WASHINGTON—Environmental justice advocates sharply criticized the Biden administration during the Department of Energy’s Justice Week 2023 conference on Wednesday for approving new export terminals for liquified natural gas on the Gulf Coast in Louisiana and Texas, saying pollution from those fossil fuel facilities will further endanger disadvantaged communities.
At the same time, across town at the White House, Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said on a conference call with community groups and reporters that nearly 470 federal programs with billions of dollars in annual investment were being “reimagined and transformed to meet the Justice40 goal and maximize benefits to disadvantaged communities.”
Justice40 is President Biden’s policy, established by executive order, directing 40 percent of new environmental and energy investments to “disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment.”
Mallory was joined on the call by Tony Reames, principal deputy director of DOE’s Office of State and Community Energy Programs, who said from Detroit that the department is striving to decrease the energy burden, lessen environmental exposures, increase parity in clean energy technology access and adoption in environmental justice communities.
But DOE officials got an earful at the department’s Justice Week conference from activists on its Community Voices from the Ground panel, who noted that the department was poised to grant a new export license to Energy Transfer’s Lake Charles LNG project in Southwest Louisiana after approving several new LNG export terminals in Texas.
“The Biden administration is speaking out of both sides of their mouth,” said Roishetta Ozane, fossil fuel finance campaigner with the Texas Campaign for the Environment. “They say they care about frontline and environmental justice communities, but they have yet to address the fact that the air we breathe is making us sick, giving us asthma and skin conditions.”
Ozane added that these LNG facilities disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income neighborhoods and contribute to climate change. “The DOE needs to reevaluate its approval process and show a real commitment to environmental justice. Enough is enough,” she said.
John Beard, founder and director of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, asked the agency to stop advancing mega-polluting projects in marginalized communities of color. “DOE says it is committed to promoting environmental justice in all its activities. And yet, the agency continues to grant export authorizations to methane gas export terminals, explosive carbon bombs, in low-income communities and communities of color,” he said.
The advocates also asked DOE to stop investing in hydrogen hubs, carbon capture and sequestration technologies at refineries and utilities, and direct air carbon capture technology aimed at sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, calling them all “dangerous distractions.”
Producing hydrogen requires large amounts of energy ”that will worsen the effects of climate change while allowing big oil and gas to reap more profits while our children get sick, our air is polluted, and our safety is compromised,” Beard said. “Biden and the DOE must immediately halt the further expansion of hydrogen and export facilities, end air pollution, and restore devastated communities. This is the only solution.”
On the call with community groups and reporters, Reames said that $6 billion from the administration’s 2021 infrastructure law will go toward everything from training and assessment centers in environmental justice neighborhoods to career skills training in renewable energy. Those funds, he said, will also fund nonprofits working to retrofit buildings, a program to retrofit schools for energy efficiency, state energy offices and the home Weatherization Assistance Program.
He added that another $10 billion under the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act will fund home efficiency rebates for electrification and appliance replacements, as well as training for residential energy contractors and assistance on building codes.
Mallory called Justice40 “the President’s effort to commit certain federal climate, clean energy, affordable and sustainable housing, clean transit and other investments to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, that suffer from underinvestment and that are overburdened by pollution.”
Stressing that environmental justice considerations were being embedded into the DNA of federal agencies, Mallory said that $55 billion has been made available to expand access to clean drinking water, $21 billion to clean up legacy pollution and $66 billion to build clean, accessible transit.
“All of that is from the bipartisan infrastructure law,” she said, adding that it has established new federal environmental justice grant programs to reduce pollution, turbocharge clean energy deployment and help protect communities from fires, floods and storms.
Both Mallory and Reames lauded a Justice40 “accelerator” made up of nonprofit and for-profit organizations that has supported more than 100 community groups since 2021 in securing nearly $43 million in federal funding for clean energy, greenhouse gas emissions reduction and workforce training projects, among other areas.
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Sacoby Wilson, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health (CEEJH), said in an interview after the conference call that advancing dirty LNG infrastructure while promising energy justice to communities amounted to the policy of “one step forward and two steps backward.”
He said that dirty fossil fuel infrastructure is still part of the Inflation Reduction Act, the administration’s signature climate legislation. “Some of this language around energy infrastructure was really more focused on supporting dirty energy instead of clean energy infrastructure. So how are you going to advance energy justice if you are also supporting the energy injustice by supporting liquefied natural gas facilities to go into communities that have been already used as sacrifice zones,” Wilson said. “That makes no sense. That’s actually a form of insanity In my opinion.”
Wilson said that lending political weight to fossil fuel export facilities amounted to undermining the ethos of Justice40 and will substantially cut back the benefits that the Biden administration hopes to extend to the disadvantaged communities with this historic funding. “The true energy justice that Justice40 initiative promises is tied to clean energy projects and not to dirty fossil fuel projects,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re not going to see those benefits to the same magnitude.”