management initiatives, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest carbon rule proposal in tandem with the Department of Energy’s (DOE) regional hydrogen hub plan, are a major part of the problem. These initiatives are based on the promise of siphoning off greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and industrial facilities, but they often rely more on greenwashing and wishful thinking than on real solutions. They divert focus from the critical need to break free from fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, that disproportionately burden environmental justice communities.
The reality is that CCS technology remains untested at scale, is not guaranteed to work, and won’t address other harmful pollution like particulates that wreak havoc on our communities. In fact, “…more than 95% of all deployed CCS capacity has been used for enhanced oil recovery (‘EOR’), the process of taking captured carbon dioxide (CO2) and injecting it back into depleted oil wells to further extract more fossil fuels.”
While CCS is being pushed as a way to cut emissions, it’s actually enabling further fossil fuel reliance. What’s even more infuriating is that these projects are poised to reap the benefits of federal tax credits bolstered by the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. This is a con job on the American public that will funnel funds into risky projects ultimately helping fossil fuel companies and perpetuating the systems that caused the climate crisis.
Now, CCS, CCUS, and direct air capture, along with certain types of hydrogen hubs using CCS along with natural gas, are planned for locations already overburdened by heavy industry, imposing additional risks such as leaks, pipelines blowing up, and health-harming air pollution like nitrogen oxide emissions. Unfortunately, a staggering 90% of the proposed or existing CCS/CCUS plants are located in or dangerously close to EJ communities. This means that investments in these risky schemes will inflict more damage on those already most vulnerable to pollution and climate change for years to come. Louisiana alone faces over two dozen proposals for CCS, CCUS, and hydrogen projects.
One of these is a colossal $4.5 billion hydrogen plant and carbon capture complex in Ascension Parish by Air Products. This project includes carbon pipelines, wells, and underground storage that pose a grave threat to Lake Maurepas and contribute to air pollution from the new CCS plant, along with the real possibility of explosions. To make matters worse, project applicants may only carry liability for 10 years instead of the usual 50, leaving one of the poorest states with potential liabilities indefinitely.
Federal agencies promise new “regulatory regimes,” to protect EJ communities, but all we see in response to our concerns is an offering of community benefit agreements and public engagement processes that lack substantial, enforceable protections or the right to say “no.” In the absence of concrete federal protections, speculative industry proposals will capitalize on generous federal incentives like the 45Q and 45V tax credits, which allow upfront benefits without a clear mechanism by which governments will oversee and ensure the permanent storage of CO2. Likewise, the Inflation Reduction Act lengthened application timelines and opened up the criteria for which CCS projects qualify. And when disasters hit, we’ll all pay the price through skyrocketing healthcare and housing costs, along with other rising costs linked to pollution and the climate crisis. This approach not only rewards the industries that drive climate change and pollution in EJ communities, but it also perpetuates the big scam of oil, gas, and petrochemical giants.
It’s time we put an end to this farce.
EJ communities were given promises for real investment and involvement in a just energy transition through the administration’s Justice40 Initiative that would not mirror prejudicial policies of the past. If these energy plans move forward, EJ communities will again be collateral damage. There are sustainable solutions that desperately need our support and funding, including transitioning to truly clean, renewable energy such as wind and solar with an equitable transmission build-out.
We have what we need to do right by EJ communities nationwide, and to stave off the worst of the climate crisis before it’s too late—it’s time to move in the right direction.
Ana Baptista is an associate professor and co-director of the Tishman Environment & Design Center at The New School. Dana Johnson is the senior director of strategy and federal policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. This commentary is republished from Common Dreams under a Creative Commons license.
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