For the Biden Administration, Environmental Justice is a Visible Priority

Written by Hannah Wilson-Black

Hannah Wilson-Black is a second-year in the College studying Environmental & Urban Studies and Creative Writing. Hannah is also the PGE Communications and Projects Intern for the 2020-21 academic year.

As many environmental activists and journalists have noted, the environmental justice (EJ) movement was in the spotlight in this election cycle in a way that it hasn’t been before. Perhaps it was only natural that environmental justice (the movement to address the racial and economic injustices which frequently accompany threats to the environment – it first rose to national prominence in the 1980s) be on the ballot in 2020, as recent natural disasters and visible activism among young people have raised the nation’s awareness of the issue. 

President-elect Joe Biden recognized this pro-EJ momentum during his campaign. In a key moment during the final presidential debate in late October, moderator Kristen Welker gave Biden an opportunity to contrast himself with President Trump on the issue. Welker asked Mr. Trump to comment on his choice to roll back pollution regulations when so many Americans, especially low-income people of color, live near oil refineries and power plants. Trump, deflecting the question, pivoted to the strength of the economy, but Mr. Biden responded by saying, “Those people live on what they call ‘fence line’ — he doesn’t understand this. They live near chemical plants that, in fact, pollute — chemical plants and oil plants and refineries that pollute.”[1] “Fenceline zones” are defined by the Environmental Justice Health Alliance as areas with “high-risk chemical facilities” which put the 124 million people who live within three miles of said facilities in the United States “at constant risk of chemical disaster,” as well as expose them to pollutants.[2] In using this EJ terminology, Biden set himself apart from the current president and further fostered hope among environmental justice advocates and organizations that his administration could represent a major win for the movement. Since his election to the presidency, Biden has made both promises and concrete staff appointments in the service of environmental justice, though his administration will face many hurdles in following through on the promises which are so important to EJ activists if the U.S. Senate remains controlled by Republicans.  

There are a few specific areas in which the Biden administration plans to make changes. In addition to smaller actions intended to reduce air and water pollution, Biden has promised to 1) establish a special EJ division within the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ); 2) revise the Clinton administration’s Executive Order 12898; 3) bring the EPA External Civil Rights Compliance Office back to life; 4) make appointments in the White House cabinet and various WH councils which bring an EJ focus to the executive branch’s environmental policy decisions.[3] This last goal has garnered much attention as Biden’s Cabinet and various council picks are slowly revealed. Biden has reportedly selected Brenda Mallory, former General Counsel for the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) under President Obama, to lead the CEQ in his administration. Ms. Mallory is expected to have more influence over Biden’s climate policy than previous leaders of the Council (which falls under the office of the president) because the president-elect is facing pressure from progressive activists to make environmental justice a priority.[4] Mallory is widely cited by leaders of major environmental organizations as an advocate for environmental justice based on her involvement in the establishment of Bear’s Ears National Monument under former president Obama (to the benefit of many Native American groups) and her leadership position with the Climate 21 Project, which has advocated for the inclusion of environmental justice in Biden’s agenda.[5] Praised as a legal expert with the interests of the American people in mind, Mallory’s appointment is a source of excitement for many.

With regard to Cabinet positions, in another perceived win for the EJ movement, Biden has selected Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) as Secretary of the Interior. Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, supported the Standing Rock Sioux Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016 and has been leading an effort to require the Department of Interior to write a report on the impact of its actions on environmental justice communities (communities, usually composed of people of color and low-income people, which are located in areas heavily affected by pollution and/or environmental disasters).[6] In general, Haaland, like Brenda Mallory, is an advocate for the protection of public lands, as well as a Native American woman, a historic first for a department with a history of “defying the best interests of tribal nations.”[7] Additionally, Biden’s pick to run the EPA, Michael S. Regan, established an environmental justice and equity board at North Carolina’s state environmental agency and will be the first Black man to serve as head of the EPA. The remaining question for the Biden transition team: will Senate Republicans confirm his nominees, or will they put up a fight? 

[1] Swaminathan, Nikhil. “Biden Schools Trump on Environmental Justice during Debate.” Grist, Grist Magazine, 3 Nov. 2020,

[2] Life at the Fenceline: Understanding Cumulative Health Hazards in Environmental Justice Communities.

Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, Sept. 2018,

[3] “The Biden Plan to Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Economic Opportunity.” Joe Biden for President: Official Campaign Website, Accessed 17 Dec. 2020.

[4] Friedman, Lisa. “Biden to Pick Brenda Mallory to Run White House Environment Office.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Dec. 2020,

[5] Banerjee, Neela, and Rebecca Hersher. “Biden To Nominate Brenda Mallory To Run Council On Environmental Quality.” NPR, NPR, 17 Dec. 2020,

[6] “What You Need to Know About Deb Haaland and the Department of the Interior.” Earthjustice, 17 Dec. 2020,

[7] Brewer, Graham Lee, et al. Tribal Leaders Respond to the Idea of an Indigenous Interior Secretary. 14 Dec. 2020,