House Democrats this morning unveiled a long-awaited environmental justice bill, a novel collaborative effort between lawmakers and local groups that have long been ignored on Capitol Hill.
Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) later today will lead introduction of the "Environmental Justice for All Act," which would expand the National Environmental Policy Act and slap new fees on oil, gas and coal to fund communities transitioning away from fossil fuel economies.
The legislation faces an uphill battle in Congress this year, but it represents an unusual effort by lawmakers to reach out to communities affected by pollution to pull them into the larger congressional conversation about climate change and the environment.
Grijalva said environmental justice communities have always been an "afterthought" in those policy debates.
"What we wanted to do with this piece of legislation is interject this discussion into the center of the overall discussion about climate change and environmental policy going forward," he said at a news conference this morning announcing the bill.
Grijalva and McEachin used an online platform called PopVox to allow disparate environmental justice groups around the country to comment on the legislation. During the last 18 months, the lawmakers have also met with hundreds of groups and hosted a daylong environmental justice summit on Capitol Hill.
The outreach meant that environmental justice organizations were no longer an afterthought, said Kim Gaddy, an environmental justice organizer with Clean Water Action in New Jersey.
"They brought us in early," she said.
Grijalva said that when he introduced a separate environmental justice bill a few years ago, it garnered virtually no outside support because he hadn't talked to communities.
"I wondered, why aren't people buying into this wonderful idea?" Grijalva said. "Part arrogance and part ignorance."
This time, he said, "the roles were reversed," and environmental justice groups led the drafting process.
The bill would require federal agencies to offer greater input to environmental justice communities during the NEPA permitting process and mandate consideration of cumulative impacts under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
It would also codify the 1994 executive order that set up the federal government's existing environmental justice efforts and amend the Civil Rights Act to ban discrimination based on uneven environmental impacts.
All combined, this virtually ensures the measure has no chance of going anywhere in the GOP-controlled Senate, at a time when the Republican president is attempting to scale back NEPA reviews and expand oil and gas development.
But the bill also crosses several different House jurisdictions, meaning committees like Energy and Commerce, Judiciary, and Transportation and Infrastructure would have to mark it up before it comes to the floor.
Grijalva acknowledged that reality but said he had not started talking to the chairs of other committees, besides Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), in any real detail.
He said the Natural Resources panel may take up the legislation "sooner rather than later," however, and Grijalva noted that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave remarks at the environmental justice summit he held with McEachin last year (E&E Daily, June 27, 2019).
Progressive Caucus co-chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) is a co-sponsor of the legislation, and several other supporters also sit on Energy and Commerce, including McEachin and Reps. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.), Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) and Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.).
Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.), another Energy and Commerce member who is challenging Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey in a tight Democratic primary race, has attached his name to the bill, as well.
Despite the likely Senate opposition, Grijalva said, "our job first is getting it through the House."
"I think that would be a victory, because what I think is important is that we set a template for the American people," he said. "All Americans."