President-elect Joe Biden has signaled he wants to power up a small White House office, transforming the Council on Environmental Quality into a muscular policy shop to help move his environmental justice agenda.
Under President Donald Trump, CEQ was focused largely on speeding up environmental permitting under the Nixon-era National Environmental Policy Act, revising the statute’s decades-old rules in order to boost infrastructure and energy projects.
But Biden has said that, under his watch, the council—which sits within the Executive Office of the President—will become a kind of central clearinghouse for environmental justice policy, pulling together agencies across the federal government with a special focus on low-income communities of color.
“CEQ has always had the responsibility of engaging with stakeholders,” said Christy Goldfuss, who headed the council during the Obama administration. “The difference here is that the Biden administration has prioritized environmental justice in a way that no president-elect ever has before.”
Jim Connaughton, who was President George W. Bush’s eight-year CEQ chairman, said the council is “uniquely positioned” to integrate environmental justice issues and resolve inevitable conflicts between agencies on environment, energy, and natural resources issues between federal agencies, states, and regions.
“The early gleanings I’ve been getting is they intend to fully empower the CEQ, and that’s great,” he said.
The council’s role as “a central clearinghouse” on policies is ideal for “a final push of removing the environmental burdens on these communities” and ensuring they benefit from new clean energy and other infrastructure, he said.
Environmental Justice Focus
The council’s influence has waxed and waned from administration to administration, but it has the power to coordinate high-level environmental policies and regulations while overseeing environmental impact reviews required for highways, dams, and big energy projects.
Previous Democratic presidents, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, also put the White House council to work addressing racial and economic inequities. But Biden sees an even more robust role.
As part of that mission, Biden has pledged to re-establish two groups housed within CEQ: the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council. The groups are poised to strengthen a Clinton-era executive order that addresses disproportionate impacts among low-income communities of color.
Biden has also vowed to boost hiring of “senior and dedicated” environmental justice staff at CEQ.
“This time, by all accounts, environmental justice will have a much bigger role to play in the White House all around—and CEQ will be the conduit to that,” said Goldfuss, now a senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress.
The lengths to which Biden could energize CEQ are vast. The agency isn’t under any caps restricting how many people can work there, and it can detail staff from other agencies to help, Goldfuss said.
Biden sent a strong signal of his ambitions when he named Cecilia Martinez, an environmental justice advocate, to lead his transition team for CEQ. Martinez, co-founder of the Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy, has focused on equitable and sustainable energy policies throughout her career.
Martinez has argued that issues of social and environmental justice have been largely sidelined in climate policy. In a 2017 paper, she pointed to the Obama administration’s power plant carbon limits, which she argued were backed by environmental groups to cut carbon pollution even to the point of “exclusion of other social concerns,” such as engagement with affected communities.
Martinez is also on the short list of names to become the permanent CEQ chairman. Other names include Heather McTeer Toney, the first Black mayor of Greenville, Miss., and a former EPA Region 4 administrator covering the Southeast region during the Obama administration.
Kerene Tayloe, director of federal legislative affairs at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said her group celebrates Biden’s plans for CEQ, but noted that broader action is also needed.
“When we think about NEPA, it’s for projects that are coming down the pike,” she said. “But how do we address the legacy of pollution in these communities? A robust CEQ is great, but it’s not the whole arsenal of tools we need.”
CEQ can also be given wide latitude to resolve differences between agencies—an important power for the kind of whole-government approach to environmental justice and climate change that Biden envisions, said Goldfuss.
Mustafa Ali, a former assistant associate administrator for environmental justice at the Environmental Protection Agency, also stressed the need to work on these issues across all executive branches.
The council already coordinates policies with the EPA, Transportation, Interior, Energy, and Interior Departments, among others. But Ali, who left government shortly after Trump took office, said he was the only senior adviser on environmental justice within the executive branch.
“My grandmother had this saying: ‘When you know better, you do better,’ and it would seem to me you should have a senior adviser” on environmental justice across all major departments, said Ali, who is now a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation.
Undoing Trump’s NEPA Reforms
Ali said he expects the council to ensure any significant infrastructure legislation addresses impacts on vulnerable communities.
Low-income Black and Latino communities were some of the biggest critics of the council’s rewrite of NEPA rules under the Trump administration. The rules, finalized in July, limit the scope of agency permit reviews for large projects such as roads, bridges, and power plants, and more narrowly define which projects warrant scrutiny, in an effort to speed project approvals.
The changes also scrap the requirement to consider the cumulative impacts of a project, a tweak that environmentalists say will worsen the effects of climate change.
A Biden CEQ could take steps to reverse that NEPA rewrite, though doing so would require a years-long new rulemaking process.
Until then, however, CEQ could order agencies to simply revert back to their pre-Trump implementing instructions on NEPA, because the Trump reforms don’t specifically preclude agencies from taking cumulative impacts and greenhouse gas emissions into account, Goldfuss said.
Sarah Hunt, who backs conservative energy and climate solutions as CEO of the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy, also cautioned that giving vulnerable and disadvantaged communities a voice in project reviews shouldn’t lead to inordinate delays in approving those projects, which can provide cleaner air and jobs for those communities.
She said the Biden administration should balance giving sufficient environmental disclosures to communities “with the reality that NEPA’s red-tape delays on projects like offshore wind and nuclear have environmental, economic, and equity costs.”