White House Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool

February 17, 2023

The White House Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) recently released Version 1.0 of its Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (“CEJST”), an interactive geospatial mapping tool identifying communities burdened by various socioeconomic and environmental factors. According to the White House, CEJST is key in the implementation of President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which is the administration’s effort to ensure that disadvantaged communities receive 40% of the overall benefits of federal climate, clean energy, clean water, and other investments.  As the White House’s recent Executive Order on Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government demonstrates, environmental justice continues to be a key focus of the administration.     

CEJST will help the federal government identify disadvantaged communities that would benefit from federal investments in climate, clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transit, affordable and sustainable housing, remediation efforts and clean water infrastructure, among other areas. To date, CEJST has identified 27,251 communities as disadvantaged or partially disadvantaged, defined as either (1) belonging in a census tract that satisfies the requirements of at least one of CEJST’s categories of burden and their corresponding economic indicators, or (2) are on the lands of a federally recognized Tribe.

CEJST is fairly easy to use. A search field on the upper-left corner of the interactive map allows the user to input a location. The map then navigates to the requested area, identifying the surrounding census tracts.  Tracts that are designated as disadvantaged communities are shaded gray.  Clicking on the gray area further isolates the map into individual census tracts with unique data sets. The text to the right of the map displays factors like climate change, energy, health, housing, legacy pollution, transportation, water and wastewater, and workforce development. Each of the factors can be expanded to reveal more specific statistics relevant to the selected census tract.

The example below shows a census tract in Plaquemines Parish County south of New Orleans, Louisiana.  Expanding the workforce development category shows several indicators that contribute to the tract’s disadvantaged designation, including poverty (94th percentile for share of people in households where income is at or below 100% of the Federal poverty level) and low median income (96th percentile) compared to other census tracts in the area.

Figure 1. Census Tract 22075050100, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. SOURCE: CEJ Screening Tool.

In another example, a census tract in Prince George’s County, Maryland (pictured below) is also designated disadvantaged, partly because of exposure to hazardous substances. Ninety-five percent of homes in this census tract are identified as likely to contain lead paint.

Figure2. Census Tract 24033801500, Prince George's County, Maryland SOURCE: CEJ Screening Tool

Notably, CEJST does not use racial demographic data as an indicator to help identify disadvantaged communities, even though the White House acknowledges that communities of color suffer disproportionately from climate risks and environmental burdens.  This is because federal agencies risk violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act if they base funding decisions on race or ethnicity.  As a result, CEJST instead relies on an array of climate, environmental, and socioeconomic indicators to identify communities bearing a disproportionate share of burdens and risks, and suffering from underinvestment. 

The White House ultimately analyzed dozens of environmental and demographic factors closely correlated with race, including income levels and exposure to pollution. The resulting statistics identified Black, Latino, American Indian and Alaskan Native individuals as disproportionately disadvantaged, even though race is not explicitly included as a factor.  In the above examples, Plaquemines Parish is in the 96th percentile and 94th percentile in terms of the low median income and poverty factors when compared with other census tracts in the area. Exploring CEJST’s demographics data for Plaquemines Parish reveals that the tract census is 74 percent Black or African American. Similarly, Prince George’s County, which is in the 95th percentile on proximity to lead paint, is also majority Black or African American.

Figure 3.  Census Tract 22075050100, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. SOURCE: CEJ Screening Tool.

Figure 4. Census Tract 24033801500, Prince George's County, Maryland SOURCE: CEJ Screening Tool

CEJST incorporates several updates that were recommended by the public and the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, including adding historic redlining data, identifying Tribal Nations, displaying demographic information, adding new data on indicators of burden and enhancing data on climate change vulnerability.

Notably, CEJST should not be confused with EJScreen 2.1, which is an existing environmental justice mapping and screening tool that provides the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with a consistent dataset and approach for analyzing environmental and demographic indicators side by side. There is considerable cross-over in the datasets underlying CEJST and EJScreen; however, the tools are intended to serve different purposes. While CEJST primarily helps federal agencies to identify funding opportunities pursuant to the Justice40 Initiative, the EJScreen is designed to help the agencies when conducting environmental reviews and making permitting and enforcement decisions. The two tools overlap and can be used together not just by government agencies, but also by industries, businesses, regulated entities, and individuals, to help inform decisions about environmental matters with a lens of EJ concerns.

For More Information

Van Ness Feldman closely monitors and counsels clients on environmental justice impacts, regulations, funding opportunities, and legislative actions. If you would like more information please contact Molly Lawrence, Rachael Lipinski, Tiffany Ganthier, or April Knight.

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April Knight
Washington, DC
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