President Biden signed an executive order establishing a new Office of Environmental Justice at the White House as well as a scorecard that will assess federal agencies’ compliance with environmental justice. The White House stated the initiative would address environmental harms caused by a “legacy of racial discrimination.”

This EO represents the type of bureaucratic waste and political gimmickry that has come to define Team Biden’s policy agenda: it gives the impression that the administration is doing something without actually making a difference. Even worse, the environmental justice movement stands to undermine marginalized communities’ access to upward mobility by making the cost of energy and everyday goods even more expensive. As one of Independent Women’s Forum advisory board members Donna Jackson has made clear, “poverty, not pollution” poses a greater threat to the future of low-income, minority communities.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice (EJ) is defined as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” The EPA has taken seriously the role of EJ for many administrations, and it was during the Trump administration that the issue was elevated to the Administrator’s Office. EJ can serve as an effective tool to prioritize environmental protection efforts and assistance to communities closest to pollution or with a greater need for additional protection.

As with many of the EPA’s well-intentioned programs, leftists are co-opting it for political use. By broadening the use and interpretation of EJ, it becomes an ambiguous term administrative agents can use to expand their control, and under the purview of EJ, those that criticize leftist policies like “net zero” can now be called “racist” in addition to “denier.”

Marginalized communities won’t benefit from another group of overpaid bureaucrats — senior positions at the Council on Environmental Quality make between $150,000 to $180,000 annually plus cushy benefits — in an already bloated administrative state using divisive rhetoric to keep the downtrodden down, and angry. There are many policies that can and do make a difference in terms of addressing legacy pollution, protecting vulnerable communities, and expanding access to economic opportunity.

In recent years, the EPA revamped its Superfund program responsible for cleaning up the nation’s most contaminated sites and bringing them back into productive use. Many of these sites were plagued by persistent pollution for generations. From 2017 to 2020, over 82 sites were cleaned up and the surrounding communities were given a new, positive economic outlook.

Another existing program at the EPA, the Brownfield and Land Revitalization Program, provides direct resources to polluted communities for cleanup, redevelopment, job creation, and economic development. Since the program’s inception in 1995, it has led to over $33 billion in cleanup and redevelopment funding. Many of these areas have also been designated as “opportunity zones,” which has created an additional influx of private investment.

The combined power of Brownfield Program resources and jobs with Opportunity Zone incentives have made a tangible difference in a short amount of time. Earlier reports found that since June 1, 2018, the EPA brownfields funding of just under $29 million in Opportunity Zones has leveraged over $403 million in additional funding and more than 1,500 jobs.

Most if not all of these areas also fall under the definition of environmental justice communities. So, it begs the question of what this new EO will actually do. When the White House Press Secretary was asked whether the new EO would have made a difference in East Palestine, Ohio, where a poor, rural community was on the receiving end of a toxic train derailment, she struggled to make a substantive point:

“[T]his environmental justice EO is the president’s continued support in his climate agenda, his ambitious climate agenda …this is a continuing continuation of what he’s promised the American people.”

The press secretary lacks a substantive response because this exercise is not about making any substantive difference. Under Team Biden, EJ has become a mechanism for funneling taxpayer money to their leftist allies and affiliated activist groups more focused on shaping elections rather than a better environmental future. This is already playing out at the U.S. EPA, where $177 million of a $3 billion “justice block grant” appropriated to improve air quality has instead gone to 17 leftist activist groups and academic institutions. While websites of grant recipients are light on air quality improvement projects — except for supporting the gas stove ban — they are full of solidarity statements for Black Lives Matter.

The new EO is more about political grift and pay-off. If Team Biden was serious about improving the health of marginalized communities, they could follow the proven, more effective route that doesn’t require wasting taxpayer funds, growing the bureaucracy, or divisive rhetoric.