The path to advancing environmental justice (EJ) just got a lot clearer, thanks to a new digital mapping tool created by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). 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 alignment with President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative. Although it was specifically designed for federal agency use, CEJST also provides valuable insights for companies seeking to understand their EJ risks and develop their own ESG strategies.
CEJST is a screening tool developed to support the Justice40 Initiative—which seeks to deliver 40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean energy spending to disadvantaged communities—following President Biden’s direction in Executive Order 14008. Additional analysis of the Justice40 Initiative is available in this prior WilmerHale alert. CEJST promises to provide critical guidance for agencies implementing Justice40 by helping them identify disadvantaged communities to target for investments. Beyond Justice40, CEJST is part of an expanding toolbox that investigators from the Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency may pull from as they take new steps to advance EJ. CEJST can help these agencies prioritize environmental investigations in disadvantaged communities and support efforts to include supplemental environmental projects (SEPs) in settlements to provide direct benefits in communities affected by environmental violations, as discussed in this WilmerHale post. The public comment period on the beta CEJST closes today, May 25, 2022, and CEQ will consider the substantial public input as it finalizes the tool.
Methods and Approach for Identifying Disadvantaged Communities
CEJST incorporates data about environmental, climate, health, and socioeconomic characteristics at a 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 the “disadvantaged communities,” a complex methodology supports the determinations. Understanding the methodology provides insight into the administration’s EJ priorities and approach.
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 the thresholds for socioeconomic indicators like low income levels or low rates of high school graduates. Notably, the draft tool does not account for race. CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory explained that the tool omits racial data in order to avoid legal challenges that might result 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 transit, affordable and sustainable housing, reduction and remediation of legacy pollution, critical clean water and waste infrastructure, health burdens, and training and workforce development. CEQ established thresholds for each of these indicators against which community burdens are measured. For example, a community is identified as disadvantaged under the “clean energy and energy efficiency” category if it is at or above the 90th percentile for energy burden or fine particulates in the air, is above the 65th percentile for low income, and the higher education enrollment rate is at or below 20 percent. Under the “health burdens” category, a community is identified as disadvantaged if it is at or above the 90th percentile for asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or low life expectancy, is above the 65th percentile for low income, and the higher education enrollment rate is at or below 20 percent.
These broad categories and indicators—extending beyond traditional environmental issues—reflect the Biden Administration’s holistic approach to environmental, economic, and racial justice. This is the first time such analysis and data are available at a federal scale.
Implications and Best Practices
The CEJST beta release represents a significant step towards implementing the Biden Administration’s Justice40 Initiative and broader EJ agenda. Mapping and screening tools play a critical role in translating policy into tangible impacts in communities. Beyond Justice40, CEQ’s screening methodology may inform processes and decisions across the federal government, including at the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice as those agencies seek to boost inspections and enforcement actions where violations affect disadvantaged communities.
Mapping and screening tools can help businesses better understand the communities in which they operate, anticipate and avoid enforcement action, and develop a comprehensive ESG strategy to minimize business risk. WilmerHale is closely monitoring these developments and is at the forefront of advising businesses in navigating regulatory, enforcement and ESG-related risks in this space.