Every person has a right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live in a healthy community, now and in the future.
But that right has not traditionally been extended to low-income communities in the United States, especially when the residents are people of color.
During his first week in office, President Biden launched the most ambitious environmental justice agenda in U.S. history.
To continue delivering on that vision, on April 21, 2023, he signed an executive order further embedding environmental justice into the work of federal agencies to achieve real, measurable progress that communities can count on.
The Executive Order is part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s whole-of-government effort to confront longstanding environmental injustices and inequities.
For far too long, communities across the U.S. have faced persistent environmental injustice through toxic pollution, underinvestment in infrastructure and critical services, and other disproportionate environmental harms often due to a legacy of racial discrimination including redlining. These communities with environmental justice concerns face even greater burdens due to climate change.
Here’s what the White House says about the new Executive Order:
With this action, the President is working to ensure that all people – regardless of race, background, income, ability, Tribal affiliation, or zip code – can benefit from the vital safeguards enshrined in our nation’s foundational environmental and civil rights laws. That means cleaner air and water, reduced risk for asthma, cancer, and other health burdens, and better access to green space, safe and affordable housing, and clean transportation.
For President Biden, protecting our planet starts with ensuring everyone lives in a safe and healthy environment. Throughout Earth Week, President Biden, Vice President Harris, and other Cabinet-level officials are holding events and announcing commitments focused on how the President’s Investing in America agenda is creating good-paying clean energy jobs, lowering costs, meeting our climate goals, advancing environmental justice and conservation, and strengthening communities that for too long were left behind or left out.
The new Executive Order, Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All, will:
- Deepen the Biden-Harris Administration’s whole-of-government commitment to environmental justice. The new Executive Order makes clear that the pursuit of environmental justice is a duty of all executive branch agencies and should be incorporated into their missions. It also affirms that environmental justice is central to the implementation of our bedrock civil rights and environmental laws.
- Better protect overburdened communities from pollution and environmental harms. The Executive Order directs agencies to consider measures to address and prevent disproportionate and adverse environmental and health impacts on communities, including the cumulative impacts of pollution and other burdens like climate change. Additionally, it requires agencies to notify nearby communities in the event of a release of toxic substances from a federal facility, and to hold a public meeting to share information on resulting health risks and necessary precautions.
- Strengthen engagement with communities and mobilize federal agencies to confront existing and legacy barriers and injustices. Communities with environmental justice concerns have long experienced exclusion and other significant barriers to having a voice in federal decision-making. The Executive Order recognizes this reality and that racism is a fundamental driver of environmental injustice. It directs agencies to actively facilitate meaningful public participation and just treatment of all people in agency decision-making. The Executive Order also underscores the vital importance of Tribal consultation and coordination, including to strengthen nation-to-nation relationships on issues involving environmental justice.
- Promote the latest science, data, and research, including on cumulative impacts. The Executive Order directs agencies to identify and address gaps in science, data, and research related to environmental justice, to advance the analysis of cumulative impacts, and to make information on environmental and health concerns more publicly accessible to communities. To address the need for a coordinated strategy for identifying and filling environmental justice data and research gaps, the Executive Order establishes a new Environmental Justice Subcommittee within the National Science and Technology Council, led by the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
- Expand interagency coordination and launch a new Office of Environmental Justice within the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Building on Executive Order 14008, the Executive Order adds agencies to the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council to further a whole-of-government strategy to address current and historic environmental injustice. The Executive Order also establishes the White House Office of Environmental Justice, led by the Federal Chief Environmental Justice Officer, and tasks it with coordinating the implementation of environmental justice policy across the federal government, ensuring that federal efforts can evolve alongside our understanding of environmental justice.
- Increase accountability and transparency in federal environmental justice policy. The Executive Order charges federal agencies with conducting new assessments of their environmental justice efforts and developing, implementing, and periodically updating an environmental justice strategic plan. These Environmental Justice Strategic Plans and Assessments will be submitted to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and made public on a regular basis, including through the Environmental Justice Scorecard, a new government-wide assessment of federal agencies’ efforts to advance environmental justice.
- Honor and build on the foundation of ongoing environmental justice work. Under the Executive Order, agencies will continue their efforts to advance environmental justice in ways that complement and deepen prior work. The Executive Order uses the term “disproportionate and adverse” as a simpler, modernized version of the phrase “disproportionately high and adverse” used in Executive Order 12898. Those phrases have the same meaning, but removing the word “high” eliminates potential misunderstanding that agencies should only be considering large disproportionate effects.
This action follows through on President Biden’s promise to modernize and improve how the federal government confronts environmental injustice to address the needs of present and future generations – a promise he made following meaningful engagement with communities with environmental justice concerns and solidified in Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.
The Executive Order reflects the values, goals, and recommendations of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), an expert body of leaders, researchers, practitioners, and community members. In line with the WHEJAC’s recommendations, the Executive Order outlines an ambitious approach to environmental justice that is informed by scientific research, high-quality data, and meaningful engagement with communities. It also reaffirms that the federal government must continue to be transparent and accountable for its actions.
The Executive Order builds on and supplements the foundational efforts of Executive Order 12898, signed by President Bill Clinton nearly 30 years ago. For the first time in our nation’s history, Executive Order 12898 recognized and sought to address what community members and leaders had been saying for decades: harmful pollution disproportionally impacts low-income communities and communities of color, among other vulnerable communities.
In addition to the Executive Order, the Biden-Harris Administration is announcing other new steps to further the President’s historic commitment to environmental justice:
- Publishing the first-ever Environmental Justice Scorecard. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), CEQ, and the U.S. Digital Service are publishing Phase One of the Environmental Justice Scorecard, the first government-wide assessment of federal agencies’ efforts to advance environmental justice. The first version of the Scorecard establishes a baseline for tracking the federal government’s efforts through 24 agencies to secure environmental justice, including to advance the Justice40 Initiative. Over time, it will show how the Administration’s actions are making meaningful changes in communities. The Scorecard incorporates recommendations from the WHEJAC and feedback from the public, environmental justice stakeholders, and experts.
- Launching the White House Campaign for Environmental Justice. The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to ensuring that people are seeing and experiencing the impacts of the President’s environmental justice agenda in their communities. To strengthen partnerships with communities that have been left behind for too long, the Administration is announcing the White House Campaign for Environmental Justice. The campaign, which is being kicked off today at the launch of the 21st Urban Waters Federal Partnership in Raleigh, North Carolina, will redouble the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to meet people where they are and better focus agency resources and attention on the needs of marginalized and overburdened communities.
- Announcing new Justice40 covered programs. Through the Justice40 Initiative, the Biden-Harris Administration is reshaping hundreds of federal programs to ensure that 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities. Today three additional agencies, the Department of Commerce, the National Science Foundation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), announced their Justice40 covered programs. Now nearly 470 programs across nineteen federal agencies are covered under the President’s Justice40 Initiative.
- Taking new steps to combat plastic pollution in communities. The Biden-Harris Administration recognizes that the plastic pollution crisis is an environmental justice issue, with disadvantaged communities in the U.S. and globally bearing social, economic, and public health burdens across the entire lifecycle of plastics.
Today the Environmental Protection Agency is releasing a draft National Strategy on Preventing Plastic Pollution to combat the disparate impacts on communities affected by plastic from production to waste. The White House is also announcing a new Interagency Policy Committee (IPC) on Plastic Pollution and a Circular Economy. The IPC will coordinate federal efforts on plastic pollution, prioritizing public health, economic development, and equity to ensure that the benefits of acting on plastic pollution – including jobs, minimized exposure to harmful chemicals, and clean communities – are available to all.
Today’s announcements build on more than two years of progress under President Biden’s leadership to advance environmental justice.
That progress includes:
- Delivering on the Justice40 Initiative. Through President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, the Administration is delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of federal climate, clean energy, affordable and sustainable housing, clean water, and other investments to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized and overburdened by pollution. In total, hundreds of federal programs are being reimagined and transformed to meet the Justice40 goal. Agencies are using the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool to identify disadvantaged communities.
- Making historic investments in environmental justice. The President’s Investing in America agenda includes historic funding for environmental justice. This week the Environmental Protection Agency released new details about the design of the $27 billion Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which will leverage public investment with private capital and finance clean energy projects that reduce pollution and energy costs, increase energy security, and create good-paying jobs, especially in low-income and disadvantaged communities. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, agencies are investing billions to plug orphaned oil and gas wells, replace lead service lines, create clean energy jobs in energy communities, increase equitable access to trees and green spaces, install air monitors to screen for pollution, purchase zero-emissions school buses, and more.
- Advancing an ambitious regulatory agenda. The Biden-Harris Administration is advancing an ambitious regulatory agenda to protect public health and secure environmental justice. The Environmental Protection Agency is working to combat air and water pollution by proposing the first-ever national drinking water standard for PFAS, proposing to strengthen the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, addressing elevated cancer risks with stronger standards for chemical manufacturers, and developing new health protections to reduce exposure to ethylene oxide.
- Strengthening enforcement of environmental laws. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is implementing a comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy to enhance civil and criminal enforcement of environmental violations in communities overburdened by pollution. Examples of DOJ’s enforcement work include a complaint filed and interim solution reached for the court to appoint a third party to manage and stabilize the City of Jackson, Mississippi’s public drinking water system, an environmental justice investigation into the City of Houston’s operations, policies and practices related to illegal dumping, and an environmental justice investigation into the wastewater disposal and infectious disease and outbreaks programs of the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Health Department of Lowndes County, Alabama.
- Increasing technical assistance and capacity building. In direct response to feedback from communities, the Biden-Harris Administration has established a network of assistance centers to support communities and their partners as they work to access federal resources. Last week the Administration announced 17 new Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers to help unlock federal resources in communities across the country. The program is part of the Federal Interagency Thriving Communities Network, which is working toward a holistic government-wide framework for technical assistance and capacity building.
- Respecting and elevating Indigenous Knowledge. The Biden-Harris Administration has formally recognized Indigenous Knowledge as one of the many important bodies of knowledge that contributes to the scientific, technical, social, and economic advancements of the United States and our collective understanding of the natural world. The White House engaged more than a thousand individuals, organizations, and Tribal Nations to develop guidance on elevating Indigenous Knowledge in federal research, policy, and decision-making.
- Strengthening our regulatory system for the 21st century. Earlier this month, the Biden-Harris Administration rolled out new efforts to promote equitable and meaningful participation in the regulatory process, and OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs proposed new guidance to help agencies better account for the full range of benefits and costs of their regulatory actions. These new steps will produce a more efficient, effective regulatory review process that will help improve people’s lives – from protecting children from harmful toxins to growing our economy.
Photo of ecosystem restoration work in San Diego, California courtesy of the U.S. Department of Interior.
Learn more about the Biden-Harris Administration’s work to advance environmental justice.