The phrase “environmental justice” — which Democrats use to describe the remedy to the outsize exposure of poor and marginalized communities to harm from hazardous waste, resource extraction and extreme weather — is missing from new House Energy and Commerce Committee documents.
During an organizational hearing this week, Rep. Nanette Díaz Barragán (D-Calif.) noticed the term wasn’t referenced in materials outlining subcommittee jurisdictional boundaries.
“My understanding is that the jurisdiction of environmental justice has been stricken from jurisdiction of the subcommittees,” said Barragán. “It’s something our committee should absolutely oversee, how communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted.”
Full committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said that despite changes to subcommittee titles and outlines, the jurisdiction of the different panels hasn’t shifted compared to the last Congress.
Rodgers, during an interview, said the committee intends to focus on the impact of energy development on minority and low-income communities.
“We’re absolutely committed to high environmental standards, environmen
tal justice and energy justice,” said Rodgers.
Still, Democrats argue language matters. They believe stripping the phrase from subcommittee jurisdiction descriptions is a sign that the new majority Republican might overlook issues of equity.
“I think they’re saying that they don’t care about these communities that have been disproportionately impacted by environmental contamination,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), ranking member of the newly minted Energy, Climate and Grid Security Subcommittee. “I think it’s a very bad statement to make.”
‘No reason to take it out’
The committee’s public-facing website includes jurisdiction details for the Energy, Climate and Grid Security Subcommittee; Environment, Manufacturing and Critical Materials Subcommittee; and Health Subcommittee. None says environmental justice explicitly.
In contrast, House Democrats included the words “environmental justice as it relates to the above-referenced jurisdiction” in subcommittee descriptions for the 117th Congress, when they were in the majority.
“There’s no reason to take it out,” said full committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). “It was in there specifically because we felt that it should be promoted or that we should do as much as we can to make sure there is environmental justice.”
DeGette suggested that Republicans might find something “weird” about using the term.
“Maybe it’s weird for them, but I betcha many of my Republican colleagues on the Commerce Committee have environmental justice areas in their districts,” said DeGette.
This week Democrats similarly expressed concern when Oversight and Accountability Committee Republicans scrapped the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee. That panel helped probe pipeline permitting and eminent domain controversies.
Democrats made environmental justice a central focus of their plans for the last Congress. Advocates and many lawmakers felt the issue had finally become prominent enough on Capitol Hill.
Republicans, however, objected to how Democrats described and defended environmental justice. And Rodgers this week signaled how the committee will address concerns regarding low-income and minority communities as it relates to energy, and its not exactly how Democrats view the matter.
Republicans on Tuesday showcased witness Donna Jackson, a membership director for Project 21, an initiative of the National Center for Public Policy Research to highlight conservative views among African Americans.
Throughout her testimony, Jackson spoke about how policies promoting a green energy transition have raised prices and put significant financial pressure on low-income communities.
“We see the entrepreneurial spirit of the black community in many black-owned small businesses, but those businesses struggle and sometimes fail under the weight of high energy costs,” Jackson said. “Climate change policies and environmental justice initiatives take us in exactly the wrong direction by blocking domestic sources of energy.”
Even though Democrats prioritized environmental justice and secured funding for communities dealing with pollution, they were unable to pass broad environmental justice reform legislation championed by progressives (E&E Daily, Dec. 19, 2022).
Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Environment Subcommittee, said he hoped to keep politics out of environmental justice debates.
“I hope the rhetoric will be as straightforward as it could be,” said Tonko. “It’s about creating a just situation.”