Mixed messages: Making sense of Biden’s environmental justice order

Meanwhile, a Detroit environmental justice organization had a simple message for the White House: stop approving new fossil fuel projects.

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On April 20, the Biden administration issued an executive order creating a new Office on Environmental Justice within the White House Council on Environmental Quality to collect and publicize data on cumulative impacts from pollution in overburdened communities.

“Every federal agency must take into account environmental and health impacts on communities and work to prevent those negative impacts,” President Joe Biden said when he announced the order. “Environmental justice will be the mission of the entire government.”

It’s unclear how far this order will go to address concerns over the concentration of polluting industries in low-income areas and communities of color. Some provisions may only have a limited impact. For example, the order requires agencies to notify surrounding communities of a toxic release, which only applies to federal facilities.

Meanwhile, a Detroit environmental justice organization had a far simpler message for the White House: stop approving new fossil fuel projects.

“Respecting environmental justice means saying no to the fossil fuel industry handouts that pollute communities of color and sow climate chaos in Michigan and around the country,” Jamesa Johnson Greer, executive director of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, wrote in a statement. “Will President Biden use his executive authority to declare a climate emergency and stop all new fossil fuel projects?”

Johnson Greer note that Biden is approving fossil fuel projects faster than his predecessor Donald Trump. His administration also recently approved the “carbon bomb” Willow Project in the North Slope of Alaska, which will create an estimated 260 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the next 30 years, equivalent to the annual carbon pollution from 70 coal-fired power plants. 

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm also recently endorsed the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will carry gas over hundreds of water bodies and produce 40 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses.

Disadvantaged communities often pay the price for these kinds of fossil fuel developments.

Oil refineries in places like Port Arthur, Texas, and southwest Detroit have contributed to problems with air pollution and asthma. Low-income areas and communities of color are often especially vulnerable to climate impacts like extreme heat. In 2021, the International Energy Agency said that limiting warming to the 1.5C target set by the Paris Agreement means “no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects.”

Johnson Greer did offer some qualified praise for the executive order, calling it “a good step towards righting systemic environmental harms that have disproportionately affected Black, brown, Indigenous, and low-income communities.” But she emphasized that engagement with these communities was needed, not top-down programming.

Johnson Greer also warned that environmental justice promises from state and federal governments had failed to produce tangible results. In 2019, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate, and in 2020, 21 Michiganders were selected for the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice. Yet, polluting industries have continued to set up shops in overburdened communities.

In 2021, state regulators granted Ajax Materials Corp. a permit for an asphalt plant on the Flint border, which led to a civil rights complaint against the state. After the permit was issued, Liesl Clark, former director of Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) wrote to the EPA to ask how the agency could consider cumulative impacts in its permitting with their current regulatory powers.

Nick Leonard, director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, told MLive that he believed this showed a genuine interest in environmental justice among state regulators.

“The trick is translating those lofty ideas and notions described in the regulations and operationalizing them in specific ways in the permitting process to account for all the lived realities of these community members,” he said.

Federal agencies looking to carry out Biden’s executive order may find themselves in a similar situation as they try to account for disproportionate impacts with limited regulatory powers or despite the administration’s own moves to approve more fossil fuel projects.


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