Climate and Environmental Justice and the Infrastructure Bill
Yesterday, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (“IIJA”), marking a major achievement for both the Biden Administration and the usually-gridlocked Congress. The IIJA makes critical investments in the country’s infrastructure, including an unprecedented $47 billion for climate resilience. The bipartisan bill also makes major investments in upgrading our energy systems, from installing electric vehicle chargers to building more transmission lines. However, the bill falls short of the transformative, generational investment that is needed to transition the country towards a justice-centered, clean energy-based economy with enough boldness and urgency to avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis.
What’s in the infrastructure bill for environmental justice?
IIJA’s total spending comes to $1.2 trillion, and consists of $550 billion in new spending, along with $650 billion in routine reauthorizations of various energy, water, and surface transportation programs. Among the bill’s transportation funding, $110 billion is for highways and bridges, and new spending includes $39 billion to the capital budgets of transit systems; $66 billion for both passenger and freight rail; and a much-lauded $1 billion program to reconnect communities of color that were disrupted and divided by highway construction. The bill has been praised by the American Society of Civil Engineers as a “significant down payment” on the country’s $2.5 trillion infrastructure investment gap.
In terms of climate justice and clean energy, IIJA makes some important investments that should benefit environmental justice communities. Among the bill’s grid modernization provisions is a $5 billion grant program for states and Tribes to utilities and grid operators to reduce the likelihood of events that would disrupt the energy supply (like wildfire or extreme weather). Another $1 billion is provided for the Department of Energy to improve energy resilience, safety, reliability, and availability in rural or remote areas and environmental protection from adverse impacts of energy generation. An additional $1 billion will fund energy efficiency, updating state energy plans, and developing new state energy security plans to ensure “reliable, secure, and resilient energy infrastructure.” IIJA also provides much-needed funding for existing programs to help residents struggling to keep up with rising energy bills: $3.5 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program and $500 million for Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) can help the low-income households that are already paying a bigger share of their income for energy they need to live. All of these programs have the potential to benefit the communities that are most impacted by energy insecurity and related hardships.
Other key environmental justice investments in IIJA include:
- Lead service line replacement: $15 billion
- Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund: $11.3 billion
- Orphaned well site plugging, remediation, and restoration: $4.7 billion
- Superfund remediation: $3.5 billion
- Reduction of truck emissions at port facilities: $250 million
At the same time, IIJA funds false solutions and makes concerning changes to the law that may harm frontline communities. For example, in an attempt to streamline permitting and siting of highways and transmission lines, IIJA significantly weakens the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a cornerstone of domestic environmental law. The bill also spends over $12 billion to subsidize carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) and Direct Air Capture (DAC) projects - costly and unproven technologies that will be used to justify the continued extraction, processing, and combustion of dirty fossil fuels. Another $6 billion will go to subsidize existing nuclear power plants which are no longer economic to operate in today’s energy markets.
Implementation must center frontline communities
Most of the programs supported by IIJA will ultimately be administered by states and Tribes, who must in turn ensure that environmental justice communities’ needs and concerns are centered and heeded in the implementation process. States must listen to community members’ voices in deciding which grid resilience projects will result in the greatest community benefit, and ensure that residents with the highest pollution and energy burdens benefit from energy funding through the deployment of clean distributed energy resources, storage, microgrids, and energy efficiency measures to promote healthy homes. Especially in rural or remote areas that are at heightened risk of energy disruptions from wildfires and extreme weather, resilient, safe, and reliable energy must be clean and locally-generated, on islanded microgrids outfitted with storage.
The White House has recognized the importance of implementation by announcing a new executive order to guide how the bill is implemented. The order establishes an Infrastructure Implementation Task Force to support inter-agency coordination and directs agencies to follow the Administration’s priorities in implementing IIJA, including:
investing public dollars equitably, including through the Justice40 Initiative, which is a Government-wide effort toward a goal that 40 percent of the overall benefits from Federal investments in climate and clean energy flow to disadvantaged communities;
building infrastructure that is resilient and that helps combat the crisis of climate change.
Biden Administration officials have reportedly been sending the message to state and local officials that projects that prioritize racial equity and climate change would be more likely to receive funding from discretionary grants administered at the federal level.
Ideally, policymakers would have worked with frontline communities in writing and negotiating the bill to ensure that racial equity and climate concerns are appropriately addressed in statutory language. At this stage, the key to ensuring that the promise of the Justice40 initiative is realized in implementing IIJA, or any other legislation, is simple: center disadvantaged communities. As highlighted in a recent UCLA report, Making Justice40 a Reality for Frontline Communities, benefits should be directly served to community members, and be based on community needs, as determined by the community itself, through collaborative community engagement processes.
As many have already said, the infrastructure bill, by itself, is insufficient to meet the climate justice and clean energy needs of the moment. The Build Back Better Act, in comparison, makes significant policy changes that will mitigate the climate crisis by making it cheaper and easier to deploy clean renewable energy like solar and wind. However, in its current form, only 15% of the Build Back Better Act aligns with President Biden’s Justice40 initiative, which directs agencies to ensure that at least 40% of benefits from federal spending on climate and clean energy flow to disadvantaged communities. Enacting both pieces of legislation will be a necessary, but not sufficient, step towards achieving climate justice for frontline communities.