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The Inflation Reduction Act Is a Disappointing Act of Federal Greenwashing

The Inflation Reduction Act approaches clean energy with the same extractive model beloved by the fossil fuel industry.

President Joe Biden shakes hands with Sen. Joe Manchin after signing the Inflation Reduction Act alongside Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and House Majority Whip James Clyburn in the State Dining Room of the White House, on August 16, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Congressional Democrats were very proud of themselves for passing the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a bill that includes $370 billion for climate and energy initiatives, in addition to much-needed subsidies on prescription drug costs and Medicare benefits. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who worked with the intractable Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said the bill “will put the country on track to meet the climate goals we need to preserve for our planet for our children and for our grandchildren.”

It’s tempting to believe him: Many environmental advocates are reporting that the IRA, while imperfect, is a good start. We desperately need climate legislation and could use a win to stay optimistic about our future. Besides, there are aspects of the bill to celebrate, like funding to address air pollution and a tax on coal to support miners with Black Lung Disease.

But unfortunately, in order to win Manchin’s approval the Inflation Reduction Act was turned into a profit-fest for fossil fuel giants like ExxonMobil, and the parts of the bill that do invest in clean energy and greenhouse gas reductions are largely premised on false solutions. We cannot call something that does such grave harm a success, especially when the harm will fall hardest on disadvantaged communities. The Inflation Reduction Act is a disappointing act of federal greenwashing.

Despite all of the research reporting that the first step to reducing emissions is to halt new fossil fuel development, the IRA includes multiple provisions to increase fossil fuel production. Three canceled oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico were revived by the bill, and to ensure “energy security,” the federal government is required to lease 62 million acres of public lands and waters to oil and gas developers before offering any solar and wind leases.

The bill also ensures that the fossil fuel industry will rake in $3.23 billion in subsidies for Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCS) technologies. CCS is mostly a smoke-and-mirrors trick: The technology isn’t really there yet, and it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Ninety percent of CCS projects are used for enhanced oil recovery, a process in which captured carbon is stored underground, where it can be extracted again as oil. The entire idea of CCS is to slow the transition away from fossil fuels and continue the cycle of extraction.

The Inflation Reduction Act approaches clean energy with the same extractive and profiteering model beloved by the fossil fuel industry. With the discounts provided in the bill, extractive industries will move onto yet more Indigenous lands and into the backyards of other disadvantaged communities to set up poisonous projects like mines and nuclear power plants.

The Indigenous Environmental Network has called the Inflation Reduction Act a trojan horse for frontline communities: While it includes a myriad of grants for disadvantaged communities, recipients are forced to compete for eligibility with one another and well-funded industries and NGOs.

Indigenous human rights lawyer and Water Protector Tara Houska responded to the bill by saying, “It doesn’t really work to throw money at us if we don’t have habitable places to live. If our communities are underwater or if our air is poisoned and we have pipelines and mines and all the things that are destroying our lands actively, how are some investments in block grants supposed to help us?”

We cannot get out of the climate crisis using the same model that got us into this mess. Rewards for industries that prioritize their own profit and have no accountability to the local communities that their projects exist in are not the solution. We need to invest in community. If President Biden and Congressional Democrats truly wanted to help frontline communities, they could have invested in public transportation instead of privatized electric vehicles, supported community participation in the design and articulation of energy projects, supported community-owned renewables, and given communities experiencing environment injustice the legal right to recovery.

Money created the Inflation Reduction Act. Both Schumer and Manchin have received major donations from the pipeline company that benefits from their deal: NextEra Energy. And, at the end of the day, this bill was designed to reduce inflation — not save the planet.

We cannot allow the federal government to greenwash this economic package and call it progress. The Inflation Reduction Act will create countless sacrifice zones in the name of “green” energy, already visible in places like Thacker Pass in Nevada. President Biden says that progress requires compromise, but his version of a compromise involves sacrificing disadvantaged communities. You cannot call that a “start” on climate.

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