Climate Advocates Want to See a More Just Transition Away from Fossil Fuels

While the Inflation Reduction Act promises to inject billions of dollars into frontline communities, environmental justice leaders are concerned about its support for pollution-producing energy sources.
An illustration of power plants and pollution with houses and people in the foreground.
Illustration: Delphine Lee

When the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was announced in August, Ozawa Bineshi Albert was as surprised as anyone—and immediately wary. Albert is co-executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition of dozens of groups that advocates for a just transition to a regenerative economy. “The standard mode of operation with energy bills is that sacrifices are going to be made,” she says, and those sacrifices are imposed disproportionately. 

From the Gulf of Mexico to Appalachia to the Arctic, low-income communities of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color have long been forced to live beside pipelines, refineries, and export terminals that accompany oil and gas development and to suffer inordinately from air pollution and illness caused by fossil fuels. Many also live in places hit hard by extreme weather, sea-level rise, and other climate-change effects. 

Environmental and climate justice advocates widely view the IRA as imperfect. On one hand, it commits $60 billion to support communities on the front lines of pollution and climate change. The money will fund air quality monitoring, solar projects, better access to drinking water, urban forestry, and improvements. Yet it also props up fossil fuels: It revives offshore oil and gas lease sales previously defeated in court, for instance, and stipulates that offshore and terrestrial renewable energy projects can proceed only after oil and gas lease sales are held.

“We celebrated its passage while mourning the things that were lost in negotiations and the sacrifices the fossil fuel-related provisions impose on some communities,” says Andie Wyatt, policy director for Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit dedicated to equitable renewable energy deployment.

“We celebrated its passage while mourning the things that were lost in negotiations.”

Frontline communities will likely also bear the brunt of carbon capture and storage development, which received lucrative subsidies. Although originally envisioned to trap and pump carbon emissions from industrial facilities deep underground, today the technology is primarily used to push more petroleum to the surface in aging oil fields—potentially adding more carbon to the air than it removes. “It’s a false solution,” says Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the nonprofit Healthy Gulf

Albert’s group ultimately denounced the legislation for not doing enough to address root harms of climate change and injustice. She and others will keep fighting fossil fuel development while ensuring the communities they represent take advantage of the IRA’s provisions to reduce emissions and transition to a clean energy future. “We’re going to make sure our folks know how to access those funds,” Albert says.

This piece originally ran in the Winter 2022 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.