Environmental Justice Becomes Part of Federal Climate Change Policies

In late January, President Biden signed the “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.” While climate change is clearly the focus, the new administration’s policies regarding environmental justice are also addressed. (The parts of the order addressing environmental justice amend and update an original environmental justice Order signed by President Clinton in 1994.)

Underlying Philosophy

In the section on “Taking a Government-Wide Approach to the Climate Crisis,” the order details not only the policies to be implemented but also why the Administration believes they are needed. An important component of this philosophy is the idea that “environmental and economic justice are key considerations in how we govern.” Because of that, federal agencies are directed to make achieving environmental justice part of their missions. The Administration’s stated policy is “to secure environmental justice and spur economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment in housing, transportation, water and wastewater infrastructure, and health care.”

Creates New Councils

The Order creates a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council within the Executive Office of the President. This interagency council will consult with the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and with local environmental justice leaders to develop strategies to address current and historic environmental injustice. The Interagency Council is also tasked with developing ways to measure the outcomes of the strategies it develops and is directed to publish an annual performance scorecard. Many federal agencies are also ordered to designate someone within the agency to be an Environmental Justice Officer, who will represent the agency on the Interagency Council.

In addition, the Order establishes a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). This council’s function is to be advisory only, but it will provide recommendations to the Interagency Council on how to increase the federal government’s efforts “to address current and historic environmental injustice,” including making recommendations on updating the 1994 Executive Order.

Additional Enforcement Duties for Existing Agencies and Departments

The USEPA is specifically directed to strengthen enforcement of environmental violations that have a disproportionate impact on underserved communities. In addition, the Attorney General is directed “to develop a comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy, which shall seek to provide timely remedies for systemic environmental violations and contaminations, and injury to natural resources.” The Attorney General is also asked to consider creating an internal Office of Environmental Justice to coordinate environmental justice activities among the various components of the Department of Justice and United States Attorneys’ Offices nationwide.

The Takeaway

Clearly, environmental justice, along with other environmental issues (see this previous  HeplerBroom blog post), will be a focus of the USEPA during the Biden Administration.

  • Michael P. Murphy

    Michael P. Murphy focuses his practice in the area of environmental law, including litigating enforcement matters before state and federal courts and administrative agencies, assisting clients with environmental compliance ...

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