President-elect Donald Trump on Dec. 7 nominated Scott Pruitt to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt has close ties with the fossil fuel industry and has been an ardent critic of the agency. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt has led the legal fight against many of the EPA’s signature regulations during the Obama administration, including the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule, and standards on toxic and interstate air pollution.

Given Pruitt’s hostility to EPA policy and President-elect Trump’s stated positions on climate change, energy, and regulation in general, the direction of federal environmental policy is about to shift abruptly.

This change in policy also has potentially enormous ramifications for the EPA’s efforts to promote environmental justice. Over the past year, the lead contamination of Flint, Michigan’s public water supply and the protests in North Dakota over the Dakota Access oil pipeline have provided stark reminders that environmental burdens are often borne disproportionately by low-income and minority communities.

flint water crisis
REUTERS / Rebecca Cook

During the Obama administration, the EPA has made achieving environmental justice a key priority. Earlier this fall, the agency released its long-term strategy, EJ 2020 Action Agenda, to better deliver on its historical promises of reducing disparities in environmental protection. Although the agency still has much to accomplish, recent reforms — for example, to better incorporate equity into regulatory decision-making and to improve agency implementation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act — are clear steps in the right direction.

With the EPA under new leadership, however, the durability of these reforms are now in doubt.