Originally posted by the American College of Environmental Lawyers, November 9, 2023.

On November 3, 2023, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) released a playbook for federal agencies to develop their Environmental Justice Strategic Plans, Strategic Planning to Advance Environmental Justice. This tool provides a ‘how to guide’ for federal agencies working to address longstanding environmental injustices and inequities. Each federal agency is required by Executive Order 14096, signed in April 2023, to submit an EJ strategic plan to CEQ. The new template simplifies the work of federal agencies with an outline of content and offers prompts for inquiry that aid in setting objectives and steps to achieve progress. The Biden Administration again shows leadership and intentionality — like never before seen — on the hard work needed to improve the lives and lived experiences in overburdened and underserved communities.

Yet, something’s missing. I read the playbook eagerly, looking especially for guidance on meaningful engagement with communities; looking especially for the influence that federal agency leadership might use to invite project proponents (let’s call them, the regulated entities) to gather with stakeholders in communities and begin new conversations about potential impacts and feasible improvements to processes and outcomes. And it’s not there. The influence and leverage inherent in federal agency leadership can get parties talking in new ways about new solutions to very old problems. This innovation in role and responsibility is glaringly absent from the CEQ tool. 

One section titled “Work and Partnerships with Non-Federal Entities” holds promise but falls short. The only mention of “regulated entities” in the guidance, at all, is in this section and suggests opportunities to improve accountability and compliance through, among other ideas, “increasing public reporting by regulated entities.” Okay, fine – more publicly available information might be helpful, but regulated entities will not innovate solutions to long-standing inequities if there’s more reporting to do. Regulated entities will innovate solutions to long-standing inequities if there are conversations and learning and listening among parties and communities. And these necessary conversations can be hosted, facilitated, even required by federal agencies to spark partnerships and to design more equitable outcomes.

Meaningful progress on Environmental Justice goals can be achieved if regulated entities show up in rooms and auditoriums with open minds and humility. Histories and past narratives can impede initiation of fresh conversations by regulated entities and communities, however. New hosts and new safe places for dialogue and innovation are needed to break the current cycles. This new role and this responsibility suit federal agencies. Strategic plans for federal agencies could include direct engagement with regulated entities and project proponents that bring stakeholders to problem-solving tables where creative and often simple solutions are identified and implemented. Guidance on how to initiate constructive communication that leaves the old narratives behind and looks forward would catalyze work on EJ initiatives.  Without guidance from CEQ on that topic, however, effective partnerships and durable change continue to feel out of reach.