Community Engagement

Equity’s on the Federal Agenda – What That Means for Public Power

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With the issuance of a handful of Executive Orders, President Biden signaled a priority for the federal government to advance and support equity in its programs and policies.

In Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, the Biden Administration laid out a definition for equity and a vision for how the federal government could address inequities.

The EO defines equity as the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to communities that have been denied such treatment, whether because of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability status, or geographic location, or other persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.

The EO called for a comprehensive and systematic approach to advancing equity – instructing executive departments and federal agencies to “recognize and work to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity,” and to “assess whether, and to what extent, its programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups.”

Following a comprehensive assessment of whether certain communities face systemic barriers in accessing their program benefits, agencies must prepare a plan to address any inequities discovered. Agencies were given one year, until January 2022, to develop the plan. An interagency working group is available to consult with and support agencies in this effort.

The EO also challenged the Office of Management and Budget to identify opportunities to promote equity in the President’s budget and study strategies for allocating federal resources to increase investment in underserved communities so that specific federal resources could be put behind the effort.

Specific to the energy industry, Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, directs federal agencies to develop programs, policies, and activities to address disproportionate health, environmental, economic, and climate effects on disadvantaged communities.

The order established a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council to address current and historical injustices. It also established new or strengthened offices at the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice, and Department of Health and Human Services to allow for monitoring and enforcement of problems relating to environmental justice.

Notably, the order sets a goal of delivering 40% of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities. Called the Justice40 Initiative, interim guidance from OMB suggests that relevant programs in the initiative include those that focus on climate change, clean energy, energy efficiency, and remediation and reduction of legacy pollution. Covered programs also include those focused on training and workforce development related to climate, natural disasters, environment, clean energy, clean transportation, housing, water and wastewater infrastructure, and legacy pollution reduction.

The interim guidance also outlines how agencies can calculate the full benefits of a program and how much those benefits flow to disadvantaged communities. The amount of program funding to a specific community is one factor, but not the only part of the equation when agencies calculate total benefits directed at a community.

Performance toward the investment goal is also going to be tracked via a yet-to-be-released Environmental Justice Scorecard. The order also initiated the development of a Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool, building off EPA’s EJSCREEN, which will help agencies to identify disadvantaged communities and inform equitable decision-making.

While an array of energy-related programs will be affected by the Justice40 Initiative, 21 programs are part of a pilot to implement the Justice40 guidance and offer insight into how to maximize benefits directed to disadvantaged communities. The pilot programs include the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America program, which helps rural small businesses to adopt renewable energy and energy efficiency measures.

EPA’s draft Strategic Plan for FY 2022-2026 offers further insight on how the agency plans to advance equity. The plan highlights EPA’s commitment to strengthen the External Civil Rights Office and its ability to enforce federal civil rights laws to their “fullest extent” by conducting “affirmative investigations” in overburdened communities and securing timely and effective resolutions to address discrimination. EPA is exercising these civil rights authorities to influence environmental activities by the state regulatory community in a number of permitting cases.

With the one-year mark nearing, we can expect to see further guidance from the agencies that support public power initiatives soon, including the Department of Energy and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For public power, this guidance isn’t only about meeting federal grant requirements, it comes at a time when addressing equity might also be top of mind for city council and utility board members — such as those looking to report on how the utility performs on environmental, social, and governance factors — and other community members who might be getting more engaged in siting and planning projects as the energy sector transitions.