Home Climate justice Biden to update ‘sacred’ EJ order that never really worked

Biden to update ‘sacred’ EJ order that never really worked


The White House updates a “sacred text” on environmental justice.

The executive order, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, was the first government-wide recognition that environmental and public health burdens fall disproportionately on poor and minority communities. It was also the first time that the executive branch accepted that it had the legal authority – and obligation – to mitigate these impacts wherever it could.

Executive Order 12898 is now being carefully reviewed by the White House, with input from outside experts, an administration official told reporters on a recent call. He described the 28-year-old ordinance as a “sacred text” for which officials would propose changes in the coming months.

Beyond that, the White House has said little about how it plans to change the Clinton-era directive.

The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, or WHEJAC, which is made up of outside experts from advocacy and academia, offered numerous recommendations 13 months ago on how to revise the executive order. But in a report to Congress last week, the White House Council on Environmental Quality focused on other elements of the president’s environmental justice agenda, including implementing his environmental justice initiative. investment for disadvantaged communities and a beta screening tool to identify these communities (climate wireJune 1).

The Clinton-era order received only a small mention in the 201-page report.

“The process of developing executive orders is lengthy because it involves a multi-step institutional review for the president’s decision-making,” CEQ said in its report, adding that it was working “diligently” to find a solution. “durable and impactful” solution. , and effective approach.

Biden issued his own executive order on climate change and environmental justice a week after being inaugurated last year. He gave federal agencies a May 2021 deadline to submit recommendations for updating the 1994 executive order to climate adviser Gina McCarthy. The White House says that deadline was met.

Environmental justice experts, including members of WHEJAC, which Biden created last year, say they are less concerned about the timing than the scope and strength of the upcoming review. Clinton’s executive order was a watershed moment for the environmental justice movement and survived four subsequent administrations.

But its goals were never fully achieved.

“So on the one hand, thank you very much, we really appreciate that, because if you issue an executive order on environmental justice, well, that has to mean there’s environmental injustice,” said Richard Moore, co-chair. of WHEJAC and former chairman of the EPA advisory board created under Clinton’s executive order. “But it could have been much deeper.”

The 1990s directive required a small group of EPA-led national federal agencies to participate in an interagency council on environmental justice. The list of entities involved has since grown. Biden’s order last year expanded the membership to include 18 federal agencies and White House offices working on domestic and international issues. It also made the White House the organizer of the group instead of the EPA, which Moore said raised the issue.

Clinton’s executive order called on agencies to integrate environmental justice into their strategic plans. But Moore, who is co-director of the Los Jardines Institute in Albuquerque, NM, said some have done a better job than others.

“All some federal agencies have done is just change the language a bit,” he said. “They just went through their already existing strategic plans, and some of them added the words ‘environmental justice’ and some of them added the words ‘most affected’ or whatever, and they were fine. .”

Biden told environmental justice advocates in meetings ahead of the 2020 election that he planned to unveil a revision to Clinton’s executive order in his first 100 days in office — and they told him not to , according to Moore. Rapid deployment could have prevented grassroots groups from offering their input, he said.

History of Clinton’s EO

President Joe Biden signed executive orders after speaking out on climate change in January 2021. His administration has made environmental justice a pillar of its climate agenda. | Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images

The Clinton EO grew out of a wave of grassroots awareness that began in the 1990s and led to the creation of the Office of Environmental Equity at the EPA under President George HW Bush. It later became the Office of Environmental Justice.

Robert Bullard, a distinguished professor at Texas Southern University, often called the father of environmental justice, remembers meeting with EPA Administrator Bill Reilly and other Bush administration officials to present ideas of a major conference at the University of Michigan in 1990. When Clinton was elected in 1992, Bullard and Benjamin Chavis, another civil rights leader, joined the EPA transition team. Deeohn Ferris, who had created the Washington Office of Environmental Justice, took the lead in writing a white paper calling for the addition of the EPA to the Cabinet, more staff and funding, and appointments of more diverse regional administrators.

Ideas poured into his office from communities across the country, Bullard said.

“People were sending us faxes and telling us on the phone the kinds of things they wanted to see happen with the new administration,” he said in an interview.

It became clear that in the absence of legislation, an executive order would be the best way to ensure that environmental justice concerns are integrated into as many federal programs as possible, Bullard said. Al Gore, who was a senator at the time, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) sponsored environmental justice legislation in 1992 to create a moratorium on permits to install toxic chemicals in communities already flooded with sources of pollution. But the effort stalled.

“The environmental justice executive order came by proxy for not having a law in place to deal with this,” Bullard said.

Instead of new legislation, the ordinance relied on powers granted by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The Civil Rights Act prohibited states and other recipients of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. NEPA required environmental impact assessments before a project could proceed in order to examine adverse impacts on vulnerable populations.

Clinton’s order was a historic achievement, Bullard said, but it was never fully implemented. Within the federal government, the response to the order has been uneven. The EPA’s 10 regional offices have their own environmental justice strategic plans, but their quality varies widely. Plans serving the southern United States tend to be the weakest.

“It bothered a lot of us,” he said. “The environmental justice movement and the civil rights movement – both movements were born in the South.”

EJ is going global?

The quality of environmental justice planning also differs significantly between agencies. The Department of Transportation passed a stronger directive on environmental justice than EO 12898, Bullard said, in part because Clinton Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater was black and personally familiar with how government funding highways had been used historically to divide and undermine communities of color.

Bullard said the federal government also has a dismal record of enforcing non-discrimination by recipients of federal funding, especially states.

“Executive Order as it has been implemented in the regions has often not changed the behaviors of bad actors,” he said. “There are no teeth.”

Any revision of Clinton’s EO would only be successful if it led to agencies strengthening their oversight of the programs they administer, advocates said. This includes a new willingness to claw back funding when states spend it inequitably.

Biden has pledged that 40% of profits from climate and clean energy investments will go to disadvantaged communities – an initiative known as Justice40. But as funds allocated during last year’s pandemic and transportation passes are spent, the administration is struggling to show how Justice40 is being implemented.

Bullard, who is also a WHEJAC member, said he repeatedly asked the White House for information about the 40% pledge, but received no response until the House Blanche issues a press release last week announcing $29 billion in Justice40 “new funding opportunities.” The White House told E&E News the figure included allocations from fiscal years 2021 and 2022 appropriations and the infrastructure law signed into law in November.

Bullard was unconvinced.

“We say, ‘Show us the programs,'” he said. “Let’s see who will benefit.”

Mustafa Ali, vice president of environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation and former senior adviser to the EPA, said nondiscrimination enforcement should be at the heart of any revision to Clinton’s executive order — especially when it comes to ensuring that poor, non-white communities receive a fair share of federal investment.

He also said that the inclusion of international programs and treaties under the EO framework would be a game-changer.

“I see it as the next iteration of this work,” Ali said.

He pointed to Congo, which produces cobalt used in the manufacture of electric car batteries.

“There are all sorts of abuses of workers’ rights and children’s rights happening right now around the extraction of these critical minerals in Africa, in Congo,” Ali said. “So if we are serious about creating a new paradigm for the 21st century, then environmental justice must be honored on the international stage.”