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Democrats push White House to strengthen environmental justice efforts

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Today we're back in your inbox after a week-long break. A lot happened while we were off, including personnel changes in the White House climate office. But first:

Exclusive: Top Democrats urge Biden administration to amp up environmental justice efforts

Top congressional Democrats are calling on the Biden administration to bolster its commitment to environmental justice and ensure that the Inflation Reduction Act's climate investments help disadvantaged communities, according to details shared exclusively with The Climate 202.

In a letter sent Tuesday, more than 60 Democrats urged the White House to strengthen implementation of the Justice40 Initiative, which seeks to send at least 40 percent of the benefits of federal climate investments to communities that are overburdened by pollution, climate change and other environmental hazards. 

The lawmakers made the following four demands of the Biden administration:

  • Consider the 40 percent goal in the Justice40 Initiative to be a “floor” and not a “ceiling” for investments for disadvantaged communities.
  • Ensure programs covered by Justice40 “do no harm” in disadvantaged communities by increasing pollution or greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Ensure programs covered by Justice40 provide well-paying jobs with good benefits, with a focus on hiring members of disadvantaged communities.
  • Establish a Climate Justice and Equity Office within the White House Office of Management and Budget to oversee a “whole-of-government” approach to Justice40.

“To maximize benefits and correct for chronic underinvestment, we strongly recommend that implementation guidance clarify that the Initiative’s 40% target is a funding floor, not a ceiling,” the lawmakers wrote. “We also recommend that the guidance apply this target to investments in disadvantaged communities, not only to overall benefits in such communities.”

The letter was led by Sen. Edward J. Markey (Mass.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate and Nuclear Safety; Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (N.Y.), chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee; Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.), chair of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment; and Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Cori Bush (Mo.).

“Our movement is powered by the frontline communities and young people most endangered by the existential threat of climate change, and my job in Congress is to ensure that federal resources reach the Black, Brown and Indigenous communities who need them most,” Markey said in a statement. 

“The Inflation Reduction Act has the power to shape a generation of climate action that can build health and wealth in disadvantaged communities, but only if we develop and use a powerful Justice40 framework to right the historic wrongs of environmental injustice,” he added.

The letter was addressed to Brenda Mallory, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality; Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget; and Gina McCarthy, the outgoing White House national climate adviser.

Asked for comment, a senior administration official said in an email: “President Biden’s Justice40 initiative is the most significant whole-of-government effort to advance environmental justice in our nation’s history, and we’re looking forward to carrying this critical work forward in partnership with members of Congress, our White House Interagency Council, the [White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council] and environmental justice advocates across the country.” 

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

Environmental justice in the Inflation Reduction Act

The Inflation Reduction Act contains a record $60 billion investment in environmental justice, including several new grant programs championed by Markey.

To secure the vote of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), however, Democratic leadership made some concessions that could prolong the life of fossil fuel infrastructure in front-line communities.

  • The measure requires the Interior Department to hold new oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico for at least 10 years.
  • Democratic leadership also agreed to pursue separate legislation to overhaul the permitting process for energy infrastructure projects, including the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline.

Bush, who was a Black Lives Matter activist before coming to Congress in 2021, said she thinks the Inflation Reduction Act will deliver an overall benefit to communities of color that are disproportionately saddled with pollution — as long as the law is implemented with Justice40 in mind.

“We've seen a lot of money invested in climate in the [new law], but we need additional assurances that these funds will be distributed equitably,” Bush said in an interview. “We need to make sure those guardrails are there to ensure that 40 percent investment.”

Bush added that she plans to urge her colleagues to oppose the side deal on permitting struck by Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“Just because two people came together to work on the deal, I will not allow St. Louis's vote to be taken for granted,” she said. “It's people who are Black, Brown and Indigenous, and people of low wealth, who would pay the heaviest price.”

On the Hill

Exclusive: LCV Action Fund endorses independent Evan McMullin in Utah Senate race

The League of Conservation Voters Action Fund is throwing its support behind independent Evan McMullin in the Utah Senate race, marking an unusual endorsement for the influential environmental PAC, The Climate 202 has learned.

McMullin, a former Republican who mounted a long-shot presidential campaign in 2016, has garnered the unlikely backing of the Utah Democratic Party, which has agreed not to run its own candidate. He is vying to unseat GOP Sen. Mike Lee in what Politico has dubbed “the strangest Senate race in America.”

On his campaign website, McMullin lists “protect our air and water” as one of his top five priorities. Lee, who has an 8 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, has argued that the solution to climate change is increasing the U.S. population, rather than reducing the nation's reliance on fossil fuels.

“I'm grateful to the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund for their endorsement and focus on the vital relationship between a strong democracy and a healthy environment,” McMullin said in a statement. “Protecting our air and water is a critical responsibility that affects our health, prosperity and quality of life.”

Craig Auster, vice president of political affairs at LCV, said the group has typically endorsed Democrats, although it backed the reelection bids of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in 2014 and Angus King (I-Maine) in 2018. But McMullin, who has vowed not to caucus with either party, stood out as an environmental champion, he said.

“Evan is really embracing environmental issues and the importance of protecting public lands,” Auster said. “Mike Lee has been on the wrong side of these issues time and again, and it would be a huge shift to have Evan in the Senate instead.”

Pressure points

How Biden could help America reach climate goals on his own

While the Inflation Reduction Act is set to dramatically slash U.S. emissions, it probably won’t be enough to reach the Biden administration’s climate targets. But President Biden can take a slew of executive actions to help reach his goal of halving the nation's emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels, according to a report released Monday by the Revolving Door Project, an initiative of the liberal think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research, The Washington Post's Allyson Chiu reports.

The report found that the White House and federal agencies can take the following actions on their own:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency can rely on the Clean Air Act to close loopholes that allow fossil fuel companies to underreport emissions, and to lower the threshold for required reporting of methane emissions.
  • The Energy Department's Loan Programs Office, for which the Inflation Reduction Act authorizes new funding, can support clean energy projects nationwide.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can finalize proposed rules on transmission lines, which can carry clean electricity to urban centers.

International climate

Heat pumps take off in coal-loving Poland amid war in Ukraine

Poland has depended heavily on coal for its energy needs, but concerns about energy independence amid the war in Ukraine are pushing residents to embrace clean energy ahead of winter, The Post's Michael Birnbaum reports.

A few weeks after Moscow invaded Ukraine, Joanna Pandera, a Polish energy expert, replaced her gas stovetop with an electric range and signed a contract for an electric heat pump. She threw a party to celebrate the moves, cooking borscht and pierogies with Ukrainian refugees.

“The celebration was that we removed Russian gas,” said Pandera, the director of Forum Energii, a Warsaw-based think tank that advocates for a Polish transition to renewable energy.

Like Pandera, many Poles, furious with Moscow and sympathetic to Ukraine, have installed heat pumps and other climate-friendly technologies in recent months — achieving in record time what years of calls for action from climate advocates could not. 

On the Hill this week

The Senate is in session, but members of the House won't be back until Sept. 13. Here's what's on tap this week:

On Wednesday: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on multiple bills that would amend the Clean Air Act, including by creating a grant program for mitigating the health and environmental effects of wildfire smoke.

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety will also hold a confirmation hearing for nominees to the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors. They include William Renick, Adam White and Joe Ritch.

On Thursday: The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold a field hearing in Morro Bay, Calif., on deployment of offshore wind energy along the West Coast. 

In the atmosphere


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