Environmental Justice at the White House

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The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is best known as the agency responsible for implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). (For updates on NEPA, see EELP’s Regulatory Tracker page on NEPA Environmental Review Requirements). CEQ sits within the Executive Office of the President and historically has played a limited role in administrative policy more broadly. However, President Biden’s whole-of-government priority to advance environmental justice often depends on CEQ leadership to direct or coordinate interagency efforts, including federal clean energy and vehicle procurement; implementing Justice40 and supervising the creation of a new Climate & Economic Justice Screening Tool; and identifying climate-related financial risk exposure. (For more on these commitments, see our Biden Environmental Action Tracker).

In his January 27 Climate Crisis EO (EO 14008), President Biden also created several new advisory bodies to elevate and inform environmental justice priorities government-wide. While these groups don’t have rulemaking capacities, they nevertheless create new spaces to inject environmental justice principles in federal decision-making at an unprecedented level. These bodies are summarized below. (For more on President Biden’s Week One Executive Orders, see our Week One Report).

  • The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) sits within EPA and advises the IAC (described below) and Chair of CEQ. The WHEJAC is distinct from the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), established by EPA in 1993 to advise the EPA Administrator on how to integrate environmental justice concerns into the agency’s programs. While the NEJAC will likely remain focused on integrating EJ priorities at EPA, the WHEJAC advises the White House and other agencies on integrating EJ priorities government-wide. Read the WHEJAC’s charter here.
  • The White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council (IAC) replaced the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, which was established in 1994 and convened by EPA. In EO 14008, President Biden elevated the IAC to the Executive Office of the President, where it is chaired by the head of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The IAC is responsible for developing accountability metrics, recommending updates to EO 12898 and publishing an annual public performance scorecard on its implementation, and creating the Climate & Economic Justice Screening Tool.
  • The Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization is chaired by the National Climate Advisor and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, and housed within the Department of Energy (DOE). Under EO 14008, the group is tasked with delivering resources, opportunities, and benefits to communities that are economically dependent on coal, oil and gas, and power plants.

CEQ

  • October 7: CEQ issues a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to modify its NEPA implementing regulations. The proposal would rescind three Trump-era changes, including redefining “effects” to account for indirect and cumulative impacts of a project. (For a review of Trump-era changes to CEQ’s NEPA rules, see EELP’s analysis here). Comments are due by November 22. CEQ will also conduct two online public meetings on October 19 from 1-4 EDT and October 21 from 5-8 EDT. Register at www.nepa.gov.
  • September 13: Sharmila Murthy, a Suffolk Law Professor, is appointed senior counsel to CEQ. Professor Murthy is an expert in environmental justice, climate change, and water policy, and co-founded the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation program as a Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.
  • April 14: Brenda Mallory is confirmed as the head of CEQ. Mallory previously served as CEQ’s general counsel under President Obama.
  • January: President-elect Biden names Dr. Cecilia Martinez as senior director for environmental justice at CEQ.

WHEJAC

  • May 13: The WHEJAC submits its interim final recommendations to CEQ on Justice40, the Climate & Economic Justice Screening Tool, and proposed revisions to Executive Order 12898. The WHEJAC releases its final report and cover letter on May 21. For top takeaways and related resources, check out this Twitter thread from EELP’s Legal Fellow Hannah Perls. 
  • March 29: President Biden announces members of the new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), which will advise CEQ. Members include renowned environmental justice leaders Dr. Robert Bullard, Katherine Flowers, and Dr. Beverly Wright.

Working Group on Revitalizing Coal and Power Plant Communities

  • April 23: Dr. Brian Anderson, former Director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory, is named Executive Director of the Working Group.
  • April: The Working Group releases its initial report identifying nearly $38 billion in existing federal resources to assist communities hit hardest by the transition to renewable energy.

Council on Native American Affairs

  • May 27: Anthony (Morgan) Rodman is named Executive Director of the Council. Rodman served as the Council’s Director during the Obama administration, and is a member of the Cherokee Nation and Osage Nation.
  • April 23: The Council holds its first meeting since it last met in 2016 under President Obama. The Council is chaired by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.