As President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy try to sell Congress on their proposal to raise the debt ceiling, environmental groups are crying out against provisions that would push forward a controversial pipeline project and weaken a bedrock environmental law.
The deal is a “disaster for people and the planet,” the nonprofit Friends of the Earth said in a statement. The organization’s director of government and political affairs, Ariel Moger, called it a “surrender to Big Oil and Republican hostage-takers.”
The main purpose of the so-called Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 is to raise the debt ceiling, a congressionally mandated limit on the amount of money the Treasury can borrow to fund its operations and pay its creditors. The U.S. government has never before failed to make a debt payment on time, and economists say a default — which is projected to occur on June 5 if Congress doesn’t raise the ceiling — would cause widespread financial chaos and spark a global economic recession.
Congress has voted to raise the debt ceiling 78 times since 1960. Doing so allows the U.S. to continue paying for programs that Congress has already approved, but debt ceiling negotiations have gotten more contentious in recent years as congressional budget hawks try to win spending cuts in exchange for their support. This year’s proposal, which Biden and McCarthy announced on Sunday after months of negotiations, would lift the debt ceiling through the end of Biden’s first term in office. The bill includes some spending cuts to appease congressional Republicans, but it also contains environmental “poison pills” that opponents say have nothing to do with the national debt.
One such provision would require the Army Corps of Engineers to approve all remaining permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile project to carry natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia. The bill would also protect the permits from judicial review.
Although the conservative Democratic Senator Joe Manchin has argued that the pipeline is needed for “energy and national security,” experts say this need has never been demonstrated. Instead, a coalition of environmental advocates warn that pushing the project forward could cause some 89 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually — about as much as 19 million passenger cars — while also harming low-income communities and communities of color in its path. The pipeline has already faced numerous permitting roadblocks due to water quality violations.
“This is a desperate company building a failing pipeline that has some sympathetic ears in Congress,” said Russell Chisholm, managing director of Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights, a coalition of environmental groups in Appalachia. He said panic over the debt ceiling was a “completely manufactured crisis” that lawmakers were exploiting at the expense of frontline communities.
“I really feel they’re trying to shift the blame for this looming deadline, this looming ‘catastrophe,’ over onto people who object to having their lives thrown away in the name of raising the debt ceiling,” Chisholm said.
Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, has signaled he intends to file an amendment to remove the Mountain Valley Pipeline provision from the debt ceiling bill, although it’s unclear whether the amendment will get a vote.
Green groups are also concerned about changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, in the debt ceiling deal. Since 1970, NEPA, sometimes called the “Magna Carta” of U.S. environmental laws, has required federal agencies to conduct an environmental review before greenlighting major projects. The proposed changes would put time limits on that review process — a move that critics say could expedite fossil fuel infrastructure, although the White House has argued it could help move forward clean energy proposals.
Chisholm said the faster timeline for environmental reviews would make it harder for communities to weigh in on proposed infrastructure projects near their homes. It takes time to educate the public and turn them out for public comment periods, he said — especially in rural areas without fast internet.
Other provisions of the debt ceiling proposal would restart federal student loan repayments; implement work requirements for people who get food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; and rescind $1.4 billion in funding for the Internal Revenue Service, out of a total of $80 billion provided by the Inflation Reduction Act. White House officials said the deal would take another $20 billion from the Internal Revenue Service and put it toward other nondefense programs.
Environmental advocates including Chisholm called on lawmakers to reject the bill and “do their jobs.”
“We need a clean debt ceiling bill, period,” Chisholm said. “Raise the debt ceiling, pass a clean bill, and stop targeting the most vulnerable people in this country.”