Tensions erupt between environmental justice leaders and White House - Action Center on Race and the Economy

Grassroots activists disrupted the Biden administration’s communications with a massive email blast in August in a symbol of what some see as a deteriorating relationship.

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Members of the environmental justice movement sent an email blast more than 5,600 times over a 48-hour period to top Biden administration officials, disrupting White House communication and sparking a tense exchange between the administration’s chief environmental outreach official and one of the key leaders of the movement.

The form-letter blast effectively shut down email communication over two August days between high-ranking Biden administration officials, including national climate adviser Gina McCarthy, her deputy Ali Zaidi, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and David Kieve, who leads outreach to environmental groups for the White House, according to Erika Thi Patterson, campaign director with the Action Center on Race and the Economy, and two others familiar with the incident.

Patterson said she learned those details when Kieve called her to express dismay in a 17-minute conversation that she characterized as aggressive and offensive.

“It’s really outrageous,” Patterson said of the Aug. 19 call with Kieve. “With all the crises our communities are facing right now, that all this energy and aggression was focused on receiving emails.”

The contretemps over the email blast, outlined here for the first time, symbolizes the administration’s challenges in satisfying the left-wing, mostly non-white movement calling for significant clean energy, public transportation, environmental cleanup and workforce investments in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

Kieve declined to respond to questions about the email campaign. But a White House official said that in an attempt to smooth the waters, the Biden team invited members of the Stop the Money Pipeline, the coalition of groups that sent the email blast, to meet with senior members of the White House Council on Environmental Quality to “share any concerns that they had about interactions surrounding this mass email campaign.”

The coalition declined the offer, the White House official said, because the groups were already in close communication with administration officials.

Nonetheless, many leaders of the movement told POLITICO that bitterness remains, as they worry the White House is doing too little to advance their agenda amid the tense negotiations transpiring in Congress.

“The administration wants the benefit of the doubt,” said Patterson, whose group is comprised of grass-roots activists, many of whom are people of color. “The reality is they haven’t earned it yet.”

Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, a Native American group which is also part of the Stop the Money Pipeline, added: “They are taking for granted the tens of thousands of people who are part of this climate movement and the countless frontline communities that are in danger. It’s going to come back to bite them in the butt if they don’t step up. It’s a matter of politics.”

A crucial moment

The increasing turbulence comes at a critical time for keeping the president’s progressive environmental base behind his domestic agenda, according to interviews with 16 people across the Biden administration, lawmakers, environmental groups and members of a White House council to address environmental justice.

At issue is whether the Biden administration will make good on its promises to reduce environmental pollution and invest in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Environmental justice veterans commended Biden’s unprecedented pledges to address those concerns, but criticized the lack of tangible results nine months into his presidency.

“In some instances there seems to be a dichotomy between what the administration says they’re committed to and what’s happening on the ground,” said Peggy Shepard, who co-chairs the Biden-created White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and is executive director of Harlem-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “I think the only way that these tensions can be tempered is when the talk is aligned with the walk.”

Some environmental justice leaders told POLITICO that some Biden policy positions jeopardize their communities’ health.

They attacked his support for carbon capture and storage technology, which is designed to catch emissions from burning fossil fuels before they enter the atmosphere but helps perpetuate the extraction of coal, oil and natural gas. They opposed new leases the administration approved for oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. They chastised the White House for failing to cancel Trump-era permits for the Line 3 oil sands pipeline running from Canada through Minnesota, a project that has galvanized Indigenous and progressive activists.

“Line 3 is an embarrassment,” said Maria Lopez-Nunez, a member of the White House council who is deputy director of organizing and advocacy for the Newark, N.J.-based Ironbound Community Corporation. “You can probably win a ton of friends by doing the things that are good for human health.”

The coming weeks will reveal how adept the White House is in managing a burgeoning, disparate grassroots environmental movement that differs in strategy, breadth, makeup and desires than traditional Big Green groups rooted in Washington, D.C.

“I do understand the frustration when communities have some hard things that are happening in their community and want things to change,” said White House aide Cecilia Martinez, speaking for the administration. “I want the same thing. That’s why I’m here — to make sure to try to figure out how to make those decisions in the best way possible.”

A growing breach

Activists in the Stop The Money Pipeline coalition of environmental, financial and progressive groups sent the email blast to White House and Treasury Department officials because they felt the Biden administration was ignoring their recommendations for an executive order designed to protect the financial system against climate change-related disruptions. Those groups want the executive order to create regulatory guidelines that would pressure banks and other financial institutions to stop financing fossil fuel projects like Line 3.


While Biden has issued an order, the White House and federal agencies haven’t yet finalized the policies to implement it. Activists want to ensure he and his administration follow through on fulfilling the order through actions that make good on environmental justice pledges. Administration officials and their allies describe the outreach and financial pledges to environmental justice groups and the communities they represent as unparalleled.

Biden signed an executive order his first week in office to ensure 40 percent of federal benefits flow to communities dealing with disproportionate health, environmental, climate and economic burdens, an effort known as Justice40. His campaign held frequent regional dialogues with local groups. He turned the Council on Environmental Quality, often an afterthought in administrations, into a power center staffed with environmental justice experts. His Office of Management and Budget and McCarthy’s staff is exploring how to wrest greater environmental justice benefits from existing programs across all agencies.

“We can put Americans to work strengthening public lands and waters, and making our communities — rural and urban — more resilient against extreme weather,” Biden said in a July speech promoting his and Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget plan. “And we can take on the long-overdue work of advancing environmental justice by addressing pollution.”

But while Biden has taken swifter, broader measures to curb climate change and environmental pollution than any other president, environmental justice organizers remain guarded. Biden still must overcome decades of politicians making sweeping promises to hard-up communities.

Some early Biden hires and steps pleased activists. He established the White House environmental justice council. He eased access to key personnel, noted IEN’s Goldtooth. Biden’s domestic climate and environment agenda — much of which requires congressional approval — would through Justice40 and invest billions of dollars in neglected neighborhoods. Relations with the administration are “cordial,” even for skeptical groups, said Jackie Fielder, a spokesperson with Stop the Money Pipeline whom Kieve had contacted urging her to halt the email blast.

Martinez, whose title is senior director for environmental justice at the Council on Environmental Quality, said she personally reaches out to local groups for their perspective and hears “appreciation” for the White House’s efforts.

“We have to try to make sure everyone gets a chance to be heard and that we are authentic in addressing their concerns, even though we may not always agree about the solutions,” she said, adding, on Kieve, “David’s been a friend and partner to me, and to community leaders we’ve met along the way. He – and all of us – are committed to the work required in making sure that we center everything we do around addressing inequality and advancing environmental justice.”

Martinez noted that the White House has asked each federal agency to develop community engagement plans to reach environmental-justice groups, understand their issues and mold programs to better address those matters.

“There’s hundreds of [environmental justice] groups and organizations across the country,” Martinez said. “Listening to a small set of groups isn’t going to get us at the whole of the problem of what’s happening in this country, and so we do need to develop broader methods for listening in a truly democratic way.”

But groups say that consultation and rhetorical support only go so far.

Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, serves on the White House council. There’s “so many meetings that I can’t keep up,” she said. Accessibility isn’t an issue. But whether the process translates into results isn’t clear, said Wright.

“It’s certainly not moving as fast as we would like it to move,” Wright said of the Biden administration’s environmental justice efforts. “They’re very open to communication and suggestions. But the proof is in the pudding.”

Battle over fossil-fuel supports

The funds included in Democrats’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation package excite Wright. She and others said those dollars would help ameliorate environmental harms in her community. Wright said the Biden administration also agreed to pilot programs on clean energy workforce training in disadvantaged areas. Those are promising developments.

But then Biden’s administration also pushed forward with Gulf of Mexico oil and gas leasing. That disheartened the New Orleans resident, who endured yet another devastating hurricane in early September that scientists believe was intensified by climate change, which is propelled mostly byfossil fuel emissions.

That’s the frustrating thing for community leaders: Biden deserves credit for making environmental justice central to his platform in a way no other president has, but his administration’s actions sometimes contradict those goals, said Sacoby Wilson, associate professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland.

“One problem with the current administration is on one hand they say they want to transition to a clean energy economy and on the other they are supporting gas infrastructure,” Wilson said. “That’s a problem. That’s a failure.”

It also speaks to the balancing act of sorting through discrete, local environmental matters while crafting national policy. The Biden administration has backed historic funding to mitigate health threats, promote investment and spark jobs in long-overlooked communities even as it continues backing carbon capture projects favored by energy-sector and trade unions.

But those environmental-justice initiatives are under threat as some moderate Democrats rail against the party’s $3.5 trillion spending plan, which includes $30 billion for lead water pipe replacements, $27.5 billion for green banks and billions for workforce training, clean energy tax credits and other policies. The Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative would play a significant role in steering those dollars.

Activists call it a put-up-or-shut-up moment for the Biden administration.

The reconciliation package includes “more funding than has ever been seen before” for environmental justice, said Mustafa Santiago Ali, who ran EPA’s environmental justice office during the Obama administration. But even Ali, who admitted to having “more access than probably a lot of folks,” said he is “really not sure” of the administration’s follow-through on the issue.

“At the end of the day a lot of this stuff is political decisions,” said Ali, who is now vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation. “We’re going to see the realness of all this over the next six months.”

Anxiety over Congress

On Capitol Hill, there is fear that some important environmental justice initiatives could get lost in the legislative shuffle.

House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told POLITICO that Biden has “centered” environmental justice “more than any other president.” His conversations with administration personnel imbue confidence that they prioritize environmental justice.

Yet Grijalva also acknowledged Biden must expend more political capital to pass key legislative changes, such as ensuring regulators weigh the cumulative environmental and climate effect before permitting new projects and allowing individuals to claim civil rights abuses in environmental lawsuits.

Grijalva also said the administration must play defense on Democrats’ $3.5 reconciliation plan to stay true to those communities. Grijalva would know. He consulted hundreds of groups in a years-long effort to draft sweeping environmental justice legislation; Biden wrapped parts of it into his platform.

“We don’t know what the administration in their negotiations with the Senate is agreeing or disagreeing with,” Grijalva said. “We’re playing in the Senate’s backyard right now in which one senator with an inordinate amount of power is able to clip those efforts. That’s where we’re hoping the Biden administration and the White House hold the line.”