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The Climate 202

Funding for environmental justice is coming. Will it reach communities most in need?

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Brady Dennis, a domestic climate correspondent for The Washington Post, wrote the top of today’s newsletter. Maxine Joselow will be back tomorrow. But first:

Funding for environmental justice is coming. Will it reach communities most in need?

Michael Regan hardly could have sounded more ardent Tuesday afternoon as he announced that the first $100 million in environmental justice grants made possible by last year’s Inflation Reduction Act will soon become available.

“Too many of these communities have faced barrier after barrier trying to access the federal funding they need and deserve,” the Environmental Protection Agency leader told reporters, saying that the Biden administration is determined to help places “that have long suffered at the hand of indifference, neglect and inaction.”

The new money represents the largest amount of environmental justice grant funding ever offered by the EPA.

  • And yet, it likely marks the beginning of a much more massive investment aimed at righting some historical wrongs that have left many Americans in low-income and largely minority communities without reliable access to clean air and water.

The grants, which will be overseen by a new office of environmental justice and external civil rights that Regan established last year, are among the first of an anticipated $3 billion in block grants that Congress created last August as part of President Biden’s landmark climate bill.

Such far-reaching funding “has the power to shift paradigms,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, who for decades had worked to fix woefully inadequate water and wastewater access in her native Lowndes County, Ala., and elsewhere.

“Environmental injustice touches every state in America.”

A push to do more

President Biden vowed from early on to place the issue at the heart of his broader aim of shifting the nation toward cleaner energy sources and combating climate change. He has directed the government to spend 40 percent of its sustainability investments on disadvantaged communities, and instructed agencies to weigh the needs of populations that have traditionally borne the brunt of pollution.

But even allies who praise his elevation of the issue have sometimes pushed the White House to do more.

  • In a letter last September, more than 60 Democrats urged the White House to strengthen implementation of its “Justice40” initiative by making sure new funding doesn’t actually increase pollution in disadvantaged communities, among other requests.

Some environmental justice leaders also worried that the compromises necessary to pass last year’s climate bill, particularly to secure the vote of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), could lead to more drilling leases and relaxed permitting requirements that prolong public health threats in communities already surrounded by industrial infrastructure.

Now that the new federal grants for environmental justice will soon head out the door, questions remain about how quickly they can be disbursed, and whether the administration can ensure they reach those who will benefit most. Historically, that has not always been the case. 

“It hasn’t always made it to the places that need it the most. The targeted impact and effect hasn’t always been realized,” said Vernice Miller-Travis, a veteran environmental justice activist and executive vice president at the Metropolitan Group. “That’s always an issue, it’s an ongoing issue.”

Where the money goes

On Tuesday, Regan insisted again that federal officials are determined to make sure the new funding reaches places where it can do the most good, and isn’t diverted by states or localities toward other uses.

“The evaluation criteria has been specifically crafted to ensure the funding goes to low-income and disadvantaged communities,” Regan said. He added that the roughly 200 employees of the new environmental justice and civil rights office “will be the eyes, the ears, the brains” behind how it gets spent and will offer communities technical assistance in applying for grants.

  • About $30 million of the funding will be designated for community-based nonprofit groups, the EPA said, while $40 million will go to state and local governments to spend in conjunction with community-based partners. Another $20 million will be set aside for federally recognized tribal nations, and $10 million will go to U.S. territories and remote tribes.

Those seeking grants must apply by April 10, and Regan said the agency expects some projects to begin by Oct 1.

On Tuesday’s call, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said that while the grants offer only a small step in the “endless” fight to make sure all Americans have access to clean air and water, it’s an important one.

“I’m grateful for this bit of progress for this movement, for this bit of momentum,” she said.

Miller-Travis agrees. It’s a moment that environmental justice communities have waited on for decades.

“I don’t think in my lifetime that this funding is coming around again,” she said. “We have to make sure this goes to where it is most needed. … We can’t fail. It’s a rare opportunity.”

On the Hill

Sen. Ossoff secures a $2.5 billion solar deal

Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) on Wednesday announced that he has secured $2.5 billion for a solar manufacturing facility in Georgia, marking the largest clean energy manufacturing investment ever in the nation's history. 

The investment from Hanwha Qcells, a South Korean company that creates the photovoltaic panels needed to produce solar power, is also set to create 2,500 local jobs, according to a news release. It was made possible by the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act last year, which includes a bill from Ossoff, titled the Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Act, that is aimed at boosting domestic solar manufacturing and reducing U.S. dependence on China for the critical materials. 

“My goal remains to make Georgia the world leader in advanced energy production,” Ossoff said in a statement, adding that “today secured the largest clean energy manufacturing project in American history, with thousands of solar jobs and billions of dollars on the way to Georgia.” 

The money will go toward expanding Qcells’s existing solar plant in Dalton, Georgia and building a new one in Cartersville, Georgia — creating the first American solar supply chain. 

Agency alert

Critic of fossil fuels to lead key offshore oil agency for Biden

The Biden administration on Tuesday announced that Elizabeth Klein, a critic of fossil fuels, will replace Amanda Lefton as director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, when she exits her post Jan. 19, Timothy Puko reports for The Washington Post. 

The decision comes as the administration eyes a goal of adding 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy to the grid by 2030 as part of its efforts to fight climate change, with BOEM being the agency charged with overseeing leasing for offshore oil, gas, minerals and wind-power development. 

At the start of President Biden’s term, the White House had intended to nominate Klein as the deputy secretary of the Interior, but it quickly changed plans after Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) raised concerns over how she would treat the oil and gas industry. 

Her new position does not require Senate confirmation. 

Also on Tuesday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the creation of an Orphaned Wells Program Office within the agency to help direct the $4.7 billion investment from the infrastructure law to plug orphaned wells. The idled oil and gas sites pose an ongoing environmental and public health risk across the country by leaking methane and noxious gases, contaminating groundwater, and by harming wildlife.

Pressure points

There’s a secret pollution source in 40 million homes. The U.S. may try to ban it.

Richard Trumka Jr., one of the four commissioners on the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said in an interview Monday that the agency was considering banning new gas stoves — or, at least, placing tougher standards on them, Shannon Osaka reports for The Post. 

The move would come after years of calls from scientists and health experts to limit use of the stoves, which can still be found in 40 million homes across the country and that have been linked to global warming, childhood asthma and other respiratory issues. 

Some cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle and New York, have already banned gas stoves in some new homes and apartments. During her State of the State address on Tuesday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) also proposed banning natural gas heating and other appliances, including gas stoves, in all new buildings. If the proposal is approved, New York would become the first state to make such a move to fight against climate change and protect public health.

The national transition from gas to electric has so far been slow. The Environmental Protection Agency is not authorized to regulate indoor air quality, and any local effort to impose a possible ban has been criticized by the powerful natural gas industry. 

But the safety commission, which is responsible for products nationwide, said the agency will begin collecting data on the hazards posed by gas stoves, with the aim to release “solutions to those hazards” later this year.

The past eight years have been the warmest on record, researchers say

2022 will be listed as the fifth-hottest year on record as human-caused climate change continues to raise temperatures to dangerous levels across the globe, according to an annual assessment released Tuesday from the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, Brady reports. 

The report also found that the past eight years overall have been the hottest recorded in human history. Samantha Burgess, deputy director of Copernicus, said in a statement announcing the findings that the data shows “clear evidence that avoiding the worst consequences [of global warming] will require society to both urgently reduce carbon emissions and swiftly adapt to a changing climate.”

The rating comes after extreme heat waves in Europe, Asia and the United States raged for weeks last summer while Pakistan faced catastrophic flooding from torrential rainfall and, in February, Antarctic Sea ice reached its lowest minimum in 44 years of satellite records.

In the atmosphere

Viral

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