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Dirty Debt Deal Buys Votes at the Expense of Our Environment

The “Fiscal Responsibility Act” will inflict irreversible harm on our environment, on our democracy, and on communities across the country, writes Delaware Riverkeeper Maya K. van Rossum.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The “Fiscal Responsibility Act,” as they called the recently passed debt ceiling deal, is a dirty deal that brings harmful consequences for our environment and sets dangerous precedent for the future of environmental protection.  

Despite the characterizations of some of the legislators who voted in support, the environmental sacrifices included in the deal are neither small nor insignificant – the ramifications will harm communities across our nation, and will contribute to our quickly growing climate crisis. In order to buy needed votes, the deal included a significant rewrite of one of our nation’s most iconic environmental protection laws and forced through a fracked gas pipeline project that has been vehemently – and successfully – opposed by communities across its 303 mile length. This is in addition to the limits on funding provided to key environmental protection agencies – including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – for the implementation and enforcement of our nation’s environmental protection laws.  

The dirty debt-ceiling deal rewrites the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the first major federal environmental law passed in our nation. NEPA was enacted to ensure that the environmental implications of proposed government actions, projects, permits and decisions are fully considered; including taking a look at the environmental benefits and values of alternatives to a proposed action. With this debt-ceiling deal, a company advancing a new liquified natural gas export facility, pipeline, major dredging operation, or new pollution-spewing industrial project in need of federal permitting can be the one taking the lead on drafting their own NEPA environmental review, rather than the federal agency taking the action. In addition, industry operators will be able to claim that valid alternatives are too costly and therefore should not be part of their NEPA consideration. Even viable alternatives that could provide critical community and environmental protections, if deemed too costly, can be left unaddressed without consideration of such benefits.  

The debt deal will allow more projects to be excluded from NEPA review; and regulatory agencies will be subject to arbitrary time limits and page limits on the environmental reviews they do undertake. NEPA environmental assessments are now limited to just 75 pages and one year. Environmental impact statements required for major federal actions expected to have a significant impact on the environment are given only two years in which to undertake all aspects of the NEPA analysis and are limited to just 150 pages, unless deemed of “extraordinary complexity” in which case a mere 300 pages is allowed. The time deadlines can only be extended if agreed to by the project applicant. The arbitrary time and page limits will most certainly mean that essential data, studies, environmental impacts or community concerns will be left unaddressed.  

With this deal to rewrite NEPA in such impactful ways, the precedent has been set that our core environmental protection laws, and the communities they protect, are the hostages politicians can willingly sacrifice in order to resolve all future debt ceiling debates. Rather than amend laws transparently through the legislative process, allowing opportunity for public and political review, comment and debate, core environmental values will be sacrificed in backroom deals where members of congress are given just days to decide whether to sacrifice the health and safety of communities or risk economic calamity.  

The talking point of legislators that “it could have been worse” does not excuse the undermining of NEPA they agreed to. While today it was NEPA, tomorrow it will most certainly be protections for clean air, clean water, from toxic contamination, from a growing climate crisis, and for preventing human actions that send species into extinction.

In addition, the Fiscal Responsibility Act singled out one major, and controversial, fossil fuel pipeline project for special exception from critical environmental protections. The deal mandates that the federal government expedite essential environmental approvals for the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) – a controversial project that will carry dirty fracked fossil fuels 303 miles cutting through the mountains, forests, rivers, environments and communities of West Virginia and Virginia, releasing 89 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent every year. The MVP project has been opposed by property rights activists and environmentalists alike because of the devastating consequences it would have for the safety, sanctity, property values, and quality of life of those unfortunate enough to be located in its path. Federal agencies and courts have sided with community members regarding the many failings of the project, and as a result it has not been able to progress. And yet, in order to secure the vote and support of Senator Joe Manchin, the debt-ceiling deal singles out the Mountain Valley Project and bypasses major environmental protection laws by giving it blanket approval. The deal then goes so far as to usurp the authority of any and all courts to consider legal challenges to the state or federal approvals the dirty deal grants.  

The act speaks for itself.  It reads: 

“Congress hereby ratifies and approves all authorizations, permits, verifications, extensions, biological opinions, incidental take statements, and any other approvals or orders issued pursuant to Federal law necessary for the construction and initial operation at full capacity of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.” 

It then goes on to say:

“No court shall have jurisdiction to review any action taken by the Secretary of the Army, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of the Interior, or a State administrative agency acting pursuant to Federal law that grants an authorization, permit, verification, biological opinion, incidental take statement, or any other approval necessary for the construction and initial operation at full capacity of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.”

If you were around for the days of the PennEast pipeline battle, re-read the paragraphs above and replace Mountain Valley Pipeline with PennEast Pipeline. Imagine all of the hard fought successes of our communities wiped away by a dirty, backroom, political deal. Of all the emotions the communities of Virginia and West Virginia now feel there is one that starkly rises to the top – betrayed!  

This time it was the Mountain Valley Pipeline, next time it could be any number of other projects. The precedent has been set. Legislators on both sides of the political aisle and in both chambers of Congress can now demand: “You want my vote to raise the debt ceiling? You have to give forced approval of my pet project and strip away all opportunity for legal challenge, just like you did for the Mountain Valley Pipeline in 2023.”

The consequences of the so-called ‘Fiscal Responsibility Act’ will inflict irreversible harm on U.S. communities, our environment, and our democracy. Backroom deals to gut critical environmental protection laws and to force bad projects that will inflict irreparable harm will now become the cost for a legislator’s vote.  

The people of our nation deserve better than being sacrificed at the altar of fossil fuels, industry, and partisan politics.  Contamination of our water, air, soils, climate and environment inflict serious and very real consequences: life altering and costly illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, birth defects, learning disabilities, Alzheimers; lost property values, and economic costs to businesses who rely on clean water, healthy soils, and healthy workers to support their profits and business plans; increasing flood damages, wildfires, drought and deathly heatwaves.  

The life altering and economic consequences of undermining environmental protections and creating a new political pathway for doing so, are among the largely unconsidered, but very real, outcomes of the dirty debt ceiling deal struck in 2023.

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Maya K. van Rossum

Maya K. van Rossum

Maya K. van Rossum is the Delaware Riverkeeper and 30-year leader of the regional Delaware Riverkeeper Network. She is founder of the national Green Amendments For The Generations movement and organization, and author of The Green Amendment, The People’s Fight For a Clean, Safe & Healthy Environment (2nd edition of her award winning book).

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