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Environmental Equity Screening Tool Weeks Away, CEQ Adviser Says

Oct. 5, 2022, 6:36 PM

The Biden administration is weeks away from unveiling its first governmentwide screening tool for agencies to better focus their programs on communities that have long borne burdens from pollution, its top environmental justice adviser said Wednesday.

The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, which will guide agencies working to meet President Joe Biden’s pledge to put 40% of benefits from climate and other federal spending in long-ignored communities, will be dubbed “version 1.0" and is poised for release by the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Further updates to the tool are planned.

“Our goal is to release that version 1.0 in the next several weeks” but there will be “continuous updates and refinements to it” in the coming years, Jalonne White-Newsome, CEQ’s senior director for environmental justice, told Bloomberg Law.

Other big environmental justice actions Biden pledged in his first week in office should be expected either by the end of the year or in early 2023, she said. That includes a revamped 1994 environmental justice executive order that has gone untouched since President Bill Clinton signed it, and a final scorecard gauging progress by agencies in addressing environmental justice efforts.

Behind Schedule

Most of those promised actions are behind schedule, from the screening tool originally slated for summer of 2021 to the scorecard, which Biden had pledged by February. The CEQ released a beta version of the screening tool nearly eight months ago for public comment and has been tweaking it since.

The initial screening tool sought to identify marginalized, underserved communities down to the census tract level based on data showing they exceed one or more environmental or climate indicators and deemed low-income or otherwise disadvantaged based on other socioeconomic indicators.

But environmental justice advocates roundly criticized CEQ’s decision to exclude race as a factor in zeroing in on those communities for fear it might violate civil rights law. They pointed to extensive data showing many pollution and climate impacts disproportionately impact communities of color.

CEQ conceded in February that it’s “well-documented that communities of color suffer disproportionately” from some burdens. But it argued that even without using race as a metric, other measures would more than likely alert the agency to communities of color suffering historically from pollution.

Scorecard, Biden Order in 2023

The administration’s first government-wide Environmental Justice Scorecard is being readied for release in early 2023, said White-Newsome, tapped for the environmental justice adviser post in May following the departure of her predecessor Cecilia Martinez, who served less than a year.

The CEQ over the next few months will make revisions in part from changes urged by community groups, industry, and other groups that are expected to submit significant comments in the weeks ahead. CEQ extended the deadline for public comments on the scorecard until Nov. 3 under a Federal Register notice published Tuesday.

Getting consensus on the scorecard has also involved input from various federal agencies and departments, which “are helping shape it because they’re the ones that are going to have to use it,” White-Newsome said.

The scorecard is meant to put teeth in Biden’s Justice40 effort to steer 40% of the benefits of climate, clean energy, affordable housing, and other investments to disadvantaged communities and gauge how well agencies incorporate environmental justice into overall programs and policies.

A White House effort to revamp the 1994 executive order, which directed the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to set environmental justice policies but failed to comprehensively tackle the issue, “is still a work in progress,” she said.

Revisions of the presidential directive are being handled by the White House, White-Newsome said,"but our hope is that it will be something before the end of the year.”

The White House environmental council is also close to standing up two key advisory panels Congress created in 2020 legislation to encourage carbon capture and storage, White-Newsome said. The legislation, known as the USE It Act, directed CEQ to establish task forces to identify permitting challenges and successes and improve the permitting process.

The nomination process for task force members recently closed, she said, clearing the way for an announcement shortly.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bloombergindustry.com