Six Environmental Justice Policy Fights to Watch in 2023

Unprecedented federal funding will soon flow to some of the nation’s communities hardest hit by climate change, industrial pollution and racist practices like redlining.

This money also presents what environmental justice advocates describe as the monumental task of ensuring those funds reach the communities most in need—namely, low-income families and communities of color that have historically borne the brunt of the nation’s environmental harms while benefiting least from environmental regulation.

Last year, lawmakers dedicated some $60 billion in federal spending for advancing environmental justice efforts when they passed the Democrats’ marquis Inflation Reduction Act—though some estimates place that number closer to $47 billion.

Still, that funding marks, by far, the single largest federal investment in the fight to close the nation’s persistent racial and socioeconomic disparities related to infrastructure, climate and the environment. As part of that historic pool of money, the Environmental Protection Agency announced on Jan. 10 that the first $100 million in federal environmental justice grants will open up to community organizations, local governments and other qualified applicants in the coming weeks, with projects potentially starting as soon as October.

The disparate impacts of environmental disasters are not new, but the push to address environmental justice is finally taking place and gaining momentum. This year will begin to test whether new federal policies and massive investments focused on climate will actually benefit the low-income families and communities of color.  

Front and center among the testing grounds is the Texas Gulf Coast, where many Black and brown communities are surrounded by industrial pollution and sit at the forefront of the climate crisis, said Robert Bullard, a prominent figure in the decades-old environmental justice movement and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, or WHEJAC.

In fact, watching over the distribution of federal money earmarked for environmental justice is just one of several key fights that advocates like Bullard believe will take priority this year as a new Republican-controlled House of Representatives threatens to obstruct the remaining two years of President Joe Biden’s term, including the execution of the administration’s ambitious environmental justice agenda.

With next year’s presidential election raising the stakes and putting pressure on Biden to deliver on the promises that helped get him elected, Inside Climate News reached out to thought leaders in the environmental justice movement to see what they believed would be 2023’s biggest battlegrounds regarding the IRA and beyond. Here’s what they had to say.

Fighting Multiple Fronts Simultaneously

The sheer amount of money flowing toward environmental justice work this year, including from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will be a blessing but also a serious challenge, Bullard said. “We’re talking about a substantial amount of money that’s never been earmarked or devoted to justice issues,” he said. “The challenge is not to let this opportunity pass us up because we may never get it again.”

With millions of dollars in federal grants opening up in the coming weeks—and billions more soon to follow—environmental justice advocates are scrambling to finalize plans to funnel that money toward projects in their communities. But activists worry the funding could also be misused, going disproportionately to mainstream organizations that don’t need as much help or worse, paying for projects that ultimately harm vulnerable populations.

Maria Lopez-Nunez, another longtime environmental justice advocate who also sits on WHEJAC, said activists will have to split their limited time and resources this year between applying for grants and playing watchdog to stop money from reaching projects that they see as harmful to EJ communities, including carbon capture and storage, highway expansions and increased natural gas exports, which activists say would increase pollution in their neighborhoods. “We have to fight the bad and embrace the good,” she said.

The result, Bullard said, is that the movement will need to be more organized, vigilant and energized this year than perhaps ever before as they take on multiple major fronts at the same time.

“It’s exciting, and at the same time, it’s challenging,” he said. “This train is moving fast and furious, so that means that we have to really have our people and our organizations and our networks really positioned to multitask … because the other side is counting on us not to be ready.”

Implementation of Justice40 Remains Key

To many activists, the success of Biden’s bold promises to make environmental justice and racial equity top priorities falls largely on the implementation of the Justice40 initiative, which directs federal agencies to deliver 40 percent of the “overall benefits” of their environmental and energy investments to disadvantaged communities. Without it, activists fear their progress over the last two years could be lost if Biden leaves office.

But going into 2023, activists say major questions about the program remain unanswered, including exactly how federal agencies will define “benefits” and “disadvantaged communities,” as well as how the Biden administration will enforce the initiative’s purpose.

Bullard, whose home state of Texas has regularly flouted the Biden administration’s progressive directives, said that the threat Republican legislatures pose to the execution of Justice40 will continue to be a top battleground this year. Because local and state governments largely dictate how the money they receive from the federal government gets used, activists fear some states will disregard the goals of Justice40 after they receive the funds.

At the COP27 global climate summit last fall, Bullard said he asked EPA Administrator Michael Regan how his agency would enforce Justice40 should a state misuse federal funds. “He said if EPA resources are not being used in a way that they are designed to be used, if those resources are being used in a way that are in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, that his office would take action,” Bullard recalled Regan telling him. “We would like for all of the agencies to take that same position.”

Last year, activists successfully pressured the White House to reintroduce race as a metric in a key screening tool being developed to help agencies determine which communities qualify as “disadvantaged”—though race remains an unofficial metric and can’t be used to decide funding needs. Lopez-Nunez said the latest version of the tool was a big improvement, but that activists will continue fighting to make it better in 2023.

Manchin’s Permit Reform Keeps Coming Back ‘Like a Zombie’

Among the several concessions Democrat leaders made to pass the Inflation Reduction Act was the handshake deal with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin to pursue legislation that would streamline the federal permitting process for energy infrastructure.

Environmental justice advocates helped to defeat the measure three times last year, saying they opposed any weakening of an environmental review process that serves to keep their communities safe from potentially harmful industrial projects. Republicans, too, opposed the measure, but because they believed Manchin’s version didn’t go far enough.

While it’s unclear that any permitting reform bill could pass a split Congress, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats running the Senate, advocates who spoke with Inside Climate News all said that they believed the fight over permitting reform was far from over and expect the issue to reappear in 2023.

“It’s not going away,” Bullard said. “It will be back—it’s like a zombie.”

Who Benefits From the Clean Energy Boom?

2023 is set to be another banner year for the clean energy transition.

Construction of major offshore wind projects could begin later this year as forecasters predict that nationwide sales of electric vehicles could top 1 million. Demand for residential solar continues to skyrocket.

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But as federal incentives and record private investment fuel this year’s boom in clean energy, environmental justice activists say it also presents a challenge as they work to ensure their communities aren’t being left out. 

“The Treasury Department should urgently establish a monitoring program to track and evaluate the distribution of residential energy tax credits,” said Lew Daly, deputy director of climate policy for the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank. “Without this, we could end up with an energy transition that is highly segregated, like so many other aspects of our society.”

Elizabeth Yeampierre, whose Brooklyn-based nonprofit UPROSE focuses on advancing a just transition, also sees green jobs as a major 2023 fight and explicitly wants to see workforce development designed so that clean energy-related employment is going to those most in need, such as people with criminal records who face some of the highest barriers to employment.

It’s “making sure that those jobs are local” and that companies are “hiring people that have gone through the [criminal justice] system, that they’re hiring mothers,” Yiempierre said. It also means “we are able to use the industrial sector that has been responsible for harming us” to “address climate adaptation, mitigation and resilience.”

Land Use Disputes

Environmental justice and Indigenous activists are also concerned about what the surge in clean energy development means for their communities when it comes to disputes over land use.

To fulfill Biden’s ambitious vision of an emission-free grid by 2035, developers need to start building a lot of renewable energy systems, and fast. An analysis by Princeton University estimates that by 2030, the U.S. would need to build enough clean energy to fill the entire landmass of South Dakota to meet that goal.

But where those projects get built and who has to deal with the consequences of the construction, or any potential negative impacts, from those projects remain to be seen, said Barry Rabe, professor of environmental policy at the University of Michigan.

“Physically, where is that fighting going to take place?” said Rabe. “And will that be fair, equitable, transparent, or will it be concentrated in certain areas or regions that are just economically desperate for the resources?”

Kyle Whyte, a U.S. Science Envoy and a member of WHEJAC, agrees that land use will be a significant environmental justice fight this year. He expects to see land use fights tied to both renewable energy and carbon capture as well as the same old fossil fuel industry in the coming year.

The fight over land will be especially important on tribal land, said Whyte, who is also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, after the White House released new guidelines last month directing federal agencies to recognize and include Indigenous knowledge in government research, policy and decision making.

“It’s going to be a big fight to make sure that that guidance is actually taken seriously by agencies and is put into practice in a way that makes it more likely that Indigenous people can protect their territories,” Whyte said.

Environmental Justice for All Act

“One fight is certainly to try and get the Environmental Justice for All Act passed,” said Vernice Miller-Travis, executive vice president of nonprofit Metropolitan Group and a prominent figure in the environmental justice movement.

The bill would essentially do the opposite of Manchin’s permitting reform legislation by allowing more intensive community input into the siting of fossil fuel projects. It is the culmination of years of collaborative work, and passing it remains one of the environmental justice movement’s main goals.

A last-ditch effort by Democrats to move the bill forward in the House in December failed, and it stands little to no chance of passing in the split Congress this year, with Republicans showing no appetite to engage on the matter. Despite those odds, Miller-Travis said, activists plan to push for the bill again in 2023.

Lopez-Nunez said getting more involved in the policymaking process is also a top priority for her—and she wants 2023 to be the year that environmental justice moves from marching in the streets to sitting prominently at the negotiating tables. “I think too often the narrative is that our communities are too busy surviving and we don’t have much to say about complicated policy,” she said. “But we actually do.”

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