In an effort to “redress inequities in [Federal] policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity,” the Biden administration has set forth an agenda to identify areas of improvement and advance equity across the Federal Government. On January 20, President Biden issued Executive Order 13985 which requires agencies to produce “Equity Action Plans” that are agency sponsored reports to assess whether underserved communities face systemic barriers in accessing benefits and opportunities available based on an agency’s policies and programs. Of the government agencies that have produced Equity Action Plans in response to the Executive Order, three government agencies have focused on addressing environmental justice issues – the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE). FERC announced its Equity Action Plan in January 2022, while the EPA and DOE recently announced their plans in April 2022. Within each plan, there were three common priorities: (1) hire more staff, (2) improve engagement with Tribal communities and (3) data collection.
Hire More Staff
Each agency acknowledged the need for more agency staff to support the current initiatives and implement the new initiatives. The agencies’ Equity Action Plans detailed the need for more staff to effectively conduct an environmental justice review of its regulations and programs. In response, the EPA, FERC and DOE each plan to increase their internal personnel capacities by hiring more staff; in addition, the agencies will strive to ensure staff readiness by implementing training on effective methods of authentically engaging within their respective stakeholders, with a focus on removing barriers for underserved communities to access agency resources.
Improve Engagement with Tribal Communities
Building trust within the community is a common priority in each of the three most recently announced Equity Action Plans. Importantly, each agency identified a lack of trust and engagement with Tribal and indigenous communities, and the plans specifically prioritize “strengthen[ing] tribal government consultation and engagement.” This agency prioritization is in direct response to President Biden’s Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships (Memo), which reiterated Executive Order 13175. The President’s Memo required agencies to provide a detailed plan of actions the agency will take to improve engagement with Tribal communities. The EPA, FERC and DOE complied with Executive Order 13175 by incorporating their plans into the Equity Action Plan required by Executive Order 13985.
In addition, the Equity Action Plans recognize the need to address gaps in data collection to ensure equitable decision-making. A review of methodology and current data will allow each agency to identify opportunities to address cumulative impacts and other appropriate information to identify bias. Reviewing data collection and methods is important for tracking the progress of each agency’s Equity Action Plan since this review will identify how effectively the agency incorporates environmental justice goals contained in the Equity Action Plan.
Over the next two to four years, the EPA, FERC and DOE plan to increase agency staff, community engagement and data collection with hopes of addressing environmental justice issues affecting underserved communities. The DOE plans to report results to the public annually and FERC plans to report results after two years. The EPA does not provide a specific timeline for reporting results, but instead states that the agency will “report on progress” to Congress and the public.
The Biden Administration’s commitment to equity across the executive branch is clear from the Executive Orders issued to date. The Equity Action Plans lay the groundwork for the next steps in that process. Identification of systematic barriers and the implementation of specific goals to eliminate those barriers will be key components to addressing environmental justice going forward, but identifying the issues is not enough. Reporting agency results is vital in tracking agency progress and creating public transparency.