I came across an interesting article by Lisa Whitley Coleman in the EHS Daily Advisor (a newsletter for environmental, health, and safety professionals). Ms. Coleman engages in an in-depth analysis of the administration’s progress in delivering Environmental Justice.

To evaluate the administration’s progress on delivering upon EJ, Ms. Coleman considered the following five areas:

  • Increasing awareness of the issues
  • Implementation of meaningful regulations
  • Fair funding
  • Inclusion of community voices
  • Industry accountability

Here are the results of her evaluation . . . 

Analysts predominantly agree that the Biden administration has done well at increasing awareness of EJ issues.

“For far too long, communities across our country have faced environmental injustices, bearing the brunt of toxic pollution, enduring underinvestment in infrastructure and critical services, and suffering disproportionate impacts from climate change,” according to the White House EJ website.

Executive Order (EO) 14008 established new EJ initiatives, including:

  • The White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council (IAC), an inter-governmental body comprising the heads of key federal agencies that seeks to advance EJ across the Biden-Harris administration and is developing strategies to address current and historic environmental injustice;
  • The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), an advisory committee comprising EJ leaders and experts, that advises the IAC and the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) on ways to increase the federal government’s efforts on EJ;
  • The government-wide Justice40 Initiative, which aims to provide 40 percent of the overall benefits of federal investments relating to climate change, clean energy, and other areas to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution;
  • The development of a Climate and EJ Screening Tool, which seeks to help agencies identify disadvantaged communities for the purposes of the Justice40 Initiative and thereby inform equitable decision-making across the federal government; and
  • The establishment of an EJ Scorecard to track federal agency performance on EJ, including on the Justice40 Initiative.

“Restoring and protecting a healthy environment — wherever people live, play, work, learn, grow and worship — is a matter of justice and a fundamental duty that the Federal Government must uphold on behalf of all people,” says Executive Order (EO) 14096 Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to EJ for All. “We must advance [EJ] for all by implementing and enforcing the Nation’s environmental and civil rights laws, preventing pollution, addressing climate change and its effects, and working to clean up legacy pollution that is harming human health and the environment. Advancing [EJ] will require investing in and supporting culturally vibrant, sustainable and resilient communities in which every person has safe, clean and affordable options for housing, energy and transportation.”

Advocates have praised the Biden administration for its “infusion of [EJ] in national policy priorities,” notes Yale Climate Connections (YCC).

“‘I would say this administration has moved further on the structural recognition of [EJ] than any previous administration ever has,’ Energy Justice Law and Policy Center founder Raya Salter said. She added that whether that recognition translates to ‘rubber hitting the road’ remains to be seen, noting a greater need for Congress and other agencies to step up and prioritize [EJ].”

Implementation of climate priorities and regulations

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), signed into law in August 2022, is the most comprehensive climate legislation ever enacted. It provides billions of dollars for EJ, electric vehicles, and clean energy initiatives.

Since its enactment, more than 250 clean energy projects have been announced to take advantage of the new tax credits, says E2.org.

The following list highlights some of the regulations the Biden administration has enacted to combat climate change and address EJ:

  • In April 2021, Biden committed to a new national target for the United States to achieve a 50 percent to 52 percent reduction from 2005 levels in economy-wide net greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution in 2030.
  • Reduce super pollutants.
    • The ratification of the Kigali Agreement in September 2022 committed the United States to reducing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
    • The EPA, as directed by the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act, issued a proposed rule to phase down HFCs.
    • The administration’s Methane Action Plan was updated in November 2022 to include 50 specific measures.
    • Strong standards were announced at the UN climate summit to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, which was followed by proposed regulations from the EPA in January 2024 to implement a fee for methane emissions.
  • “In 2021, Biden set a goal for 50% of new passenger vehicles sold to have zero emissions by 2030 and signed an EOdirecting federal agencies to purchase 100% zero-emission light-duty vehicles by 2027. In 2021, the EPA issued a final rule to significantly reduce GHG emissions from passenger vehicles (model years 2023 to 2026) and proposed strong standards for model year 2027 and later vehicles. At the state level, California finalized rules to require zero emissions from all passenger vehicles sold in the state after 2035,” the World Resources Institute (WRI) says. “To stay on track, the EPA must finalize strong clean car standards in the spring of 2024 for vehicles with model years 2027 to 2030. More states should also opt into California’s zero-emission vehicle standards.”
  • Increase carbon dioxide removal. While the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the IRA invested in ecosystem restoration and wildfire risk reduction and the IRA provided tax credits for carbon dioxide air capture, similar “incentives should also be provided for a broader set of carbon removal approaches, such as carbon dioxide mineralization and biochar production,” the WRI adds.
  • Climate-related disclosures for public companies were proposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in April 2022 and are currently in the rulemaking phase.
  • Preventing chemical accidents, a rule to prevent chemical accidents by private companies and enhance community safety, was proposed by the EPA in August 2022 and is currently in the rulemaking phase.

Although many regulations have been enacted and more are in progress, community activists agree that more regulations are needed to meaningfully impact EJ.

Inclusion of community concerns

Approximately 161 proposed solar farms and wind energy projects are located next to EJ communities, said Jigar Shah, director of the U.S. Department of Energy Loan Programs Office, according to YCC.

“He said that his office’s emphasis has been on making sure the benefits of renewable energy investment are made available to the same communities that have historically been harmed by energy generation,” YCC continues. “But Alexis Parker, lead organizer for the New Georgia Action Fund for Environmental Justice, said energy costs also need addressing. Five Southern states, including Georgia, have the nation’s highest low-income energy burden, meaning the households with the lowest income are also spending the most on their energy bills. This problem results from rising temperatures in the deep South and historical infrastructure and building disinvestment that has left many residents with homes that are not properly insulated.”

Advocates say there’s no funding in place to offset the cost of these utilities or to assist low-income households with better insulation.

They also note that “it’s critical for communities to have input in the distribution of federal funds, ensuring that industries such as carbon capture and storage, biogas/biomass, or green hydrogen facilities can’t use the federal grants to set up shop against the wishes of residents,” YCC adds.

Fair funding

While EJ activists applaud the unparalleled amount of funding made available for EJ, the YCC articles gave the current administration a “C” grade in equitable allocation of resources.

Concerns have been raised that “approximately 60% of those funds are being directed through states rather than to community organizations or municipalities directly. In addition, many of the communities with the greatest need don’t have much capacity or the connections needed to apply for grants…

“The good news is that there are billions of dollars going out into communities,” Peggy Shepard, cofounder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said in a press briefing, according to YCC. “The bad news is, are those communities ready to access those funds?”

One problem with the funding is that there’s a lack of provisions in the federal funding initiative that “ensures climate spending across the board cannot disproportionately burden frontline communities, which are communities that have historically felt the brunt of environmental harms.” There’s also a lack of provisions prioritizing “cutting carbon pollution in frontline communities,” the YCC article continues.

However, in spite of the shortcomings, many advocates have expressed gratitude at seeing some progress for EJ communities such as EPA grants for nonprofit community groups to fund air quality monitoring programs and additional programs to cap toxic leaks from abandoned mines and replace lead drinking water lines.

Industry accountability

Many advocates classify the Biden administration as failing miserably in the area of corporate accountability.

“One of the biggest critiques of Biden’s climate agenda from Southern advocates has been a missing stick—such as more stringent regulations on air and water pollution—to match the numerous carrots contained in the climate package,” says YCC. “In the case of Cancer Alley in Louisiana and Texas—a stretch along the Mississippi River that hosts about 25% of the U.S. petrochemical production—or the recently approved Willow project in Alaska, this has meant the expansion of drilling and exploration for oil and gas in communities that were promised a reprieve from industry pollution.”

Other critics point out a lack of enforcement actions to crack down on industry polluters.

“The number of refineries and chemical plants emitting high levels of benzene, a chemical linked to leukemia, has fallen slightly since Biden took office,” notes The Spokesman-Review. “But as of this summer, data shows eight facilities continued to release excessive amounts of the sweet-smelling gas, which is one of the most dangerous pollutants that these industries emit. All but one of them are near disadvantaged communities in Texas and Louisiana. While the EPA has recently [increased] enforcement, regulators only acted after the inspector general opened an investigation, according to interviews with agency staff. That probe found in September that for years, the agency did not enforce the federal ‘action level’ for the carcinogen.”

EPA officials blame enforcement delays on “budget cuts” and a leftover attitude from the Trump administration of “cooperative federalism,” meaning states are left with primary enforcement responsibility, The Spokesman-Review adds.

“Within the agency, some have blamed the delays on EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas, which covers Texas, Louisiana and three adjoining states. Though the office is tasked with making sure state regulators properly enforce the Clean Air Act (CAA) and other environmental laws, environmental advocates say it has been far too lenient under both Democratic and Republican presidents.”

“The office’s air enforcement team tried to look busy … by pursuing simple cases that could be closed quickly and that rarely led to big fines or emissions reductions,” said Debbie Ford, a senior EPA enforcement officer who retired from the Dallas office in 2021, according to The Spokesman-Review.

“According to a study published last year, funded in part by the EPA, cities where neighborhoods were redlined tended to have higher levels of air pollution nearly a century later,” The Spokesman-Review continues. “Polluting industries in Louisiana and Texas have historically faced few consequences, and residents said they have rarely been able to count on the federal government to act as a backstop.”

Is it enough?

Resoundingly, advocates characterize EJ initiatives and the current efforts as “too little, too late” within a flawed system where federal regulators in regional offices are “loath to offend their local counterparts,” which leaves “enforcement cases in the hands of pro-business state agencies,” The Spokesman-Review notes.

Although many advocates are glad to see some efforts, they say it isn’t enough:

  • “Concerns have been raised questioning how certain federal actions may not fully align with the goals of addressing the needs of [EJ] communities,” says WRI.
  • “The [EJ] movement began in the 1980s as an effort to make sure environmental rules were fairly enforced in poor and minority communities,” the Manhattan Institute says. “But Biden’s EJ agenda goes far beyond that reasonable approach. … [His] agenda diverts spending and administrative resources away from traditional environmental priorities—such as reducing air and water pollution and lowering [GHG] emissions—and directs them toward amorphous social goals.”
  • “If Trump were to win in 2024, environmental advocates and some agency officials fear that enforcement would further sputter,” The Spokesman-Review article says. “Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist who has helped communities document and fight industrial pollution … fears the same pattern that has played out for years on the Gulf Coast may be repeating itself, she said: ‘We put all the data together and then enforcement never happens. This is what hurts. They came down, and we were of the impression they were going to do things,’ she said. ‘It’s not happening, and we’re running out of this administration’s time.’”

Industry takeaway

Corporations have long been villainized and portrayed as taking advantage of marginalized people and communities.

Regulated companies that have been found guilty of intentionally ignoring or attempting to bypass regulations designed to protect U.S. air and water quality face significant penalties. Those penalties surpass the costly enforcement fines imposed to include public boycotts and negative press that can permanently damage a company’s reputation.

“Environmental justice matters because businesses have an inherent social responsibility to contribute resources to marginalized populations,” says The Climate Pledge. “And committing to environmental justice is not just good practice, it’s good business: In a 2018 poll by Sustainable Brands, 90% of Gen Z consumers believe companies must take action on social and environmental issues, and 72% factor in a company’s Purpose when shopping.

“Now is the time to listen to the people and communities most impacted by the climate crisis, support their initiatives, and take action internally and externally to voice your solidarity. As capitalism has influenced our society the past few decades, it has also placed business as the most powerful institution to make changes.”