EPA Creates New Environmental Justice Office

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A new office within EPA aims to make racial equity a key element in environmental rulemaking.

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The environmental justice movement has a long and storied history in the United States.

During the height of the movement in the 1970s and 1980s, climate demonstrators and activists coined the term “environmental justice” to describe concerns over the unequal exposure of environmental harms on low-income and predominantly Black and brown communities.

Today, environmental justice is central to many kinds of policy decisions in government, and at the federal level, the Biden Administration recently added a new institutional process for the consideration of environmental justice issues.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in September that it has created a new national office for environmental justice, elevating equity concerns to higher levels within the agency. EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan delivered the announcement at the site of a historic toxic dump protest in Warren County, North Carolina alongside civil rights leaders and environmental justice advocates.

Regan stated that the new office be called the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights and that it will “embed environmental justice and civil rights into the DNA of EPA.”

Three existing EPA offices—Environmental Justice, Civil Rights, and Conflict Prevention and Resolution—will merge to create the new office, which will have higher authority within the agency than its predecessors. A new U.S. Senate-confirmed assistant EPA administrator will oversee the new office’s 200 staff members across 10 regional offices.

EPA expects that this new structure will allow the agency to focus on racial equity in its environmental rulemaking and better equip the agency to address climate change’s unequal harm on low-income areas and Black and brown communities.

Currently, EPA is working on new regulations to reduce different kinds of pollution, such as pollution from auto emissions, power plant smokestacks, and illegal waterway dumping. The creation of the new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights suggests that environmental justice considerations could shape these kinds of regulatory activities.

For example, the office could influence EPA policy through its management of $3 billion in environment justice block grants outlined in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. The Inflation Reduction Act also provides $60 billion in broader, administration-wide environmental justice initiatives.

The new EPA office complements other new initiatives and offices established by President Joseph R. Biden that aim to make environmental justice central to the work of his Administration. Soon after entering office, President Biden issued an executive order to “secure environmental justice and spur economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities.” He also created a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

In addition, early in his term, President Biden established a position for the White House National Climate Advisor, who serves as the chief advisor for domestic climate change policy. He also named John Kerry as the first U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. In this role, Kerry sits on the National Security Council and represents the Biden Administration’s approach to climate policy as a national security issue.

Although many environmental justice advocates consider the new EPA office another win for stronger climate policy and environmental regulation, some advocates have expressed skepticism about whether the creation of this office will be enough to achieve true environmental justice ideals.

After EPA’s announcement of the new office, environmental justice activist Wes Gobar reportedly criticized it in light of what many critics saw as Democrats’ oil and gas concessions in the Inflation Reduction Act. To pass the Inflation Reduction Act, President Biden struck a deal with U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) after months of stalled negotiations. In exchange for his pivotal vote, Senator Manchin insisted that the Senate pass legislation to ease federal permitting for oil and gas projects.

According to Gobar, this deal with Senator Manchin “exchanges the health of Black lives across the country in exchange for fossil fuel profits.” Gobar also mentions that even though the Biden, Obama, and Clinton Administrations made “structural changes on environmental justice,” these changes have not always shown actual results. He further argues that even with the creation of a new EPA office dedicated to environmental justice, “it won’t make up for this side deal — for cutting the federal government’s ability to protect Black communities.”

Other critics, many of them Republican lawmakers, reject any focus on race altogether in implementing environmental policy.

Recently, other branches of government have also challenged EPA’s work. The restructuring within the agency comes on the heels of West Virginia v. EPA, a Supreme Court case that experts believe could deal a major blow to the future of ambitious environmental policy at the federal level.

In that case, the Supreme Court ruled, applying the Major Questions Doctrine that EPA cannot regulate emissions from existing power plants. Commentators worry that future applications of the major questions doctrine will limit agencies from taking significant action in regulating major sectors of the economy when Congress has not given the agency explicit authority to regulate those sectors.

The Court’s decision may affect the reach of environmental regulations from agencies such as EPA, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and experts say it could complicate these agencies’ ability to implement President Biden’s environmental agenda through regulatory action.

In spite of the new challenges posed to the Biden Administration by West Virginia v. EPA, the new environmental justice office within EPA appears to follow from a campaign promise that President Biden made to voters leading up to the 2020 election. While many Democratic voters, advocacy groups, and policymakers called for stronger federal action on climate change, they also called for a stronger focus on racial equity in implementing new climate policy.

In his original announcement, Regan stated that “President Biden and EPA have been committed to delivering progress on environmental justice and civil rights and ensuring that underserved and overburdened communities are at the forefront of our work.” For EPA, fulfilling these environmental justice ideals through effective environmental regulation will be central to delivering on this commitment.