Infrastructure bill must not take environmental shortcuts

Democrats in both houses of Congress are being counseled that they should lower their expectations for the deal that will ultimately be reached regarding the infrastructure and reconciliation bills. For example, channeling Mick Jagger, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer was recently quoted in The New York Times commenting that “[n]obody is going to get everything they want.”

Fair enough. I just hope admonishments such as these are taken seriously by both progressives and centrists. When it comes to some very important, substantive provisions of the infrastructure bill already passed by the Senate, climate and environmental advocates need to ask the centrist members to retreat a little.

Although the public discussion about both bills might make even a careful observer believe that the only issue is the price tag, that’s just not true. The infrastructure bill contains many provisions that would greatly limit the extent to which environmental and climate effects of construction projects need to be reviewed and considered before these projects are approved. These provisions were deemed to be so important by the leaders of 124 big and small environmental and climate advocacy groups that they sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging her “to take action to ensure these harmful provisions do not advance.” The letter was signed by organizations as big as the Natural Resources Defense Council and as small as Rogue Valley Citizens for Clean Air.

Some of these provisions are arcane, but that doesn’t make them less important. Here are descriptions of just a few of the bill’s provisions.

One would exempt thousands of oil, gas, and wastewater pipelines from being reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before they are approved by the federal government. Once these pipelines are in use, there is a risk of explosion, leaks, water contamination, air pollution, and property damage.

Another would fast-track permitting for a very broad category of complex projects related to energy, mining, and infrastructure projects. It would undermine NEPA as well as a host of other environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

A third would waive environmental and health review, public scrutiny, and public input on construction projects that would cost as much as $35 million each.

A fourth would render review of environmental and health impacts meaningless under many circumstances by allowing certain activities to occur before required reviews are completed.

Unfortunately, that’s just a sample.

But there’s nothing inevitable about any of this. Right-wing ideologues and industry interest groups are working as hard as they can to gut the reconciliation bill. Their friends in Congress are aiding and abetting them. Neither members of Congress nor environmental advocates can allow the field simply to be abandoned to those who have chosen to work against the interests of the vast majority of the American people.

Schumer’s wisdom should be taken to heart. It’s certainly clear that environmental and climate advocates won’t get everything they want. They have a responsibility, however, to work as hard as possible to make sure that there isn’t a grand deal that guts environmental protection laws that have been on the books for years.


The Democratic-controlled Congress voted for NEPA in 1969, the same year “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was released. It was signed into law by the Republican environmentalist, Richard Nixon, on January 1, 1970. It is, without a doubt, the most important federal environmental law ever enacted into law.

Both environmental advocates and the Democrats who ran Congress at that time knew that they should never give up. We should look to them for inspiration. Because if you try sometimes, you get what you need.

Larry Shapiro of New York City is the associate director for program development at the Rockefeller Family Fund and a co-founder of the Funder Collaborative on Oil and Gas.

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