A top adviser on a White House environmental justice panel is defending the group’s criticism of next-generation energy technologies, saying it will "hang tough" in what could be a prolonged struggle within the Biden administration.
Peggy Shepard, co-chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, spoke to E&E News on Friday about the council’s recommendation that 14 types of energy projects — including advanced nuclear and carbon capture and storage (CCS) — be disqualified from President Biden’s plan to channel 40% of clean energy investments to disadvantaged communities (Energywire, May 17). The recommendation in a report last month has drawn blowback from innovation advocates who say it would undercut Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, which calls for spending tens of billions of dollars on CCS and hydrogen demonstration projects in distressed areas.
"Certainly, we want to support research and development. It’s needed in certain areas," Shepard said, noting that she was not speaking on behalf of the panel. "But we don’t want to support R&D [like carbon capture] that we already believe will not help our communities and that is very, very expensive. We’re going to work to ensure that these projects are not happening in communities of color."
Shepard cited uncertainties about technologies’ waste streams, CO2 sequestration and emissions of criteria pollutants that can’t be captured by CCS systems.
"Thinking about issues of waste and disposal and sequestration — where does that happen? Who’s affected by it?" she said.
Biden’s first full budget request, released Friday, includes hydrogen and CCS investments that would raise the deficit by $1.5 billion through 2022 and investments in advanced nuclear procurements that would raise the deficit by an additional $100 million.
Shepard, who is also executive director of New York-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said the panel’s report has not strained relations with the White House.
"I suspect that the administration is not going to accept all of the recommendations of the [council]," she said. "I also expect that we’re going to hang tough on what happens in environmental justice communities."
Energy justice ‘frontier’
The panel’s report has shined a light on a growing schism between Biden’s pledge to infuse energy policies with environmental justice principles and his promise to rapidly scale up new clean energy technologies.
The administration is trying to braid those two climate commitments together. But there are few models for how to do it.
"I like the idea that the Biden administration is working on, which is trying to figure out who’ll have the benefits" of new types of clean energy, said David Hart, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation think tank. "But figuring out how that’s done — I think it’s frontier."
The environmental justice council, made up of over two dozen activists from around the country, is beginning work this month on a scorecard that will be used to grade the implementation of the Biden administration’s 40% investment promise for disadvantaged areas, according to Shepard.
Biden issued an executive order in January creating the advisory council, marking one of the environmental justice movement’s deepest incursions into mainstream American politics.
But by balking at certain energy innovations, the group could test the limits of its clout. Most Democrats in Congress are unlikely to pick fights over carbon capture or other early-stage, low-CO2 technologies that get backing from Republicans, noted Hart, who has co-authored papers that urge the government to undertake a "moonshot"-style deployment of clean energy technology.
"There’s a pretty strong bipartisan consensus about continuing to invest in innovation around a broad front. There will be conflicts over specific areas. It’s clear that nuclear and carbon capture are not going to be something that 100% of the Democratic Party will support," he said. "But my guess is, people won’t be willing to draw a line and say, ‘I’ll vote against the whole thing if you put carbon capture in there.’ That would be the disastrous outcome."
One technology not mentioned in the advisory council’s report was hydrogen. Nearly all of that fuel is now produced using natural gas, and federal officials have promoted the idea of making it "clean" by deploying carbon capture at production sites.
On Friday, for example, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm visited a Texas hydrogen production facility owned by France-based Air Liquide, where she called the fuel "a very exciting example of how clean energy takes all kinds of forms into the future."
That type of hydrogen would not be considered beneficial for disadvantaged communities under the White House panel’s definition, because of its dependence on carbon capture. The group’s report left some doubts, however, as to how its members regard "green" hydrogen made using wind and solar electricity.
Shepard said she hadn’t engaged deeply in that subject but noted differing opinions among environmentalists and justice advocates. "I think it’s too early to say whether it would benefit [disadvantaged communities]."
The panel had taken just two weeks to prepare the report, she added, noting that many of the advisers had been making the same policy recommendations for decades.
"We knew the kinds of activities and projects that were needed in our communities," Shepard said. "We just never had as good of an opportunity as this one to highlight them."