Environmental justice advocates were set for a hard-fought win Friday as President Joe Biden readied an executive order tightening oversight of pollution with an eye toward safeguarding public health.
Scheduled to be signed in the White House Rose Garden on Friday afternoon, the order will target environmental reviews around projects like pipelines and highways, along with chemical plants and waste sites. Federal agencies would also be directed to work much more closely with affected communities at early stages of project development, considering health and environmental factors and notifying residents of risks.
“For far too long, communities across our country have faced persistent environmental injustice through toxic pollution, underinvestment in infrastructure and critical services, and other disproportionate environmental harms often due to a legacy of racial discrimination including redlining,” the White House said in a statement, adding that climate change has compounded those threats.
Among other actions, the order will also create a new Office of Environmental Justice within the White House Council on Environmental Quality, one that will coordinate initiatives across the federal government. That office will fill research gaps and data, in addition to developing and implementing strategic plans for review, albeit with an unclear number of staffers to help that work (Climatewire, April 21).
The White House emphasized that the executive order “means cleaner air and water, reduced risk for asthma, cancer, and other health burdens, and better access to green space, safe and affordable housing, and clean transportation.”
Under the order, agencies will consider the cumulative impacts of pollution and other burdens like climate change as projects are assessed.
Agencies will also identify gaps in science, data and research — work that will run through a new Environmental Justice Subcommittee within the National Science and Technology Council, led by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Federal officials will ramp up tribal consultation along with outreach to other vulnerable communities, while also making more information publicly accessible.
Coinciding with a slew of Earth Day-pegged announcements, the move is among the most aggressive actions the Biden administration has taken in its environmental justice efforts.
Communities living near industrial facilities have long suffered negative health impacts and are disproportionately likely to be low-income and nonwhite. In addition to fossil fuel facilities, heightened tensions have grown around waste sites like incinerators, as well as plastics plants.
Also Friday, EPA released a new strategy aiming to combat plastics pollution, including notifying communities of nearby toxic leaks (see related story).
Biden is also expected to use his speech Friday afternoon to draw a contrast with Republicans in Congress, namely House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
The top House Republican has been engaged in a war of words with the White House over negotiations to lift the U.S. debt limit. McCarthy has sought to use the GOP energy bill, H.R. 1, as a bargaining chip in that fight, leading to fury from Democrats. Republicans are pushing for deadlines on environmental reviews and other provisions, including cuts to clean energy tax credits from the Inflation Reduction Act and expanding fossil fuel endeavors.
In response, the White House has fought back, panning the GOP push as a “dangerous vision” that will imperil public health.
The administration also released an environmental justice “scorecard” on Friday, which lays out what federal agencies are doing to advance related work in communities nationwide.
That guide offers insight into the progress 24 agencies are making on implementing and enforcing environmental and civil rights laws, along with advancing Biden’s Justice40 Initiative.
That effort seeks to direct 40 percent of overall benefits from certain federal investments toward marginalized communities struggling with pollution. As part of its announcements Friday, the administration added three new agencies — the Department of Commerce, the National Science Foundation and NASA — to Justice40.
The White House said future versions of the score card will include additional information, like how agency work is directly benefiting vulnerable communities. EPA’s section already includes details around its relevant actions to date, including making $14 billion in funding available from Justice40-covered programs.
‘Frontline organizing power’
The order adds a new dimension to the sometimes rocky relationship between the president and advocates, as well as his own advisers.
Environmental justice organizations have previously voiced frustrations with the Biden administration, arguing that related initiatives have not been well-staffed and that the White House has failed to flex its full muscle in cracking down on inequities and pollution. White House advisers have also expressed grievances, bristling at the tone of official correspondences and at the administration’s slow pace (Greenwire, Jan. 18, 2022).
Despite those tensions, environmental advocates quickly applauded the executive order Friday morning, praising it as a major step forward.
“Today’s executive order is the result of nearly two decades of organizing by the environmental justice movement,” Ozawa Bineshi Albert, co-executive director at the Climate Justice Alliance, said in a statement.
That national nonprofit represents 89 rural and urban community-based environmental justice organizations and supporting networks. Albert credited “frontline organizing power” with building momentum and pressuring government officials to take bolder action. “This win belongs to our communities who have been on the frontlines of the climate crisis, creating solutions, building local power, and engaging lawmakers for decades,” she said.
Prominent national environmental groups offered similar praise.
“By involving communities in decision making, honoring their expertise, and ensuring they have a seat at the table, we can create more effective and just solutions to environmental and public health challenges while addressing our critical infrastructure and energy needs,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous in a statement.
Still, some advocates also offered caveats with their applause for the executive order.
Albert noted that Biden has come under immense criticism for signing off on drilling projects on federal land, along with leases like the Willow project in Alaska.
“We will continue to ensure that this step forward isn’t just performative,” said Albert. “The new office of environmental justice must ensure strong, consistent procedures are implemented across agencies moving forward.”
A balm for Democrats
The White House order also offers a consolation to proponents who came very close last year — in the waning days of the Democratic majority — to securing a House vote on what was then called the “Environmental Justice for All Act.”
It was recently reintroduced as the “Donald A. McEachin Environmental Justice for All Act” in honor of the late Virginia Democratic congressman who died last fall from the secondary effects of colorectal cancer, and was a champion of the legislation alongside the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona.
Grijalva and McEachin spent several years writing the “EJ for All Act,” drawing on feedback from environmental justice advocates and inspiration from cross-country listening tours and fact-finding missions.
It would make significant changes to the nation’s bedrock environmental laws and allow more intensive community input into the siting of fossil fuel projects. It also would vastly expand the power of polluted communities to reject projects that can spike local rates of cancer and respiratory disease and cause long-term pollution.
A large component of the bill would address “cumulative impacts,” which would require permitting decisions under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act to account for the cumulative effects of harmful emissions on communities. That has always been the stickiest portion of the bill, even among Democrats, specifically those from oil and gas states who feared extractive activities in their districts would be significantly curbed if this provision were enacted.
“Parts of the bill can’t pass the House,” a senior House Democratic aide said last October of the dynamics at play.
At the time of that statement, environmental justice advocates — including McEachin — were pushing leadership to allow a vote on their bill before year’s end. They had been emboldened by their movement’s success in thwarting efforts to insert a permitting proposal from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) into a stopgap spending measure that might have rendered much of the “EJ for All Act” moot.
But with McEachin’s sudden death in late November, the lobbying for floor action increased. Advocates seized on the moment to push for a symbolic vote in the full House, if for no other reason than to honor their colleague’s legacy.
Democrats, congressional aides and advocates close to the discussions said there was serious consideration on the part of House Democratic leaders to schedule a floor vote, and Grijalva endeavored to strike a compromise that would bring moderate holdouts on board.
At one point, there was a proposal on the table to strip the most sensitive cumulative impacts provisions from the bill and replace it with the text of an amendment that was adopted during a markup of the bill in the Natural Resources Committee. The language, proposed by McEachin, would have beefed up permitting requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Ultimately, time ran out for negotiations, coupled with an anxiety that a “trade” was in the offing, where Democratic leaders would agree to vote on the “EJ for All Act” in exchange for allowing Manchin’s permitting reform proposal to ride through on the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.
There is virtually no chance of the bill, in any iteration, returning to the House floor in the current Congress, where Republicans are now in control of the chamber.