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This Is Not a Climate Solution: Indigenous Land Defender Warns Senate Bill Will Aid Fossil Fuel Firms

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Image Credit: Twitter: @stopthemvp

We look at ​​the Democrats’ sweeping $739 billion bill just passed by the Senate in part to address the climate crisis. Democrats in the Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act on Sunday with votes from West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, and the House will vote on the package Friday. The reason the bill exists at all is due to Senator Bernie Sanders and grassroots organizing to demand action on climate change, says Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. Indigenous lawyer Tara Houska says the bill’s climate provisions cede too much to Big Oil companies in pursuit of renewable energy. “Black and Brown people continue to disparately experience the effects of extractive industry,” she adds. Bishop William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, says the bill contains too much compromise. “Part of the bill was putting a pipeline that Black and white and Brown and poor people in frontline communities are fighting right now,” he says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue with the vote on the Senate bill. The House is preparing to vote Friday on that sweeping $739 billion bill to address the climate crisis, reduce drug costs and establish a 15% minimum tax for large corporations. The Senate passed the measure Sunday, when Vice President Kamala Harris cast the deciding vote after every Republican in the Senate voted no. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer described the legislation as the boldest climate package in U.S. history.

MAJORITY LEADER CHUCK SCHUMER: The Senate has now passed the most significant bill to fight the climate crisis ever, and it’s going to make a difference to my grandkids. The world will be a better place for my grandchildren because of what we did today, and that makes me feel very, very good.

AMY GOODMAN: Many climate groups praised the Senate for taking action but said far bolder steps are needed to address the climate emergency. Varshini Prakash, the founder of the Sunrise Movement, tweeted, “This isn’t the bill my generation deserves but it is the one we can get. It must pass to give us a fighting chance at a livable world.” She went to write, “Youth leaders to Congress–Pass this bill, then get back to work.”

The Senate bill aims to cut U.S. carbon emissions by 40% by the end of the decade. But it also includes controversial provisions added to win support from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema. At Manchin’s request, the bill will make it easier for the pipeline industry to win approval of new projects, including the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia. The bill could also lead to more drilling on public lands and waters and expand tax credit for fossil coal and gas-burning plants. The Center for Biological Diversity has described the bill as a “climate suicide pact.”

Still with us, Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen. We’re also joined by Tara Houska, Indigenous lawyer and land defender, founder of the Giniw Collective. She is Ojibwe from Couchiching First Nation.

Tara Houska, can you respond to this bill, that many of the more mainstream environmental groups are declaring a great victory? You have the Sunrise Movement saying it’s not what they would have done, but it’s a beginning. Your response?

TARA HOUSKA: You’ve got a bill that in order to get access to renewable energy dollars and investments, upfront, the fossil fuel industry has handed off millions and millions of acres of public lands, of waters, side project deals where you see the rolling back of bedrock environmental law, all of this just to get investment into renewable energy. I mean, that is not a climate solution. Mother Nature does not deal in U.S. dollars. That’s my response.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you, Tara — the two main crafters of this bill, Senators Manchin and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, both of them have received significant contributions from — according to The New York Times, from NextEra Energy, a utility giant that’s a stakeholder in the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Schumer alone has received more than $281,000 from NextEra just this election cycle. What does this tell us about the continuing role of the fossil fuel industry in crafting federal legislation?

TARA HOUSKA: It, to me, says you’ve got a project that has not passed environmental review. It’s a project that funders and investors are very concerned about. It’s a project that’s bad all the way around and just cannot get momentum and get it going. And here you see Congress just deciding, “Oh, you know what? We’re going to give it a pass,” and specifically this project, so, setting this precedent of, well, even if your project doesn’t meet environmental reviews, even if it’s not fiscally responsible, even if it’s not going to meet any standard of economic development, you still might get it through. That’s what this precedent is saying.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play what West Virginia Senator Manchin had to say about this.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN: It has nothing to do with me, and it has everything to do not only with West Virginia but our country and the security and energy that we need. And that’s the bottom line. There’s not another project in America today that will bring this much energy within four to five months, within a half-year. There’s nothing that we can go to that will bring 2 billion cubic feet back into the marketplace.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times reports contributions to Manchin from natural gas pipeline companies dramatically increased, quote, from the “$20,000 in 2020 to more than $331,000 so far this election cycle.” Tara?

TARA HOUSKA: I mean, it’s doubling down on fossil fuels to get to renewables. And even the renewables, we have to acknowledge the fact that renewables themselves, it’s still going to be extraction. It’s still going to be the model that the fossil fuel and extractive industry wants, which is new mines in new places, which means our people, Indigenous people, which means Black and Brown people continue to disparately experience the effects of extractive industry. It means that mining companies are showing up in our backyard, taking out lithium, which is already happening in Thacker Pass. It’s already happening in other places. I mean, it’s — to get to the place that these folks are saying is a solution requires a lot of damage, according to them. That’s their climate crisis decision-making process, and it is sorely lacking.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Rob Weissman, I’d like to bring you back into the conversation. If you could talk — respond to some of the negative aspects in terms of climate on this bill, but also talk about the positive aspects? Clearly, there are all kinds of subsidies and enticements for renewable energy, but there’s also questions as to whether the industry already, especially the automobile industry, is not profiting from these rebates for electric cars by hiking the prices of cars.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah, there’s a lot in it. Look, I mean, there’s a lot that’s bad in it on the climate side and the energy side. Everything Tara said is absolutely right. I wouldn’t disagree with a word that she said.

There are a lot of good things in it. And, you know, the top line is it will reduce overall emissions, you know, from this 2005 baseline, from about 30% to 40%. That’s not nearly enough, but it’s consequential. And it’s consequential as opposed to the choice of doing nothing, which was unfortunately our alternative. There are a lot of good programs in here. There’s a lot of environmental justice-specific investments, billions of dollars for that, including, for example, money to decarbonize ports to reduce the diesel pollution that so badly affects communities around ports. There’s a lot of resilience money targeted for low-income coastal communities. And there’s big money to try to facilitate a rapid transition to renewables. So, there’s just a ton in there, and a lot of it’s really good.

But it’s absolutely right that the overall deal, because of Senator Manchin and, on this part, to a lesser extent, Senator Sinema, includes outrageous things that are completely counterproductive to the objective of reducing the climate crisis and absolutely will worsen both the problem of emissions and really focused harm on communities that have to deal with oil and gas extraction, with pipelines and, as Tara was saying, in mining. And those overwhelmingly are almost definitionally poor communities, communities of color, and often Native American communities, for sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, Rob, about what Senator Sinema extracted in order to get her support, Democrats agreeing to drop a proposal to raise taxes on private equity and hedge fund firms. You know, both of these senators, they feared, could torpedo this deal. But what about Senator Sanders torpedoing it from another direction, or threatening to, unless he, too, got concessions around the issues — well, everything from what Tara is raising to this issue of what Senator Sinema was demanding? If you could respond? I wanted to get Senator Bernie Sanders in here, his voice, speaking on the Senate floor this weekend.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Mr. President, under this legislation, the fossil fuel industry will receive billions of dollars in new tax breaks and subsidies over the next 10 years, on top of the $15 billion in tax breaks and corporate welfare that they already receive every year. And interestingly enough, Mr. President, that may well be the reason why BP, one of the largest oil companies in the world, supports this bill. It may be the reason why Shell, another huge oil company, supports this bill. And it is the reason, I suspect, why the CEO of ExxonMobil is pleased by many of the provisions included in this bill. So we’ve got to think a little bit about what it means when major oil companies who are in the process of destroying the planet support this legislation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could respond to what Sanders said? The difference between Sanders and Sinema and Manchin is he doesn’t hold the bill hostage, and unless he gets what he wants, support it. And if you could respond to that, everything from the fossil fuel companies he’s talking about to what Sinema got? Sinema has received more than half a million dollars in campaign donations from private equity group executives in this election cycle alone, representing about 10% of her fundraising from individual donors. This includes — I’m reading from the Financial Times — “donations totalling $54,900 from executives at KKR, $35,000 from Carlyle, [more than $27,000] from Apollo, [more than $24,000] from Crow Holdings Capital and [more than $23,000] from Riverside Partners.”

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah, well, for the first part of the question, Bernie doesn’t have the leverage that Manchin and Sinema do, because they won’t go along with what he might have demanded. Any additional thing, they would have said, “Fine. No bill.” We know that for certain, because we thought there was going to be no bill just a few days before there was a bill. So, I don’t hold — I have no criticism for Bernie. I think he did everything he did. And I think if we step back, the reason this bill exists at all is because of the Sanders campaign for president and how he framed things at the get-go, at the start of the Biden administration. So, I think that the existence of all the positive things, the single — the person who has the most single credit for that is Bernie Sanders. I think those positive things are the reflection of grassroots movements across the country. And that’s why we got them. He did not have the leverage to get more than is in the bill.

On the part about Senator Sinema, you’re absolutely right. You’re referring to a special loophole in the tax system that makes it possible for some of the richest Wall Street actors, the people who run private equity firms and hedge funds, to pay a lower tax rate. It’s slightly complicated why, but that’s just what it — that’s what the loophole does. It’s called the carried interest rate. The industry itself knows there’s no conceivable policy justification for it. But they prefer paying less in taxes, so they do everything they can to keep it going. And it’s not — this is not for the companies; this is for the rich people at the top. They got Senator Sinema to carry water for them. And her price of agreeing to the bill was to take out a provision that would have partially closed this loophole. It was only partial, so giving it up is actually not as bad as it might seem. In exchange, it turns out, Schumer was able to extract something that was also important, very progressive, and raises more money, which is a 1% tax on share buybacks. So, at the end of the day, Sinema took care of her donors — a complete outrage — but that netted out for the American people something that’s more progressive in terms of the tax system, and, I guess, a net positive. But no excuse for what Senator Sinema did. Sinema — Manchin at least told the —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Rob — Rob, if we can —

ROBERT WEISSMAN: — [inaudible] about why [inaudible] harmful. She can’t say that about what she did.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Rob, if we can, I’d like to bring in Tara Houska, as well. The Inflation Reduction Act provides over $60 billion in funding for environmental justice priorities, something Rob Weissman mentioned earlier. Tara, was anyone in the environmental justice movement that you know involved in helping to craft this provision?

TARA HOUSKA: No. There’s been some pretty serious pushback regarding the lack of representation in the drafting of this bill, specifically on the pieces that affect our communities directly. You know, from my perspective, it doesn’t really work to throw money at us if we don’t have habitable places to live. So, if our communities are underwater or if our air is poisoned and we’ve got pipelines and mines and all the things that are destroying our lands actively, how is some investments in block grants supposed to help us? You know, those are really serious questions that this bill is lacking.

And to that one piece that was just said, too, about, like, where we’re at in terms of blocking the bill, you know, there is this side deal that Manchin has mentioned and that they promised him, right? Like, this is a handshake agreement about the permitting provisions, the rolling back of NEPA, the, quote-unquote, “streamlining” of bedrock environmental processes and designation of 25 different projects to avoid these reviews. That’s going back to the House, and they’re going to try to attach it to appropriations. So there still is something that can be done at the congressional level.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring into this conversation Bishop Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and president of Repairers of the Breach. You tweeted on Monday about the reconciliation package, “While many politicians are applauding this compromise & it does some good things, it falls short of its promise & very short of addressing America’s most pressing economic problems.” If you can elaborate on that? And also, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, that Senator Manchin got revived and funded in this bill, goes from West Virginia through North Carolina, where you are.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Thank you so much, Amy.

And yeah, one of the concerns I have, and many of us have, is how we keep applauding so much compromise. You know, compromise historically has been very problematic once you read the details. You know, it was compromise that made people three-fifths of a person and gave us an Electoral College. It was compromise on the 1964 civil rights bill that actually John Lewis and many others criticized, and he said it wasn’t doing what it actually said it was going to do to — necessitated the ’65 Voting Rights Act. And I could go through history. So, history has taught us that when politicians get in a compromise, we must really look at what was put in, what was put out.

It is very possible to celebrate the good things in this bill, the historic investment in climate issues and the green bank and economic environmental justice. But you have to at least say, “Wait a minute. Part of bill was putting a pipeline that Black and white and Brown and especially poor people in frontline communities are fighting right now, from West Virginia through Virginia and North Carolina.” We’ve already beat two of those from coming in communities, one in Tennessee and one in North Carolina. And what do those pipelines do? How dangerous are they? Who is it really going to help? Is it going to benefit everyday people and working-class people and poor people? Is it going to benefit corporate interests?

We also, Amy, have to say, “Wait a minute. While we can celebrate some things, we have to honestly say what’s not a part of this bill, so that we don’t act as though this is an end, this is like a dunk, if we’re in basketball, game over.” No, we have to wrestle with what is wrong with our politics when, in order to get something good, you’ve got to give up universal pre-K, you’ve got to cut child care, you have to cut elder care, you have to cut child tax credit from the bill, and money for public housing, affordable housing from the bill, you have to cut the expansion of earned income tax credit from the bill, you have to cut closing the Medicaid gap from the bill, you have to cut the millionaire surtax from the bill.

And then we saw all of this work — 20 hours one day, 20 hours another day — but we only get one vote on restoring the Voting Rights Act, one vote on the John Lewis bill, which Manchin actually said, while John Lewis was living, that he would sign off on, that he agreed on, that he told people when he was running that he supported. We haven’t had — we haven’t gotten a living wage. Manchin said he was for a living wage when he ran. So did Sinema. All of these things had to be pushed away and pushed down in order to get this.

So, we have to honestly say what is historic, but we also have to say what is problematic. That is our constitutional right. That is our moral right. And because 90% of the things that were cut out will hurt poor people, low-wage people and low-wealth people, who represent 140 million people in this country, 30% of the electorate overall and 45% in some battleground states, we have to address this. And it is a real — it is a problem that has always been in the midst of American politics.

You know, Dr. King got talked about a lot when he said that moderates were the worst enemy of the civil rights movement, because they were more interested in compromise and order than they were in reordering the society. And we still have to have that critique today. Some don’t like it, Amy, when you say it.

But, you know, Amy, I come out of a sports background. And when I played football and when I watch basketball, if you win a championship seven-game series, you didn’t win one game and then say, “Series over.” You did not really jump and applaud until you won all four games. Democrats should say, “Look, this is what we were able to do with 50 votes in the Senate and two renegade senators. Give us 54 votes or 55 votes, and we will get the rest of it done.” But you can’t just celebrate what was done and leave, no conversation about all of these other things that matter so much in the life of poor, low-wealth people in this country, because to do so is morally inconsistent, constitutionally inconsistent and economically insane.

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