Moving from Environmental Justice Commitments to Outcomes

Mississippi River Petrochemical Industry, near Norco, Louisiana. Photo by Ken Lund, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s no secret that pollution from the petrochemical industry is accelerating rates of cancer, respiratory disease, and other serious illness in Louisiana communities.

For too long, laws meant to protect the health and safety of Americans have failed to deliver, and frontline communities, especially people of color and low-income families, have been left to fight virtually on their own. We need structural change to put the protection of overburdened communities at the center of our collective attention as we grapple with the dirty legacy of fossil fuels and the transition to a more just, clean energy future.

With the recent anniversary of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), we are starting to see some impressive clean energy investments, and in areas where jobs are needed most. As spending ramps up, it must be informed by the communities that have been suffering under the current system of fossil fuel extraction and refinement.

Between last year’s passing of the IRA, President Biden’s recent Executive Order on Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All, the Justice40 Initiative, and the creation of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, the Biden Administration deserves credit for its leadership advancing environmental justice.

The next step for the administration is to meaningfully engage communities most burdened by environmental and climate injustice to ensure meaningful and just outcomes. And it must enforce the rules it has on the books while advancing new laws centered around justice. This is a matter of life and death and requires not only forward-thinking solutions but also those that redress the cumulative illnesses and deaths caused by decades of living next to toxic sites.

Having worked on environmental justice issues across multiple presidential administrations, we understand the obstacles and opportunities in this work; we’d like to focus on the latter. Here are some ways the administration and Congress can move from commitments to effective environmental justice outcomes:

  • Staff up: Biden’s executive order asserting an all-of-government approach to achieving environmental justice is right on. But the administration, with support from Congress, needs to fill key leadership positions as soon as possible and fully resource these offices so they have the capacity to meaningfully engage frontline and Indigenous communities.
  • Get the money out the door: As staff and leadership positions are filled, the administration must move swiftly to get the money to overburdened communities, with systems to ensure impact and accountability, informed by impacted communities.
  • Rulemaking: Agencies need to make full use of the authority granted to them under law. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a document outlining legal authorities available to address environmental justice, including the problem of cumulative pollution and exposure burdens. But it won’t be enough to recognize the existence of legal authority. Agencies will need to abandon longstanding legal interpretations and implement laws like the Clean Air Act differently.
  • Enforcement: It’s one thing to have strong protections on paper, but another to achieve real pollution reductions on the ground. As it stands, the level of noncompliance is astounding. Environmental rules are typically crafted (whether purposefully or by benign neglect) in ways that make it easy for companies to evade pollution controls. EPA and other agencies must change the way they write rules to make compliance the norm and to make enforcement easier when it is needed.
  • Permitting: Infrastructure permitting that accompanies our clean energy transition must not further disadvantage overburdened communities. Decision-making processes about where new infrastructure goes and what it looks like must include and respect community voices. Efforts to undermine this principle are shortsighted and unwise.

The Biden Administration has a real shot at making a difference. The federal government is essential to achieving justice and addressing the disproportionate burdens that many communities face, especially since it was so often the actions of government that initially created these conditions, for example, through residential redlining and biased infrastructure citing decisions.

We are heartened by the commitments made so far, and by the powerful voice and influence of environmental justice advocates. We must keep the pressure on to ensure the administration follows through with action sufficient to effect lasting and meaningful change. Decisions like the approval of the massive Willow Project, expanded offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and most recently, approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline permit, are at odds with the administration’s environmental justice commitments. That’s why advocates across the social justice and environmental spectrum need to keep fighting, with a clear focus on environmental justice.

It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game; together, we can make things better for people, the economy, and the planet.


  • Patrice Simms is co-founder of People over Plastic, Vice President of Litigation for Healthy Communities at Earthjustice, and is a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School teaching Environmental Justice. Simms served on the Environmental Protection Agency Review Team for the Biden-Harris Presidential Transition, Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Obama Administration, and was a professor at Howard University School of Law.
  • Avi Garbow is President of Resources Legacy Fund and previously served as Senior Counselor to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator in the Biden Administration, EPA General Counsel in the Obama Administration, and federal environmental crimes prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice.

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