Guest Commentary

John Kendrick, Summer Fellow, Washington Legal Foundation*

Last week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) voiced its concerns over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a project meant to carry petroleum from the Canadian Oil Sands to refineries in Texas. Among the EPA’s concerns is the issue of “environmental justice.”  According to the letter, “minority, low income and Tribal communities or populations” live along the pipeline route that “may have limited emergency response capabilities and consequently may be more vulnerable to impacts from spills, accidents and other releases.” 

The doctrine of environmental justice essentially equates any business action (whether intentional or unintentional) to racial discrimination if the action has a “disparate impact” on minority or lower-income communities. This idea had fallen out of favor until recently; now the EPA is renewing its focus and attempting to integrate it into the agency’s day-to-day policy. It’s a great “one-size-fits-all” advocacy weapon for activists, one which can fit most any environmental situation. For instance, activists in California are invoking environmental justice as a reason why EPA must stiffen ozone emissions standards in areas like Los Angeles. Many Latinos + pollution = disparate impact discrimination. 

Such fuzzy math has profound implications beyond these two examples, though.  As explained in a past Legal Pulse post:

Through either actual EPA actions or the threat of being accused of discrimination, businesses can be whipsawed into either staying out of  “overburdened” (as EPA terms them) communities (where unemployment is high), or forced to invest in the kind of “green” technology which will make EPA and activists happy but limit business growth and job creation. Such overcompliance is exactly what activists have in mind with environmental justice.

A perfect example of this process is Shintech’s failed attempt to build a factory in 1995 in the none-too-affluent Louisiana town of Covenant. Despite the project’s support from state officials and local residents, environmental activists poured into the town, and the EPA ruled the plant “discriminatory.” Locals who wanted the economic benefits of the plant were ignored. As one resident put it, “why do these people want to take away our jobs?”  Threatened with EPA action, Shintech took its business elsewhere.

The fact is, environmental justice is a concern of green activists and the liberal beltway elites, not a concern of the actual communities they are claiming to represent. This was true with the Shintech debate, and is still true today with Keystone.

The pipeline’s initial construction phase alone could create 20,000 new American construction and manufacturing jobs. With our unemployment rate at 9.1%, these jobs are desperately needed. Once built, the pipeline would bring Americans over one million barrels of petroleum per day (more than we currently import from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela). High gas prices have a greater effect on those in poverty, since necessities such as gasoline take up a larger percentage of their budget. Logically, one who was really concerned about the welfare of those less fortunate should support the pipeline, which would lower gas prices and increase our energy security (protecting us from future price shocks).

The EPA’s doctrine of environmental justice hurts the groups it seeks to protect, and it hurts the larger American economy.

*John will be entering his senior year this fall at William & Mary.