Where Environmental Policy Stands Right Now
Congresswoman Debra Haaland doesn’t miss a beat when asked what she considers to be the most pressing environmental issue right now.
“It’s climate change and how we go about addressing climate change,” Rep. Haaland (D-NM) tells Shondaland. “I am a proud member of the Pueblo of Laguna. Our Pueblo communities are connected to the earth. We practice ancient agricultural traditions, and when we migrated to this area of the Southwest, we know — just like so many farming communities across New Mexico know — that we need to protect our land. We need to protect our water. We need to be able to grow our food so we can sustain ourselves.”
This year, for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Haaland penned an op-ed for The Hill in which she argued that the coronavirus pandemic has put into focus just how much the environment is interconnected with everyday life. One of her signature pieces of proposed legislation is the Climate Stewardship Act, which she introduced alongside New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.
“That bill would make sure [we can] absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and be more resilient by planting millions of trees,” Haaland explains. “We want family farmers to be incentivized to foster healthy soil and restore our wetlands.”
Haaland is also a lead author of the 100% Clean Economy Act, a bill that sets a national goal of a 100 percent clean economy no later than 2050. And in February, she introduced in the House the 30 by 30 Resolution to Save Nature, which would commit the United States to conserving 30 percent of the country’s land and oceans by 2030. The effort was first introduced in the Senate last October.
“We believe that will protect habitats of species that are being driven to extinction by climate change and other issues,” Haaland says of the initiative. “The more we can save our public lands from destruction from gas and oil drilling, from mining and so forth, the better off we will be.”
Protection of public lands, especially those considered sacred in many Indigenous communities, is a key issue for Haaland. Back in December 2016, former President Barack Obama created Bears Ears National Monument after a coalition of southwestern Native American nations campaigned for the protection of their ancestral lands. But less than a year later, President Trump drastically reduced the size of both Bears Ears and another monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante. The unprecedented move became the largest rollback of protected public lands in U.S. history.
“Right now, we’re working hard to protect big swaths of public land,” Haaland says. “When you look at what this administration is doing — cutting off big swaths of our public lands like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante to open that up to gas and oil drilling — that is a tremendous threat to the future of our country and our public lands, and exacerbates the horrific dangers of climate change.”
Several Tribal Nations and environmental groups are challenging the rollback in federal court. As of June 9, they were still awaiting a decision. If the courts rule in Trump’s favor, fossil fuel and mineral extraction would be permitted on these once-protected lands and habitats.
“The Trump administration has a pattern of hiring gas, coal, and oil lobbyists to run everything, so that’s why the EPA’s been gutted,” Haaland explains. “That’s why critical positions haven’t been filled.”
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal calls the administration’s rollbacks on environmental regulations an “outrage.”
“It’s done for the profits of very few big corporations and the harm is to — of course everyone and our planet — but it’s disproportionately to Black and Brown communities who have suffered so much,” Rep. Jayapal (D-WA) says. “[Trump] has been ruthless about doing favors for his fossil fuel cronies and taking away any regulatory protections that apply to all of us who want clean water, clean air, decarbonization — all those things science [says] are necessary for us in this moment. But the burden falls disproportionately on certain communities.”
When Jayapal came to Congress in 2017, she formed the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force alongside Reps. Don McEachin (D-VA) and Nanette Barragán (D-CA). The directive of the task force is to provide a voice for communities of color, low-income families, and other marginalized groups most affected by climate change and environmental degradation.
“We introduced a bill that we continue to push to essentially utilize an environmental justice screening tool,” Jayapal explains. “This is a public tool that could be used and provided by the EPA to identify communities facing the greatest economic, health, and pollution barriers. It would help us in every policy to make sure the communities facing the greatest burdens of environmental injustice are actually getting the attention they need.”
Jayapal cites Trump’s recent executive order, which gave regulatory agencies the green light to waive certain environmental laws, as evidence that he’s not interested in crafting environmental policy that prioritizes public health. The order aims to make the federal approval process for new mines, highways, pipelines, and other projects happen more expeditiously due to the current state of the U.S. economy.
“He’s making unilateral decisions without any opportunity for public input,” Jayapal says. “Some Black and Brown communities live in neighborhoods where toxic dumps get situated right next to highways and exacerbate respiratory problems, which are the very conditions that lead to COVID-19. We know low-income people and people of color are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19, and this would just hurt them further.”
Last year, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced the Zero Waste Act, which would create a federal grant program to help reduce landfills and incinerators that emit toxic pollution into vulnerable communities. Haaland and Jayapal are both co-sponsors of that bill.
“With the environment, a lot of people divorce the planet and [think the] environment is something out there, and it doesn't necessarily connect to human health and well-being,” Jayapal says. “Now, there’s more recognition that we have to really think about the environment that directly interacts with people, and specifically the disproportionate burden on low-income people and people of color, precisely because the environment includes housing, it includes transportation, it includes access to clean drinking water and clean air. If you just think about it as a planetary issue without thinking about it from a justice issue, you can leave out a lot of that.”
Although not explicitly an environmental bill in the traditional sense, Jayapal views her Paycheck Recovery Act as a prime example of intersectional legislation that centers underserved communities.
“People live in certain places because they don’t have income, and they are forced to accept things because people don’t think they have a voice or they’re not being listened to,” Jayapal says. “I see income and wealth disparity as a key function of also tackling climate and environmental justice. And I see that people are just starting to connect the dots.”
Congressman Harley Rouda, who serves as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment, reiterates the importance of intersectionality in environmental policymaking.
“Given the magnitude of the challenges we face, environmental policy must take into account the comprehensive nature of the problem we are seeking to address,” Rep. Rouda (D-CA) says. “Environmental policy intersects foreign policy, economic policy, and our approaches to health, infrastructure, and national security. It’s clear that environmental policy must inform every sector of U.S. policymaking — it cannot exist only in the liberal shadows of lawmaking.”
Examining FEMA’s natural disaster preparedness and response efforts, investigating bottled water companies’ profiteering and plastic pollution, and holding the EPA accountable, are some of the subcommittee’s main objectives. Earlier this year, it requested documents from the EPA regarding its suspension of environmental enforcement during the pandemic.
The subcommittee has also focused its attention on the Trump administration’s actions to roll back the Obama-era clean cars rule, fundamentally alter the Mercury Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Rule, and weaken other pollution regulations.
“House Democrats, and some House Republicans, have advocated and passed significant legislation aimed at safeguarding and expanding environmental protections,” Rouda says. “Unfortunately, these bills have joined Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard. The refusal to advance environmental legislation is not only a grave disservice to the American people — it puts our health and safety at risk.” (According to McConnell himself, hundreds of House bills are currently sitting in the Senate, with no signs of advancing to the floor for debate, let alone a vote.)
Despite the roadblocks that Trump’s Republican Party have placed along the road of policymaking, Rouda says opportunities for the parties to work together on meaningful environmental legislation exist, particularly along the lines of transportation and infrastructure.
Last year, he introduced the Coastal Communities Adaptation Act, which has bipartisan support. Rising sea levels and extreme weather events disproportionately affect certain areas, and the legislation would help those places bounce back from natural disasters more swiftly through research and grants.
But in this line of work, optimism and realism can often struggle to coexist in harmony.
“The undue influence of industry and blind trust in President Trump has made it difficult to pass meaningful policy,” Rouda says. “Republicans and Democrats want their children to drink clean water and breathe clean air. This is an opportunity to ensure a livable world for future generations.”