EJ commission

Juan Parras, Susana Almanza, Robert Bullard. TEJAS, PODER, Robert Bullard

The Biden administration continues to take major actions that indicate just how profoundly it is changing the federal government’s direction with regard to climate change.

Last week, for example, the administration unveiled its massive infrastructure-climate-jobs proposal, seeking hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending and easily ranking as the most expansive climate-action initiative in the nation’s history. The Trump administration’s first budget director, by contrast, had said climate change wasn’t something its officials thought was worth spending money on.

Some of the new administration’s actions haven’t gotten as much attention as the infrastructure plan but are significant in their own right, offering more evidence of the changes that are afoot. One was last week’s appointment of the 26 members of a new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, the first such White House-based panel. Three of the members are Texans, each of whom has been an outspoken leader for decades in calling attention to, and campaigning against, environmental problems that disproportionately harm people of color and lower-income citizens.

The three Texas-based members are Susana Almanza of Austin, director of People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER); Juan Parras of Houston, founder and executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS); and Robert Bullard of Houston, a sociologist and professor at Texas Southern University.

There already was (and remains) an advisory body on environmental justice issues at the Environmental Protection Agency. But the newly formed White House council syncs with Biden’s pledges during last year’s campaign and since then to elevate and increase federal attention to environmental justice concerns with a “whole-of-government approach” comprising numerous agencies.

Bullard, widely hailed as “the father of environmental justice” for his groundbreaking academic work and his advocacy efforts, was enthusiastic and hopeful about the new White House body and the Biden administration in an interview last week with E&E News.

“We have never had a White House committee on environmental justice at this level,” he told the Washington-based news outlet. “I’m expecting that this administration will go full force. And given the rollout of many of the appointments and the policy framings in the various departments, I see this as an excellent opportunity to see environmental justice go from a footnote to a headline.”

(Texas Climate News published a two-part interview with Bullard last year about the history of the environmental justice movement, its prospects amid 2020’s renewed activism surrounding racial and economic justice issues, and his hopes for the future. Part 1: Environmental justice: How far have we come, how far yet to go? Part 2: Environmental justice: The Trump administration and the road ahead)

Formation of the new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council was reportedly promoted by Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator in the Obama administration and Biden’s domestic climate adviser, and Cecilia Martinez, environmental justice coordinator in Biden’s Council on Environmental Quality, an interagency coordinating body.

The council’s assigned duties in its charter include providing advice and recommendations on subjects including “climate change mitigation, resilience, and disaster management; toxics, pesticides, and pollution reduction in overburdened communities; equitable conservation and public lands use; tribal and Indigenous issues; clean energy transition; sustainable infrastructure, including clean water, transportation, and the built environment; National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), enforcement and civil rights; [and] increasing the Federal Government’s efforts to address current and historic environmental injustice.”

Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which needs the approval of Congress, includes measures to advance clean energy while overhauling the nation’s electricity and transit systems. It also bears the imprint of his focus on environmental justice.

The proposal, for example, would direct 40 percent of its investments in building “clean infrastructure” and fighting climate disruption to disadvantaged communities. At the same time, half of its $40 billion requested for upgrading research facilities would be provided to institutions such as the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and a new climate research lab would be affiliated with one of the HBCUs.

While the three environmental justice advocates from Texas – Almanza, Parras and Bullard – were assuming their responsibilities in the new administration, another Texan lost his federal job last week. It was another sign of the dramatic shift in environmental policies and priorities after President Joe Biden was inaugurated in January.

The Texan ejected from his position was Michael Honeycutt, appointed under former President Donald Trump to chair the EPA’s influential Science Advisory Board. Honeycutt was ousted along with other members of that panel and members of the influential Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, likewise made up of outside experts. Honeycutt is the chief toxicologist at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s principal environmental regulatory agency.

The Trump administration, particularly the EPA, was repeatedly criticized for tilting toward fossil-fuel interests and industrial polluters in general.

The Washington Post, without attribution to a particular individual, reported that “the Biden administration said (the purge of the two EPA advisory panels) is one of several to reestablish scientific integrity across the federal government after what it characterizes as a concerted effort under the previous president to sideline or interfere with research on climate change, the novel coronavirus and other issues.”

In light of his own and TCEQ’s history on a number of pollution issues, the environmental news website Grist reported last year that environmental and public health advocates had expected Honeycutt “would be a loyal foot soldier, supporting the [Trump] administration’s deregulatory agenda at every opportunity” when he was appointed to chair the EPA Science Advisory Board in 2017.

He ended up impressing some prominent environmental advocates, however, as “an honest broker,” and the Science Advisory Board under his leadership “publicly repudiated the Trump EPA’s efforts to rewrite Obama-era clean water rules, roll back tailpipe emission regulations, limit the research that can be considered when crafting regulations, and scrap mercury emission limits for coal plants,” Grist added.

Bill Dawson is the founding editor of Texas Climate News.