Environmental justice groups are finding it harder and harder to pin down President Joe Biden’s promise to steer 40% of clean energy and other funding to boost racial equity and help vulnerable communities.
One of Biden’s campaign promises was to funnel 40% of his “historic investment in a clean energy revolution” to communities disproportionately impacted by pollution. The pledge, later to be called Justice40, drew praise from advocates for low-income neighborhoods and communities of color demanding attention for decades and getting little benefit from a U.S. clean energy revolution.
But that pledge has morphed since Biden has been in office, advocates say, and has raised plenty of questions over how his new administration will measure benefits.
“The concern is that we’re seeing changes in how this is defined now that Joe Biden isn’t on the campaign but is president,” said Michael Dorsey, co-founder of the California-based Center for Environmental Health and partner in the Ibersun solar firm.
Dorsey said he worries the White House has been “upselling” the pledge before ironing out the logistics.
The 40% would be delivered in undefined “overall benefits” from “relevant federal investments,” according to a January fact sheet detailing Biden’s executive order on climate action.
Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan suggests those benefits could hail from “climate and clean infrastructure investments.” The Justice40 initiative itself suggests the 40% could come from a host of “investments” well beyond climate and energy, from affordable housing to workforce training.
Climate and environmental justice groups say the administration needs to specify how it will decide what projects will or won’t be counted toward the 40%. They also want the administration to think broadly enough about what constitutes a community to help coastal communities facing increasingly severe and more frequent storms worsened by climate change.
The White House declined to offer specifics on how it plans to count projects or investments toward its 40% pledge, but stressed it’s engaging with agencies and departments and outside groups for input.
The Office of Management and Budget, Council on Environmental Quality, and National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy are to consult with disadvantaged communities toward recommendations due by the end of May on how a broad range of investments might be used toward the 40% pledge. Those investments could include clean energy and energy efficiency but also clean transit; affordable and sustainable housing; training and workforce development; addressing “legacy” pollution; and clean water infrastructure.
Dorsey and other advocates say they see a subtle shift in the White House framing of the pledge, some of which should be expected as the new president squares a campaign promise with the reality of governing.
But other important questions remain, Dorsey said, including whether communities bearing the brunt of pollution and minority-owned businesses will benefit, and who will build the new transportation infrastructure that may have significant benefits to those communities.
“Will those just be white contractors?” he asked.
Other advocates say it’s time for the Biden team to flesh out its pledge, particularly its vow to set aside 40% of overall benefits for vulnerable communities.
“It’s not clear to me what the 40% is,” said Alex Easdale, executive director of the Southeast Climate & Energy Network, which coordinates roughly 60 environmental justice and climate groups across southeastern states. “Benefits to the community? I don’t know what that means.”
Projects such as community centers tend to benefit a broader population but might count toward the 40% pledge—depending on the administration’s interpretation, he said.
While Biden and his team are “off to a good start” on environmental justice, “it’s not too early to hold them accountable,” Easdale said.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said he’s pleased the administration has set ambitious equity and environmental justice goals.
“This must be a top priority if we truly want to build a better future for our nation,” Carper said in a statement. “By making sure the environmental justice community continues to have a seat at the table, I believe the administration will hold itself to account in implementing this commitment.”
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said “a great deal of work will go into meeting” Biden’s Justice40 effort to ensure “it’s truly equitable and works for those most in need.” But the nation has “a responsibility to end the cycle of overlooking frontline communities,” he said in a statement.
Biden has generally gotten high marks for putting such marginalized communities front and center, making his an “all of government” environmental justice effort, elevating White House control of environmental justice, and making equity central to his $2 trillion infrastructure plan.
The White House recommendations will outline authorities agencies already “possess for achieving the 40-percent goal” and recommendations for new legislation if needed to further advance Biden’s promise.
Advocates say there are other ways to leverage Biden’s big infrastructure plan to help vulnerable communities. They include ensuring the plan’s $27 billion Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator—a green bank mobilizing private climate investments—prioritizes underserved communities, said Danielle Deane-Ryan, senior adviser to the Libra Foundation and former appointee to the Energy Department.
“It’s critical that we realize that not all green banks are created equal,” she said. States such as Connecticut “have been much more intentional about ensuring that the communities that most need the benefits of economic and wealth creation, and environmental benefits” get them, she said.
The idea for steering significant investments to such communities originated in the environmental justice community, which fought for similar carve-outs now codified in California and New York legislation—states where advocates have deeper roots but also more sway than other states.
Industries also are watching how the administration translates its 40% pledge into reality.
“When Biden was talking about this on the campaign trail there were certainly people who thought this is just part of the campaign,” said Simone Jones, an attorney focused on environmental litigation for Sidley Austin LLP whose clients include oil refineries.
Biden appeared to be making early progress on his pledge after taking office and filling top positions with people who prioritized environmental justice, she said. They include EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Biden’s pick to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Brenda Mallory, whom the Senate confirmed Wednesday.
Regan has directed all EPA offices to integrate environmental justice considerations in their plans and actions.
Key congressional Democrats applaud Biden’s push to insert environmental justice actions in his biggest priorities, including infrastructure.
“If we’re going to deal with the disparities we now cannot ignore, they have to be a cornerstone of the Biden plan,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in an emailed statement.
Grijalva backs Biden’s plan and said the environmental justice components “make that support stronger.”
Biden administration officials now rarely talk of big priorities such as the infrastructure plan without referencing equity. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told reporters that equity remains a top priority.
“And I want to emphasize—because I’ve been meeting with so many stakeholders on this—the true importance of ensuring that 40% of the benefits of the American Jobs Plan go to communities that have been left behind or unseen,” Granholm said April 8.
“We need to remedy a moral wrong, and make those investments,” she said.