Shortly after being elected president, Joe Biden made a sweeping promise on environmental justice: With a 2021 executive order, he vowed that a full 40 percent of the benefits of certain federal government climate and environmental investments would reach historically disadvantaged communities. This initiative, known as Justice40, was the centerpiece of the administration’s environmental justice efforts and was intended to compensate for both underinvestment and environmental harms that have disproportionately burdened communities of color throughout U.S. history.

Justice40 is striking both for the simplicity and specificity of its objective and also for the big open questions that the goal depends on. For one, Justice40 was conceived before hundreds of billions of dollars in climate funding were unlocked by the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, so it’s unclear what the grand total is from which the 40 percent figure will be drawn. Second, the president promised not 40 percent of spending but 40 percent of the benefits of said spending, and it’s not obvious how the latter is derived from the former. Finally, it’s not entirely clear where exactly the money is intended to go — in other words, for the purposes of Justice40’s accounting, which communities count as “disadvantaged?”

That last question alone was the target of a yearslong, open-source White House project, which resulted in a specialized screening tool for federal agencies to use to identify disadvantaged communities. And the original executive order itself stipulated an accountability mechanism: the creation of a scorecard “detailing agency environmental justice performance measures.” Three years on, however, environmental justice advocates Grist spoke to expressed disappointment in the quality of this progress report, saying the administration’s scorecard is confusing and provides little information about whether or not federal funding is on track to meet Justice40’s lofty goal.

In its current iteration, the scorecard consists of links to multiple web pages detailing the various environmental justice efforts undertaken by each federal agency. Most agencies have reported whether or not they have dedicated environmental justice offices, the number of Justice40-related programs announced, the number of staff dedicated to environmental justice programs, and the amount of funding made available through those programs. 

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But the information collected provides little insight into how much of that funding has been allocated to disadvantaged communities. Since federal agencies currently don’t have a uniform method of tracking funding down to a specific zip code, that information has not been reported. In some cases, such tracking may not even be possible. For example, when the Department of Transportation builds an electric charging station along a highway, it may be used by residents of multiple communities spread out over a large area. The corresponding air quality improvements, to the extent they can be determined, may also span a vast region. Actually quantifying such benefits — whether it’s improvements in air quality or health or any number of other outcomes — is even more challenging. As a result, an interested member of the public can, for example, look at the EPA’s scorecard and see that the agency has 73 Justice40 programs and that it has made $14 billion in funding available. But how much of that money is going to disadvantaged communities — and the impact of those funds — is unknown. 

“The scorecard as it was presented was not user-friendly,” said Maria López-Núñez, an environmental justice advocate with the New Jersey-based Ironbound Community Corporation and co-chair of a White House advisory council’s working group on the scorecard. “It wasn’t really showing the public what the intentions of the scorecard are. When people hear a scorecard, they think, ‘Where’s the grade?’ And we obviously didn’t see any of that.”

“Given the amount of funding that we’re talking about, it seems like a remarkable accountability failure,” added Justin Schott, project manager of the Energy Equity Project at the University of Michigan.

Schott analyzed the information provided by each agency and collated the data in a spreadsheet. He found that there were large discrepancies in the quality of information presented: Some agencies had designated hundreds of staff members to work on environmental justice efforts while others did not report any. To add to the confusion, some agencies reported figures that appear incorrect. For instance, the Department of Agriculture noted that it made 12,000 funding announcements in fiscal year 2022 even though it lists just 65 Justice40 programs. Similarly, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported conducting an eye-popping 1,914 technical assistance outreach events, though what constitutes such an event is not specified. (A spokesperson for the Housing Department confirmed the number is accurate and noted that outreach events can range from Zoom calls between an agency staffer and a state official to in-person meetings with multiple stakeholders; a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture also confirmed the accuracy of its count of funding announcements, noting that the department included a broad range of appropriations, including those from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.)

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The White House launched the first version of the scorecard, which it described as a “baseline assessment of actions taken by federal agencies in 2021 and 2022,” in early 2023. Since then it has requested recommendations from the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a body made up primarily of community and environmental justice advocates (including López-Núñez), and solicited feedback from the public. Work on the scorecard is iterative, and the agency is expected to release an updated version later this year. 

“The Environmental Justice Scorecard alone cannot fully capture the depth or range of active work or the long-term impact of the Biden-Harris Administration’s environmental justice work within communities, including zero-emission school buses, cleaning up legacy pollution, and strengthening protections for clean water and air,” an administration official wrote in response to Grist’s questions. “As future versions of the Environmental Justice Scorecard are released on an annual basis, we will be continually working to improve the tool based on public input and improving data, so that everyone can better track progress and identify opportunities to advance environmental justice.”

The Biden administration is the first presidency to center environmental justice in its policymaking. Its approach has been broad, requiring every federal agency to consider the equity implications of its actions, including the effects of its policies and the funding that it doles out. Environmental justice advocates Grist spoke to lauded these efforts, which they called unprecedented. 

“It’s an undeniable fact that this administration has done more for environmental justice than any of the previous administrations,” said Manuel Salgado, a federal research manager with the nonprofit We Act for Environmental Justice and a contributor to a White House advisory council report on the scorecard. “If you look at the numbers that are highlighted on the scorecard, that’s not necessarily reflected.”

Salgado and other members of the advisory council drafted a set of recommendations to improve the scorecard last year. Salgado said that a key impediment is the lack of uniformity in how agencies manage and track the implementation of various programs. Some agencies may be managing hundreds of programs and disbursing billions in funding while others may oversee just a handful. In a number of cases, funding is typically allocated to state agencies, which then make decisions about how and where to invest the funds.  

“Every agency operates like their own fiefdom,” said López-Núñez. “They have their own set of entrenched customs and traditions that make it difficult to collaborate with other agencies.” 

Those vast differences in how agencies operate led the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which has been coordinating work on the scorecard, to take a “common denominator approach,” according to Yukyan Lam, a research director and senior scientist at The New School’s Tishman Environment & Design Center and an independent contributor to the advisory council’s report on the scorecard. “Trying to bring all the agencies to the lowest common denominator made it more confusing and less clear to the public what the purpose was,” added López-Núñez.

In trying to identify metrics that were relevant to all federal agencies, the White House requested that agencies report environmental justice staffing levels, programs funded, and staff trainings conducted. While that information is useful, it “really failed to capture some of the nuances and specifics of the kinds of work that each individual agency or department was carrying out,” Lam said. When Lam and other members who worked on the report met with agencies, staff were eager to come up with ways to provide specific information relevant to the programs they oversee, she said. 

As a result, the advisory council’s report emphasized the need to supplement the standard metrics with granting the agencies flexibility to report customized information most relevant to their work. “Rather than applying uniform expectations for the scorecard to all agencies, we recommend a tailored approach, allowing each agency to provide metrics that are relevant to its activities,” the report noted.

Even with the flexibility to report different metrics, however, tracking the benefits of climate funding will likely prove tricky for agencies. When the EPA provides community grants that increase tree cover in a neighborhood, or the Department of Housing and Urban Development builds more energy-efficient affordable housing, or the Department of Transportation invests in electric charging stations, those investments have environmental and public health benefits. But quantifying those benefits typically involves modeling, which requires expertise and resources. Given the challenges, advocates emphasized the need to at least first track funding. 

Salgado said the scorecard is not just an accountability mechanism but also a chance for the administration to communicate its environmental justice work to the public. Most members of the public don’t have an intimate understanding of the inner workings of various federal agencies, and the scorecard could be an opportunity for the Biden administration to explain how environmental justice efforts relate to people’s everyday lives, he said. 

“These are big environmental justice wins that should be communicated to the general public, especially in an election year,” said Salgado. “If we want to support our elected officials who provide us with environmental justice benefits, we have to know what they’ve done right. So it’s an opportunity for them to brag and for them to highlight all of these environmental justice wins and the great things that they’ve done over the course of this administration.”

This story has been updated to incorporate comments received from the Department of Agriculture after publication.