The landmark Inflation Reduction Act gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) $3 billion to fund a wide range of pollution reduction, clean energy, and climate resilience measures in the nation’s most marginalized communities. At issue now is how the agency will allocate the funds to eligible communities and projects.
In response to EPA’s request for information, the Center for Progressive Reform submitted a set of recommendations to help ensure that the funds encourage holistic approaches to climate justice, fund the communities most in need, provide capacity-building resources to help communities apply for and implement grants, and reach rural, tribal, and other historically marginalized communities.
The Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grant program will provide funds to help underserved communities improve health and well-being by addressing air pollution; increasing resilience to extreme heat, wildfires, and other climate risks; and reducing indoor air pollution. EPA is authorized to provide grant funds for specific projects and for technical assistance.
In February, EPA called for public input on the grant program’s design, seeking information on how to structure community engagement and distribute resources equitably; appropriate grant criteria; and capacity-building and technical assistance measures.
Informed by our in-depth research on California’s climate justice funding programs, the Center urges the agency to consider the following overarching recommendations to guide the funding program:
- Address community needs holistically.
Rather than focusing on discrete project categories, we recommend that EPA take a more holistic approach that recognizes communities’ intersecting transportation, energy, climate resilience, and indoor air quality needs. For example, funding a community’s integrated plan for electric buses, solar arrays, and home decarbonization projects would simultaneously improve indoor and outdoor air quality, reduce greenhouse gasses, and increase resilience to electric power shutoffs due to wildfire risks. Moreover, eliminating separate applications for distinct project categories would simplify the process and enable communities to propose projects that provide multi-benefits.
- Reduce competition that disadvantages lesser-resourced communities.
Competitive grant processes can favor larger and better-resourced organizations, undermining the ability of the least-resourced communities to successfully obtain grant funds. To better support under-resourced communities, EPA could create a two-stage grant process, with initial grants for capacity-building, needs assessment, and planning, and subsequent grants for implementing the planned projects. More generally, EPA should not establish grant criteria, like matching fund requirements or having shovel-ready projects, that disadvantage communities unable to meet such criteria.
- Provide meaningful technical and capacity-building assistance.
As EPA acknowledges, participating in a competitive application process is resource- and time-intensive for under-resourced communities and organizations. Administering large grants and completing reporting requirements pose additional barriers, particularly for smaller community-based organizations. We recommend that EPA provide technical assistance to all qualified applicants, without requiring them to compete for technical assistance funds. We also recommend expanding technical assistance to include help with reporting and other implementation steps, which would also grow staff capacity.
- Ensure the participation of rural, tribal, and other harder-to-reach communities.
EPA should set aside funds for different types of under-resourced communities, like tribes and rural and unincorporated communities, that often lack the local capacity to prepare competitive grant applications. Doing so would further reduce competition between high-need communities and help ensure the participation of historically underfunded and marginalized communities.
The community block grant program is one of a multitude of other new and expanded funding opportunities intended for states and communities, including investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the American Rescue Plan.
Through congressional requirements and the Biden administration’s Justice 40 Initiative, which sets a goal of ensuring that 40 percent of the benefits of federal discretionary spending reach environmental justice communities, new opportunities for historically marginalized communities are slowly beginning to take effect.
Other EPA funding specifically targeted for environmental justice communities includes $100 million under the Environmental Justice Government-to-Government Program, the Environmental Justice Cooperative Problem-Solving Agreement Program, and $550 million available for Environmental Justice Thriving Communities.
This month, the agency also announced the selection of 17 Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers (EJ TCTACs), in partnership with the Department of Energy, that will provide at least $10 million to each center ($177 million in total) to help underserved communities overburdened with legacy pollution to access funding opportunities from federal investments.
Our comments are informed by our climate justice work, particularly in California, where we are conducting in-depth research and interviewing state-level advocates, leaders, and agency staff. We are examining how climate justice is integrated into statewide climate action planning and the effectiveness and equity of the state’s many climate justice funding programs. Click to learn more about this project and other Climate Justice Program initiatives at the Center.