The Biden administration could soon deliver on its promise to create a Senate-confirmed position to coordinate environmental justice initiatives across EPA.
Last year, President Biden’s first budget blueprint proposed establishing an EPA assistant administrator for environmental justice, an effort to elevate decisionmaking on the issue to the highest levels of the agency.
Observers see an appropriations package for the entire federal government — the omnibus bill — as providing the money to stand up that new position at EPA. That legislation could be enacted as early as next month.
“The omnibus is the best opportunity to be able to get the funding that is necessary,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former EPA environmental justice official who is now a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation.
EPA is moving forward with the proposal, included in its fiscal 2022 congressional justification, and plans to work with Capitol Hill to implement it.
“Environmental justice is a priority for Administrator [Michael] Regan and the Biden-Harris administration,” EPA spokesperson Lindsay Hamilton told E&E News.
Biden’s fiscal plan has an additional $287 million and at least another 171 full-time employees for environmental justice programs at EPA, according to budget documents.
Hamilton noted that the proposed reorganization would boost environmental justice so it is considered across the agency’s regional offices, national program managers and statutory authorities. In addition, the proposed position would be an assistant administrator that is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, she said.
Hamilton added, “EPA will work with OMB and Congress as the agency designs the new national program office for environmental justice and will provide all necessary information about the reorganization, including organizational structure, staffing and budget.”
The agency spokesperson said EPA — relying on the authority of Executive Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1970, which created the agency, and “general housekeeping authorities” — can launch a reorganization and establish a new assistant administrator position.
The agency last did so during the Trump administration. In 2018, EPA created the position of assistant administrator for the Office of Mission Support, which was merged together from two preexisting offices.
EPA already has an Office of Environmental Justice, which is housed in the policy shop within the administrator’s office. Also, the agency last week brought on Robin Morris Collin as the senior adviser to the administrator for environmental justice, a job separate from the post proposed by Biden’s budget.
An environmental justice program office, flush with cash and led by a Senate-confirmed assistant administrator, however, could be the cause’s most powerful champion at EPA.
“In my mind, it would be beneficial to bring in someone with some teeth in the game,” said LaTricea Adams, a member of Biden’s environmental justice advisory council and founder of Black Millennials for Flint.
She called it a “positive for there to be more talent allocated to this work, especially because of the sheer immensity. It’s a mammoth task.”
Environmental justice activists have been growing impatient with the administration’s pace in implementing early promises, including Justice40, the signature Biden plan to direct 40 percent of energy-related investment benefits to disadvantaged communities.
Exactly how those benefits will be calculated remains somewhat amorphous, and adding to the frustration, the White House delayed release of the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, which will help determine how federal dollars get to communities that need it most and is being rolled out soon (see related story).
Lawmakers push to ‘elevate’ environmental justice
Appropriators on Capitol Hill have already hinted they are in favor of EPA’s reorganization to emphasize environmental justice at the agency.
House lawmakers applauded the agency’s efforts, according to a committee report accompanying the appropriations bill funding EPA. They, too, plan to prioritize environmental justice.
“Given the significantly expanded role that environmental justice is to play in all other programs and media offices, the Committee is elevating Environmental Justice to its own Program Area,” the report said.
That includes $100 million for six new grant programs at EPA to help environmental justice communities. Overall, House appropriators recommended $247 million for environmental justice at EPA, an increase of $235 million above enacted funding, the report said.
The House Appropriations Committee approved the bill with that report last July. The House later approved a minibus, which included EPA’s spending bill, by the end of that month.
Senate counterparts also have spoken favorably of EPA championing environmental justice.
Senate appropriators said in an explanatory statement paired with EPA’s spending bill that the committee “notes with approval the Agency’s interest in a strategic reorganization of its environmental justice efforts, including elevating the seniority of environmental justice leadership within the Agency.”
The statement also said like the House, Senate appropriators would elevate environmental justice to its own program area and provide $100 million for environmental justice grants. Yet the Senate committee recommended less money for the program, slating $205 million.
The EPA spending bill was introduced in October last year but hasn’t moved further. Senators have voiced support for the move.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement that he supports more funding “to address environmental justice issues broadly, including more money for positions at the EPA to administer and elevate these issues.”
Similarly, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) supports the creation of the new position, according to his spokesperson Maya Krishna-Rogers.
“Sen. Booker considers environmental justice to be the core lens through which decisionmaking at EPA should be viewed, and getting an assistant administrator-level position created and filled would move us toward this goal,” she told E&E News.
How environmental justice’s elevation is funded and shaped at EPA remains to be seen.
Senators this week are readying to pass short-term funding, which the House has already approved, to keep the government open until March 11. By then, lawmakers hope to have an omnibus package to fund the government for the rest of the year.
Last week, Democrats Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Congress’ appropriations chairs, announced a framework for that massive spending bill. Individual programs, like environmental justice at EPA, however, are still being worked on.
“Negotiations are ongoing to finalize programmatic funding and policy provisions for fiscal year 2022 appropriations,” a House Democratic appropriations committee aide who asked not to be named, told E&E News. “The committee does not have updates on individual items.”
Even with a well-funded program office for environmental justice, confirming a new EPA nominee to lead it won’t be easy. More than a year into his presidency, Biden still has four pending nominees for the agency, who are facing holds from Republican senators (E&E News PM, Feb. 16).
Environmental justice becomes focus at EPA
Regan has pushed for environmental justice since early on in his tenure at EPA.
“To succeed, we must infuse equity and environmental justice principles and priorities into all EPA practices, policies and programs,” Regan said in an email sent agencywide last April.
The administrator also took a high-profile tour of communities plagued with pollution in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Last month, he announced a number of steps EPA will take to help those places recover (Greenwire, Jan. 26).
EPA also has proposed a new strategic plan, emphasizing environmental justice. The plan adds a new founding principle for the agency, which is “advance justice and equity.”
But a huge influx of appropriated funds for a new program office with a Senate-confirmed leader could have a more lasting impact at EPA for environmental justice than any administrative actions alone.
Time may grow short for lawmakers, given that it’s an election year. Democrats could lose control of the House, the Senate or both after the 2022 midterm campaign closes out.
“If you don’t get stuff done in the next eight months, and if Republicans take over the House, a lot of stuff will end up getting stripped out,” Ali said.
He added, “They will be the chairs of committees and the final vote on a bunch of stuff. So it gets really tough politically unless there is a mind shift and they see value in protecting vulnerable communities.”