On September 24, 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)announced the creation of a new national office dedicated to advancing environmental justice (EJ) and civil rights. Known as the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, the creation of the new office delivers on a noteworthy campaign promise of President Joe Biden, who committed to elevating these issues during his presidency and ensuring justice and equality for overburdened, underserved communities.
“From day one, President Biden and EPA have been committed to delivering progress on environmental justice andcivil rights and ensuring that underserved and overburdened communities are at the forefront of our work,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “With the launch of a new national program office, we are embedding environmental justice and civil rights into the DNA of EPA and ensuring that people who’ve struggled to have their concerns addressed see action to solve the problems they’ve been facing for generations.”
“Since the beginning of the Biden Administration, its appointees have consistently stressed the idea of environmental justice,” saidJacob Hupart, Member at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C. “Specifically, in this context, the invocation of environmental justice has focused on the principle that addressing the various environmental issues confronting society—including the challenge of climate change—must also take into consideration that underserved communities frequently are disproportionately impacted by environmental issues, and so these communities should receive particular attention. That the Biden Administration is establishing an EPA office dedicated specifically to this issue is congruent with their prior rhetoric and action (such as the appointment of Michael Regan as the EPA Administrator), and emphasizes this aspect of their environmental program.
With more than 200 EPA staff members across ten regions dedicated to the project,the office will put substantial resources into environmental justice efforts across the United States. This includes, but is not limited to, working with state, local, and Tribal partners to understand their EJ needs, disbursing grants and technical assistance, cooperating with other EPA offices to incorporate EJ initiatives in all areas, and ensuring funding recipients are complying with relevant civil rights laws.
This new focus by the EPA is extremely meaningful not only for environmental justice in the US, but for the direction of major regulatory and administrative bodies. “The EPA and the White House have enunciated policy, established guidance, and issued Executive Orders, but these tools do not have enforceable legal requirements,” explainedRichard Glaze, environmental litigator and Partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP. “Combining the existing Office of Environmental Justice with the External Civil Rights Compliance Office to form the Office of Environmental Justice and Civil Rights sends a signal that the EPA is willing to use enforcement tools with teeth to advance the administration’s Environmental Justice goals.”
Stacey Halliday, environmental lawyer and Principal at Beveridge & Diamond PC, noted how this is a substantial shift from the status quo. “In the past two years, we’ve seen momentum in fits and spurts from a variety of executive branch agencies following the January 27 issuance of EO 14008– including notable action from CEQ, DOE, DOJ, DOT and EPA,” she says. “However, this most recent action by EPA is only likely to accelerate this momentum and have impacts that will extend beyond the Biden Administration. We can expect to see more alignment between EPA program offices [...] and a ‘from-the-top’ imperative to incorporate EJ in overall agency decision-making. This is a big change from past practice when EJ and civil rights enforcement were separately housed within other program offices and lacked this level of authority and agency-wide reach.”
“The Department of Justice isfully on board with the EPA in this effort,” added Mr. Glaze. “It recognizes that “Environmental justice and Title VI are both rooted in the same basic principle that no person should bear an unfair share of harm on account of their race, color or national origin” and warns that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act is a powerful for the coordination of Title VI and Environmental Justice.”
The EPA’s new office comes at a time when companies are turning their focus to the upcoming recession, reminding them that climate and social justice must remain a top priority even as companies prepare for economic instability. This should send a message to corporations who have already been facing mounting pressure to incorporate climate justice considerations into their missions and operations. By creating a political culture of increasedenvironmental and social scrutiny, the Biden administration is slowly changing “ESG” from a greenwashing buzzword to a corporate obligation.
“Companies seeking to gain the benefit of competitive federal funding,” saidMs. Halliday, “especially following the flush of resources coming from the IIJA and IRA – are more frequently asked to provide a detailed accounting of how they will assess and address EJ impacts, as well as how projects may contribute to the Justice 40 Initiative (directing 40% of benefits from federal climate investments to disadvantaged communities).”
“Although the ultimate impact of this new office is uncertain, as the actual initiatives and enforcement actions brought will have to be assessed and evaluated, at minimum, the creation of this office indicates that policy and enforcement actions centered around environmental justice are more likely to appear over the coming months and years,” addedMr. Hupart. “It should also be noted, however, that other environmental actions undertaken by the Biden Administration—such as the mandatory climate disclosures proposed by the SEC, which would be applicable to all public companies—are more likely to be an immediate focus for corporate America rather than potential EPA enforcement actions focused on specific instances implicating environmental justice concerns.”
The environmental, social, and governance movement (ESG) has been undeniably energized by the EPA’s new office, particularly at a time when ESG movements are under scrutiny. If Biden’s plan to make environmental justice a more common business priority succeeds, centering sustainability issues will no longer be enough for firms to differentiate themselves to investors. Corporations targeting ethically-minded shareholders will need to develop more detailed, creative ESG approaches.
“Environmental justice combines elements of the “E” and the “S” of ESG and companies that have embraced ESG are well-advised to consider whether their operations implicate environmental justice and, if they do, give these issues the attention they deserve,” saidMr. Glaze. “Combined with the recent SEC climate disclosure rule, these ESG issues that companies have considered ‘optional’ will now have more force behind them [and companies] can no longer ignore them.”
“Even before the creation of this office, the renewed federal and state prioritization of EJ has had an impact on corporate behavior – driven broadly by federal guidance and tools, new state permitting requirements, targeted environmental enforcement, and investor demand,” said Ms. Halliday. “In the last year or so, we have seen an increase in shareholder proposals related to climate disclosures, racial equity audits and environmental justice audits, with investors seeking to understand how company activities impact disadvantaged communities and implications for long-term value for the company.”