Under Biden, Environmental Justice Advisers See Path for Action Via Infrastructure Investments

Potential EPA pick, campaign advisory member hope Biden makes good on plans that impact frontline communities
President-elect Joe Biden speaks about climate change and the wildfires on the West Coast during a campaign event in Wilmington, Del., on Sept. 14, 2020. Environmental justice advocates are hopeful that a Biden administration will follow through on its campaign plans to address these issues. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
November 17, 2020 at 2:03 pm UTC

Environmental justice has found its way into President-elect Joe Biden’s transition plan as a “key consideration” for policy-making, and advocates are cautiously optimistic. And though a divided Congress is likely, they suspect an infrastructure bill — long promised but never delivered under the Trump administration — is a potential avenue for investing in communities that have borne the brunt of pollution and environmental racism. 

These “frontline” communities, whose populations are predominantly Black or other people of color, are those that experience the first and worst consequences of climate change and other environmental problems.

The new administration’s ability to allocate 40 percent of clean energy and infrastructure investment benefits to these communities, as Biden called for in his campaign plan, will likely depend on whether Republicans retain control of the Senate following two Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia. Even with the potentially split legislature, however, those who have worked alongside Biden’s campaign or in previous administrations are convinced that the president-elect’s best chance to invest in environmental justice is through targeted infrastructure spending.

“I think that we will have some opportunities to get some work done around infrastructure, working hopefully in a bipartisan way to make sure that some of the infrastructure dollars are actually going to help revitalize vulnerable communities,” Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former longtime Environmental Protection Agency staffer currently working as vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, said in a post-election interview.

Ali has reportedly been mentioned as a possible pick for EPA leadership under the Biden administration. 

Asked if he would be interested in re-entering government work in that context, Ali said if his “country calls,” he would “have to answer, but it would have to be the right situation.” He added that he is currently focused on identifying other potential appointees with government or grassroots backgrounds, in order to make sure “there continues to be a spotlight on local communities.”

While Ali said there may not be “as much progress as many had hoped around the clean economy” because of probable congressional gridlock, there will be some notable action “because of international pressures, where you will find countries like China and others who are willing to make the investments in that space, and if we do not continue to take leadership there, then we will miss out on millions of jobs.”  

And especially if the Democrats take control of the Senate, Ali expects the administration will put forth policies “anchored in science” and “anchored in the impacts that are happening inside of vulnerable communities,” and added that members of these communities themselves would be involved in developing environmental justice-focused policies.

Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, broadly concurred with Ali, specifying that infrastructure investments with an eye toward environmental justice might include electrification provisions focused on bringing community-shared solar microgrids to frontline communities, or even lead poisoning relief measures as part of broader public housing provisions. 

Shepard co-chaired the environmental justice subcommittee advising Biden during the campaign. The report prepared by her and dozens of others has not been released publicly since it was submitted to the then-candidate in late September, but it contains “very substantial” recommendations covering subtopics such as investments in environmental justice  communities and environmental health.

“We’ve done this work, we’ve made these recommendations, and they’ve accepted a number of them, so I’m expecting that there are going to be advances on environmental justice in the first 100 days,” she said. Though she is unsure which policies will be adopted, the recommendations included establishing an environmental and climate justice division within the Department of Justice; launching a Green Bank and prioritizing frontline communities to receive clean energy investments; creating a climate corps of youth of color; and signing an executive order on cumulative risk assessment.

Shepard, who is also in the process of working on Democratic National Committee recommendations related to environmental justice, believes that some of her Biden advisory subcommittee co-chairs will take on roles in his administration, be they political appointees or external advisers. 

Last week, the president-elect updated his transition site with the names of those on “agency review teams,” responsible for preparing Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and their cabinet to govern once inaugurated on Jan. 20. Shepard noted that only a few of the people chosen have done substantial work on environmental justice, including Dr. Cecilia Martinez on the Council of Environmental Quality team, and Patrice Simms and Lisa Garcia on the EPA team. Simms is one of just two Black people on either the CEQ or EPA transition teams.

And Shepard said the fact that the teams don’t have representation for members of environmental justice communities is “disappointing.”

The Biden transition site mirrors the language of other international leaders who say the global economy’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity to invest in combating climate change. However, it also highlights that the pandemic has “exacerbated historic environmental injustices,” and devotes a section of the transition plan to the issue. 

A Biden administration, its transition plan reads, would “ensure that environmental justice is a key consideration in where, how, and with whom we build — creating good, union, middle-class jobs in communities left behind, righting wrongs in communities that bear the brunt of pollution, and lifting up the best ideas from across our great nation.”

This language of rebuilding is echoed by members of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, which is currently all Democrats but is ostensibly not a partisan group. In a House that has retained its Democratic majority, SEEC members are hopeful that their priorities will see realization with the cooperation of the Biden administration. 

Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) said Biden’s election brings “new hope” to SEEC’s ongoing efforts to advance environmental justice as the country moves toward pandemic recovery. These were outlined in a letter sent to House leadership in June, which included requests for increasing funding for such programs as the EPA’s Diesel Emissions Reduction Act Program and the Department of Health and Human Services’  Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. 

“SEEC has long highlighted infrastructure as a key way to advance important climate and environmental justice policies while creating jobs and growing economic prosperity,” McEachin said. “Regardless of who takes control of the Senate, we certainly hope there will be bipartisan support and cooperation on infrastructure, climate and environmental justice as part of our recovery.” 

Lisa Martine Jenkins previously worked at Morning Consult as a senior reporter covering energy and climate change.

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