The Inflation Reduction Act: What’s in it for Detroit’s most vulnerable communities?

President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law Tuesday, marking the first real action taken by the U.S. government to address climate change. The bill contains $369 billion in investments and tax credits in clean energy and electric vehicles, but also significant investment in policies and technologies that could allow continued burning of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas – such as carbon capture (a technology many experts are dubious about), hydrogen, and nuclear energy. 

And the bill contains explicit gifts to the fossil fuel industry – requiring the federal government to open land up for drilling and increase fossil fuel production. A side deal would make developing natural gas infrastructure and pipelines easier, locking in more fossil fuel production and carbon emissions in years to come.

Climate justice advocates are speaking out against the bill for shortchanging frontline communities – particularly those already impacted by fossil fuel extraction. They say vulnerable communities in places like the Gulf Coast, Ohio River Valley and Alaska will continue to bear the burden of pollution under the act.

All of this has us wondering – what benefit if any this bill contains for vulnerable communities? To find out, Planet Detroit turned to Juan Jhong Chung, policy director of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.

Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Planet Detroit: What does the IRA mean for vulnerable communities and Detroiters regarding potential benefits and threats?

Juan Jhong Chung: I’ll start with the threats. Unfortunately, there is a lot of money for unproven technologies. There are nearly $3 billion for carbon capture, $13 billion for hydrogen production, and nearly $30 billion for nuclear energy. 

The problem is that many of these technologies will actually help utilities keep their fossil fuel and polluting infrastructure. And I can give you a pretty clear example: Here in Southeast Michigan, DTE Energy has been exploring blending natural gas and hydrogen. Currently, hydrogen production is mostly from fossil fuels like methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. And the way that they’re trying to make it “clean” is by using carbon capture. However, all the co-pollutants emitted by power plants would stay in communities of color and low-income communities. So that is a significant threat for us that we know is coming.

Juan Jhong Chung. Courtesy photo.

Planet Detroit: What are some other threats you see in this bill?

Juan Jhong Chung: The other big threat under the Inflation Reduction Act is funding for programmatic environmental impact statements (EIS) instead of project-based EIS. EIS is required for federally funded projects under the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the federal government to consider the environmental impacts of its projects. 

Programmatic EIS is done on a larger scale, meaning communities have less opportunity to be meaningfully engaged in projects affecting their environment and health. The IRA is allocating funding for programmatic EIS, which industry prefers.

An even more significant threat is this so-called permitting reform bill – struck as part of a side deal between Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen Joe Manchin. It will set time limits for many of these project reviews that will fast-track fossil fuel and industrial infrastructure. And this is very dangerous. We don’t know how this bill could affect Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac. That is a significant threat to Michigan and the Great Lakes. 

The same also applies to new and unproven technologies, like carbon capture and hydrogen, that will require pipeline infrastructure, storage, and transportation. Our communities need to be able to defend themselves. But if projects are fast-tracked, it casts doubt that environmental justice will be upheld. 

Planet Detroit: Are there any things in this legislation that support vulnerable communities?

Juan Jhong Chung: Yes, some provisions have the potential to benefit vulnerable communities. And we have to make the best that we can out of it. There is funding to monitor air pollution designated explicitly for low-income and disadvantaged communities. That is for air quality monitoring. That is a big, big win that our movement has been asking for for a long time. It’s about $3 million.

There is also funding to address air pollution in schools specifically located in low-income and disadvantaged communities. Similarly, there is a provision to reduce diesel emissions. And that is getting close to $60 million from vehicles servicing good movements again designated specifically for low-income and disadvantaged communities. That would apply to communities here in southwest Detroit located near the border bridges, anywhere where trucks are moving. 

I do have to highlight that a lot of that money to reduce those emissions won’t be going directly to communities; it will be going to truck owners to transition their trucks to electric or other technologies with low emissions. There is another pot of money for clean heavy-duty vehicles, including school buses, garbage trucks, and even transit buses, specifically in overburdened communities.  So communities that are out of attainment for air pollution, including many in Metro Detroit, would be eligible for this money. 

There is also a $9 billion pot for home electrification and energy efficiency upgrades, but these are rebates. And what we want to highlight here is that, unfortunately, many low-income families cannot pay for the cost upfront, and many more are renters. This provision will likely benefit mostly moderate-income homeowners. There is a lot of work to do at the implementation level to make the promises in the IRA more just and more equitable.

And the bill includes a set aside of $15 billion targeting low-income and disadvantaged communities to deploy projects that will reduce greenhouse gases, like rooftop and community solar. That is exciting news for EJ communities. This provision is called the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which is essentially a green bank that will give grants and loans to deploy projects reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One thing to note is that we are concerned that it is based on competitive grants. So that means communities will have to compete with each other and with better-funded NGOs and industry.

Planet Detroit: What are you doing next to advocate for vulnerable communities as this legislation takes effect?

Juan Jhong Chung: MEJC has two tasks at hand now that the IRA has been signed into law. One is fighting all the harm we know is coming, so we will fight the permitting reform side deal. We’re going to be fighting fossil fuel infrastructure expansion in Michigan. We will be fighting false solutions and unproven technologies in our communities. And at the same time, we also need to look at the money that our communities can get, and we will have to ensure that there is equity and justice in how that gets implemented. So we’ll have our hands full for sure.

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