Environmental Justice and the Energy Transition: How the Energy Industry can do better

This article was co-authored by Ethan Martin, a student at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. The full article can be accessed below.

Environmental Justice (EJ) communities are defined as “a community with significant representation of communities of color, low-income communities, or Tribal and indigenous communities, that experiences, or is at risk of experiencing higher or more adverse human health or environmental effects.” As the energy transition to cleaner and greener forms of energy is accelerating, it does not necessarily mean the development of renewable energy projects will happen with little or no EJ conflicts. Just the opposite may occur, but in the name of fighting climate change. 

Despite US national policies that promote oil, natural gas, and coal, the growth of renewable energy, transmission lines to move clean power to market, and electric storage projects continues. That growth may accelerate depending on the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election. For example, the Biden-Sanders climate change panel published a report recommending eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035. This would be accomplished through the installation of 500 million solar panels and 60,000 wind turbines both on- and offshore.[As a result, EJ communities will be especially affected by attempts to convert large tracts of land into energy industrial production and transmission corridors. The plan would also create a battery storage and clean energy transmission line moonshot program. Likewise, EJ communities in urban areas will have to deal with the expansion of utility-scale electric battery storage projects.

Unless regulators, agencies and developers take the necessary steps to engage with EJ communities, increased conflicts, costs, delays and litigation could thwart a successful clean energy transition. Existing EJ guidance is based on an executive order from President Clinton in 1994, along with further guidance from the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and it generally focuses on procedural and  distributive concerns. Aside from implementing this, federal agencies and developers should practice “recognition justice” by adequately acknowledging an individual or a group in an EJ community. The rising EJ conflicts over the siting of oil and natural gas pipelines that has followed the transition from coal to gas-fired power plants provides a window into future EJ conflicts when such conflicts are not acknowledged and addressed.


Since EJ emerged as a social movement in the 1980s, it has had a mixed record of success. Early regulatory successes came in the form of EO 12898, CEQ Guidance, and EJ considerations under NEPA, but these successes have not lived up to their full potential. EJ considerations continue to be little more than an administrative concern instead of a legitimate regulatory consideration for federal agencies and energy developers. Agencies and energy developers appear to be unable to successfully implement recognition EJ, which undermines procedural and distributive EJ. The results have adversely affected EJ communities, energy developers and agencies alike. The acceleration of renewable energy projects, especially under a scenario such as the Biden-Sanders plan, will increase the number of EJ conflicts if current EJ guidance to federal agencies and energy developers is not revised. Read the full article published in the Climate and Energy Journal.