Home Environmental education New screening tool paves the way to advancing environmental justice | Wilmer Hale

New screening tool paves the way to advancing environmental justice | Wilmer Hale

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The way forward for advancing environmental justice (EJ) has just become much clearer, thanks to a new digital mapping tool created by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The CEQ released a “beta” version of the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) in February to help federal agencies direct the benefits of climate and clean energy investments to disadvantaged communities, in line with President Biden’s Justice40 initiative. Although it was specifically designed for use by federal agencies, the CEJST also provides valuable information to companies seeking to understand their EJ risks and develop their own ESG strategies.

The CEJST is a screening tool developed to support the Justice40 initiative, which aims to deliver 40% of the benefits of climate and clean energy spending to disadvantaged communities, as directed by President Biden in Executive Order 14008. Additional analysis of the Justice40 initiative is available in this WilmerHale Advance Alert. The CEJST promises to provide essential guidance to agencies implementing Justice40 by helping them identify disadvantaged communities to target for investments. Beyond Justice40, the CEJST is part of an expanding toolkit that Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency investigators can leverage as they take further action to advance the EJ. CEJST can help these agencies prioritize environmental investigations in disadvantaged communities and support efforts to include Supplemental Environmental Projects (PES) in settlements to provide direct benefits to communities affected by environmental violations, as noted in this WilmerHale article. The public comment period on the beta version of CEJST ends today, May 25, 2022, and CEQ will consider the significant public input when finalizing the tool.

Methods and approach to identify disadvantaged communities

The CEJST integrates data on environmental, climate, health, and socioeconomic characteristics at the census tract scale to identify “disadvantaged communities” that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution according to eight categories of criteria. While the user-friendly screening tool simply displays “disadvantaged communities,” a complex methodology backs up the determinations. Understanding the methodology provides insight into the administration’s CY priorities and approach.

The CEJST identifies census tracts as disadvantaged if they exceed a defined threshold for one or more environmental, climate, health, or socioeconomic burden indicators, and are above thresholds for socioeconomic indicators such as low income levels or low high school graduation rates. Notably, the draft tool does not take race into account. CEQ President Brenda Mallory explained that the tool omits racial data to avoid legal challenges that could arise from using race to identify and help disadvantaged communities. Rather, the tool seeks to design a system that will help communities of color while using race-neutral criteria.

Environmental indicators include climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, clean public transit, affordable and sustainable housing, legacy pollution reduction and remediation, essential drinking water and sanitation infrastructure. waste management, health issues, and workforce training and development. The CEQ has established thresholds for each of these indicators against which community burdens are measured. For example, a community is identified as disadvantaged in the category “clean energy and energy efficiency” if it is equal to or greater than 90and percentile for energy charge or fine particles in the air, is greater than 65and percentile for low income, and enrollment in tertiary education is equal to or less than 20%. In the “health burdens” category, a community is identified as disadvantaged if it is at or above 90and percentile for asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or low life expectancy is greater than 65and percentile for low income, and enrollment in tertiary education is equal to or less than 20%.

These broad categories and indicators — which go beyond traditional environmental issues — reflect the Biden administration’s holistic approach to environmental, economic, and racial justice. This is the first time that such analyzes and data are available at the federal level.

Implications and Best Practices

The CEJST beta represents an important step toward implementing the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative and the broader CY agenda. Mapping and screening tools play a vital role in translating policies into tangible impacts in communities. Beyond Justice40, CEQ’s screening methodology can inform processes and decisions across the federal government, including at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice, as these agencies seek strengthen inspections and enforcement when violations affect disadvantaged communities.

Mapping and screening tools can help companies better understand the communities in which they operate, anticipate and avoid enforcement actions, and develop a comprehensive ESG strategy to minimize business risks.