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Republicans' EJ battle plan

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Nov 27, 2023
Rep. Chip Roy

Roy this month. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

Expect any future GOP administration to take intense action against existing environmental justice programs.

Why it matters: The movement for environmental justice, or EJ for short, has notched many wins at the federal level over decades. But Republican politicians have never been more opposed to these programs.

Driving the news: Many Republicans see EJ as analogous to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

  • Rep. Chip Roy added an amendment to the House's Interior-Environment funding bill with a broad prohibition on any funds being used for environmental justice activities.
  • "This so-called environmental justice is nothing more than a synthesis of divisive racial ideology and policies … with radical environmentalism," Roy said during House debate on the amendment.
  • Only two Republicans voted against the amendment, fewer than the number of GOP members willing to back a similar Roy amendment targeting President Biden's climate executive orders.

Between the lines: Even if the amendment doesn't survive in a Democratic Senate, Republicans could upend the staying power of a major Biden priority in the future.

  • Through the Justice40 program, the Biden administration has sought to ensure that 40% of grants and benefits from certain programs go to "disadvantaged communities," an umbrella term that can include areas with large concentrations of migrants or Indigenous Americans.
  • For an example, look no further than the Biden administration's implementation of the bipartisan infrastructure law.
  • The Inflation Reduction Act also included its own $2 billion environmental and climate justice grant program. The EPA started accepting applications for that money last week.

How the GOP sees it: The Republican view on environmental justice falls somewhere between opposition to race-based policies, general concern over pollution regulation and fears about wasteful spending.

  • Republicans voted for the Roy amendment but they rarely talk about environmental justice at all. Some are like Thomas Massie, who told Axios he'd never heard of it.

But targeting environmental justice programs is a priority within the conservative policy brain trust.

  • Trump's former Interior secretary David Bernhardt, who now works with the America First Policy Institute, recently explained to Jael how a future "America First" administration would view various energy policy issues.
  • He said environmental justice programs will be "very, very closely scrutinized and then right-sized based on wherever the president ultimately wants to go" — and "viewed through a lens of the overlying interest in DEI."
  • "Many of these programs," Bernhardt said, "were an idea on a napkin that suddenly got a lot of funding."

Zoom in: A few GOP members are really invested in the topic — including Garret Graves, who said environmental justice is a tool being used to "politically manipulate" the outcomes of government programs using "bullshit metrics" to inform decisions.

  • He's working with Diana DeGette to schedule a visit to her district to "see environmental justice from her perspective." He also wants DeGette to visit his district to see how his constituents want "closed coal plants and things like that [to] come back."

Flashback: One of the first federal officials to ever take up the environmental justice movement's cause was George H.W. Bush's EPA administrator William Reilly, who met with activists and launched an "Environmental Equity" team early in his tenure.

Reality check: Environmental justice programs aren't necessarily intended to diversify the national workforce or promote racial equity, as the DEI comparisons suggest.

  • In fact, regulators now appear to be avoiding direct use of race-based factors in environmental justice programs following the Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action.
  • That's why some research suggests Biden's environmental justice efforts could actually worsen racial disparities in those who experience heavy pollution.

The other side: "Most Republicans don't understand what environmental injustice actually is," said Mustafa Ali, executive vice president for the National Wildlife Federation and a former EPA environmental justice policy adviser.

  • To Ali, the only pathway to ensure EJ gains aren't lost at the federal level is to heighten the public's awareness.
  • "[That way] it becomes more difficult to convince folks that it is something different than what it actually is," he told Axios.
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