The White House launched a beta version of a tool on Friday that will be used to determine where to invest billions of dollars in federal funds to bring clean energy and infrastructure to disadvantaged communities, a key step toward fulfilling the Biden administration’s promise to prioritize environmental justice.
The Council on Environmental Quality announced the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, which will be used to map and identify communities in need of investment by weighting income levels as well as over two dozen socioeconomic, health, and environmental indices.
The software has been in development since early last year, with input from the White House environmental justice advisory council, as a key input for President Joe Biden’s “Justice40 Initiative,” a goal he established early in his presidency to ensure that 40 percent of the benefits of federal investments in clean energy are channeled to polluted communities.
“The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool will assist federal agencies in ensuring that the benefits of the nation’s climate, renewable energy, and environmental initiatives reach communities that have been left out and behind for far too long,” CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory stated.
Using census tract data, the web-based program identifies communities as being disadvantaged if they are above the 65th percentile for income and above the 90th percentile for any of 25 indicators ranging from local asthma rates to traffic and hazardous waste site proximity to unemployment.
But an indicator that is conspicuously absent is race. A Biden administration official told reporters that the tool was designed to be “race neutral” to be able to withstand potential legal challenges.
The omission has disappointed some environmental justice advocates.
Sacoby Wilson, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health who helped developed a state-level screening tool for Maryland, said the decision not to use race as an indicator is political.
“The science is clear. Race is the biggest predictor of environmental hazard,” he told Reuters.
“We are missing an opportunity by excluding race in the tool,” said Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “The tool is not telling the full story of a community.”
The Environmental Protection Agency also on Friday launched a revamp of its own screening tool, EJSCREEN, which can be used to guide environmental rulemaking.
The CEQ will take public comment on the tool for 60 days.