Biden orders agencies: Do more on racism, environmental justice

By Robin Bravender | 02/16/2023 01:21 PM EST

In a new executive order, the president requires agencies to designate leaders who will be held accountable for the government’s gains in equity.

President Joe Biden.

President Joe Biden is expanding governmentwide efforts to face problems of systemic racism and poverty. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Federal agencies have more work to do to ensure that government programs are supporting groups that have been “locked out of opportunity,” the White House said Thursday as it rolled out new policies to combat racial inequality and advance environmental justice.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order that expands on his administration’s earlier efforts to prod agencies throughout the government to tackle “systemic racism and persistent poverty.”

The order requires agencies to produce annual plans to ensure that underserved communities can benefit from their policies. It also requires agencies to designate senior leaders who are accountable for advancing equity and puts Biden’s top domestic policy adviser in charge of a new White House committee.


On his first day in office in January 2021, Biden issued his first executive order on “advancing racial equity” and “support for underserved communities” in the federal government (E&E News PM, Jan. 21, 2021).

Environmental justice has been a key component of Biden’s plan to use the government to advance racial equity. The administration’s Justice40 initiative aims to ensure that 40 percent of the overall benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy flow to disadvantaged communities that are overburdened by pollution.

Biden’s new order touts “transformative achievements” already made by his administration toward advancing equity. Still, he said, “members of underserved communities — many of whom have endured generations of discrimination and disinvestment — still confront significant barriers to realizing the full promise of our great Nation, and the Federal Government has a responsibility to remove these barriers.”

During a speech to county leaders on Tuesday, Biden lauded funding from climate and infrastructure laws that will go toward “fence-line communities that have suffered the most as a consequence of being smothered by pollution.”

‘Always more that can be done’

On Biden’s watch, “there’s a number of positive steps that have happened” toward advancing equity in the government, said Mustafa Ali, executive vice president of the National Wildlife Federation and former leader of EPA’s environmental justice office.

“You’ve got to build a capacity to be able to meet the needs and to make sure that the resource allocation is making it to the spaces and places that need them,” he added.

“Two years in and there’s a structure that’s there, and the needs continue to grow,” Ali said. “There’s always more that can be done.”

Biden’s latest order comes during Black History Month. His top domestic policy adviser, Susan Rice, is scheduled to hold a briefing Thursday afternoon about the administration’s progress on equity and racial justice.

Under Biden’s direction, more than 90 federal agencies — including every Cabinet-level agency — released equity plans last spring. EPA announced actions such as developing a framework to assess the cumulative impacts of its decisions on populations and communities and strengthening its civil rights enforcement.

The Interior Department’s strategy included a plan to keep better track of demographic data about who’s visiting national parks, and the Energy Department said it would aim to increase opportunities for new applicants to access DOE funding opportunities (Greenwire, April 14, 2022).

Interior’s assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, Shannon Estenoz, announced Thursday that she’ll be traveling to North Carolina next week to highlight the administration’s “commitment to ensuring that everyone, no matter their background or zip code, can enjoy the benefits of green spaces and the outdoors.”

Biden’s latest executive order directs agencies to produce public equity action plans every year to “assess and include actions to address the barriers underserved communities may face in accessing and benefitting from the agency’s policies, programs, and activities.”

The new order requires the heads of agencies — including EPA, the Energy and Interior departments, and others — to ensure that they have teams in place within 30 days to coordinate their equity initiatives. Those teams, Biden said, should be led by a designated senior official and include senior representatives from agency offices including civil rights, regulatory, science and others.

The new teams should coordinate with agencies’ existing structures, Biden said, including the agencies’ environmental justice officers.

Biden also announced a new White House Steering Committee on Equity, which will be led by Rice and will coordinate governmentwide equity initiatives. That committee will work with the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, Biden said, “to ensure that equity and environmental justice efforts are consistent and mutually reinforcing.”