President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan and $1.5 trillion budget proposal are just the first steps in a likely government-wide effort to remove barriers to racial equality and environmental justice, a White House official said Wednesday.
“The president has been clear that communities that have borne the brunt of pollution over the last decades should be first in line to see the benefits of this clean energy transformation,” said Jahi Wise, the White House senior adviser for climate policy and finance.
He and other administration officials spoke at a town hall of environmental justice advocates held by Green 2.0, the U.S. Climate Action Network, and the National Black Environmental Network.
Wise said the infrastructure plan includes clean energy block grants that could strengthen front-line environmental justice groups. That would create a feedback loop of sorts in which those advocates could better advise the administration on what new projects or funding is needed in their communities, he said.
The administration is steering such funding to groups that “actually get out and do that work,” Wise said.
A new $27 billion Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator, proposed in the infrastructure plan to launch a federal green bank to mobilize private clean energy investment, “is to become a window of capital for black and brown-owned businesses that are doing the hard work of deploying energy assets,” Wise said.
Some are already calling on the White House to put even more in the green bank’s coffers.
Nicole Sitaraman, an environmental justice advocate and vice president for strategic engagement for Sustainable Capital Advisors, told Wise that $100 billion is needed to fully fund Biden’s clean energy accelerator.
“We really need to see real solid, chunky dollars being invested in communities of color,” she said.
The White House vowed last month in rolling out its infrastructure plan that its green bank will have a “particular focus on disadvantaged communities that have not yet benefited from clean energy investments” and would help to mobilize private investment in distributed energy resources—including decentralized, community-based sources.
But it’s also to fund retrofits of residential, commercial and municipal buildings and clean transportation.
EPA, USDA Actions
Advocates at Wednesday’s town hall also pushed officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Energy Department to focus on inequities through their programs and policies, including making electric vehicles more broadly accessible.
The EPA historically has been agnostic on vehicle technology choices, setting tailpipe standards that apply to all, said Rosemary Enobakhare, the agency’s associate administrator for public engagement and environmental education. But Ford Motor Co., General Motors, and others are working to make a range of more affordable electric vehicles available, she noted.
“Automakers themselves are always looking ahead and many of them have been looking at making some products for the future that really lean in on electric vehicles and really offer more around those vehicles for the everyday family,” Enobakhare said.
Advocates urged the USDA to address longstanding complaints that it has historically ignored the plight of black farmers, including long-held expertise on more sustainable and organic farming.
The new administration “is just starting to think about” such equity issues as it tries to advance broad climate change solutions, said Bidisha Bhattacharyya, senior policy adviser for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.
Biden’s January executive order on climate action directed the USDA to get input from farmers, ranchers, and forest groups on “climate-smart” agricultural and forestry practices that help reduce the risks of wildfires and encourage low-carbon forest and crop practices. The order directed the USDA to provide recommendations for a new “agricultural and forestry climate strategy” by the end of May.
Legislation may be the best way to tackle a host of racial inequities, such as those that exist in housing, Wise said.
But Congress has yet to make significant headway on Biden’s proposed fiscal 2022 budget plan nor his infrastructure proposal, he noted. And the Environmental Justice For All Act (H.R. 2021), a sweeping measure reintroduced in March by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), has only Democratic backing to date.