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Biden to place environmental justice at center of sweeping climate plan

President Biden delivered remarks from the White House in Washington on Tuesday. As Biden launches an ambitious effort to confront climate change, powerful and surprising forces are arrayed at his back.
President Biden delivered remarks from the White House in Washington on Tuesday. As Biden launches an ambitious effort to confront climate change, powerful and surprising forces are arrayed at his back.Doug Mills/NYT

WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden on Wednesday plans to make tackling America’s persistent racial and economic disparities a central part of his plan to combat climate change, prioritizing environmental justice for the first time in a generation.

As part of an unprecedented push to cut the nation's greenhouse gas emissions and create new jobs as the United States shifts toward cleaner energy, Biden will direct agencies across the federal government to invest in low-income and minority communities that have traditionally borne the brunt of pollution, according to two individuals briefed on the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it had not been formally announced.

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Biden will sign an executive order establishing a White House interagency council on environmental justice, create an office of health and climate equity at the Health and Human Services Department and form a separate environmental justice office at the Department of Justice, the individuals said.

Cathleen Kelly, a fellow who focuses on energy and environment at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, called the expected actions "a historic commitment."

"The executive order will help to lay out a clear path to implementing President Biden's climate and justice commitments," Kelly said. "It will get the gears turning in each agency across the federal government. With Biden in the White House and the current leaders we have in Congress, this year represents an unprecedented opportunity to have executive and legislative action."

At the heart of Biden's executive action Wednesday is an effort to improve conditions in Black, Latino and Native American communities targeted for hazards that others did not want: power plants, landfills, trash incinerators, shipping ports, uranium mines and factories.

Communities where air quality is poor suffer from higher levels of asthma and respiratory and heart diseases. As a result, African Americans and Latinos, along with Native Americans, have suffered disproportionately from the coronavirus, a respiratory illness, and are more likely to die.

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Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas State University and longtime environmental justice advocate, praised the notion of linking the environment and health by establishing a dedicated office at HHS. And he said creating an environmental justice office at the Justice Department underscores that the problem is both important and pervasive.

"When you have the most powerful legal department in the country saying that environmental justice is a basic right, I think that is a signal being sent across the country to say that this is real at the highest level," Bullard said.

The moves are part of a far-reaching, all-of-government effort to transition the United States away from fossil fuels - a goal that Biden has consistently listed as a top priority and one that will undoubtedly include powerful allies and fierce resistance alike.

Biden on Wednesday plans to impose a moratorium on all new federal oil and gas leasing, pledge to protect 30% of the nation's public lands and waters by the end of the decade and direct federal agencies to factor climate change into a wide range of issues, including procurement, regulations and legal settlements.

"Our urgent reduction of emissions is compelled by public conscience and by common sense," Biden's climate envoy, former secretary of state John Kerry, said during remarks this week at a United Nations gathering focused on climate adaptation.

Kerry said that the United States would meet the pledge it made as part of the Paris climate accord, and that it will "treat the crisis as the emergency that it is."

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"President Biden knows that we have to mobilize in unprecedented ways to meet a challenge that is fast accelerating, and he knows we have limited time to get it under control."

Kerry also alluded to the new administration's plan to pull every lever at its disposal within the federal government, saying, "Every agency is now a part of our climate team."

The White House will also establish an interagency working group to help communities transition away from coal and other fossil fuels, the individuals said, headed by Climate Coordinator Gina McCarthy and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese.

Speaking to the National Conference of U.S. Mayors this past weekend, McCarthy assured local officials from across the country that the administration would work to convince average Americans they will benefit from a transition to clean energy.

"People have been in pain long enough. We are not going to ask for sacrifice," she said. "And if we fail to win the heart of middle America, we will lose."

Biden's latest actions come less than a week after Inauguration Day, when some of his first acts in office included signing an order for the United States to rejoin the international Paris climate accord and halting the controversial, multibillion-dollar Keystone XL pipeline.

The president also has ordered federal agencies to review scores of climate and environmental policies enacted during the Donald Trump years and, if possible, to quickly reverse them. He also plans to convene a meeting of world leaders this spring to focus on ramping up global action on climate change.

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The push to scale back the nation's carbon emissions, while also addressing the historical burden of pollution on minority communities, is coming not only from the White House, but also from the Democratic-led Congress.

"It is central," Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer of New York said in an interview with MSNBC on Monday, saying he agrees with Biden that pursuing a bold environmental agenda will also be good for the economy. "One of the things that's always pained me is that so many working people think climate [action] will leave them out, when it actually will increase the number of good-paying jobs, as long as we make sure it's American jobs."

He added, "Climate is central, but jobs and dealing with racial inequities are part of it."

The measures that Biden plans to roll out Wednesday and in the months ahead will also face stiff opposition in some quarters and a lingering skepticism in areas of the country he has pledged to help.

The oil and gas industry already has begun to assail key Biden policy changes, including his decisions on the Keystone XL pipeline.

"The first few days are giving us an indication of what the next four years could look like, and that's elicited some real concern, within the industry and broadly, outside the industry," said Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute. "We're going to communicate how impactful such a policy would be, to both the administration and on Capitol Hill."

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The top three House Republicans, joined by 17 others, sent a letter to Biden on Tuesday warning him against suspending federal oil and gas auctions. Taking such a step "would be as extreme as it is radical, and it would only further divide the country. It would put Americans with good-paying jobs in the energy industry out of work. And, it would seem to conflict directly with federal law."

In an interview Tuesday, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said Biden's decision to curtail oil and gas jobs would disproportionately harm Alaska Natives, who have relied on energy development to lift their communities out of poverty. He noted that when the American Medical Association surveyed life expectancy in communities across the nation, residents on Alaska's North Slope and the Aleutian Islands made the biggest gains.

"These were some of the poorest places in America, almost exclusively Native. And when they got resource development, they got things most Americans take for granted: health clinics, gymnasiums and flush toilets," Sullivan said. "Now we have an administration that directly targets these opportunities and turns racial equity on its head.

American Clean Power Association CEO Heather Zichal, who served as a top climate adviser to President Barack Obama, said in an interview that no one should be surprised by Biden's decision to follow through on his campaign promises. After all, she noted, the policy proposals are posted on his webpage.

"If we're going to remove 51 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually and get to zero [emissions] in 30 years, this is going to require drastic action," she said, adding that her members are prepared to invest $1 trillion in the coming years on clean energy projects. "We see nothing but opportunity."

Some communities that have traditionally relied on fossil fuel jobs have found themselves wondering what opportunities will come their way under a Biden administration and whether workers in fading industries such as coal will be left behind.

In Adams County, Ohio, where two coal-fired power plants closed in 2019, the more than 500 jobs they once provided are gone. While two solar farms exist nearby, they and other businesses have not filled the employment void - and the massive hole in the local tax base.

"We're all for renewables and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, people have to make a living," Adams County Commissioner Ty Pell said in an interview, noting that solar farms require far fewer ongoing employees once built than a massive power plant.

Pell noted that beyond the residents who have struggled to find other jobs, the disappearance of the local taxes the plants provided has meant a budget squeeze on schools, emergency responders and other services. "That," he said, "is the unseen loss that people don't understand."

Across the country, in Gillette, Wyo., which bills itself as the "Energy Capital of the Nation," Mayor Louise Carter-King said residents have realized for some time that the shift from fossil fuels is an inevitable one, driven as much by market forces as anyone who might occupy the White House.

"I think we've found out it doesn't really matter who is in the Oval Office," she said in an interview, noting that while the Trump administration lightened regulations on coal and oil and gas companies, the energy industry that has helped this city thrive for decades still suffered job losses. "It's just a free market, and that's just all there is to it."

Carter-King pointed to a nearby testing center that studies carbon capture and sequestration technologies, as well as existing energy infrastructure and a workforce of electricians, welders and mechanics that could put its skills to use in a variety of ways.

"We've been working hard to try to transition," she said. "We know what's coming down the pike, and we are preparing as best we can."

While Wyoming remains one of the reddest states in the country - Trump won more than 70% of the vote in November - Carter-King said she welcomes Biden's promises to help create new, solid jobs in places where the nation's shift to cleaner forms of energy could mean lost jobs in the fossil fuel sector.

“We do want to work with the new administration on what we can do here. . . . Working together, we can get so much further than [having] some sort of standoff,” she said. “President Biden has promised to help communities like ours, so I’d like to hold him to that.”