U.S. unveils tool to direct green investment to disadvantaged communities

WASHINGTON, Feb 18 (Reuters) - The White House on Friday launched a beta version of a tool that will be used to determine where to invest bilions of federal dollars to bring clean energy and infrastructure to disadvantaged communities, a key step in fulfilling a promise by the Biden administration to prioritize environmental justice.

The Council on Environmental Quality unveiled the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool , used to map and identify communities that are most in need of investment by weighing income levels and over two dozen socieconomic, health and environmental indicators.

The software has been under development since early last year with input from the White House environmental justice advisory council as a key input for President Joe Biden's "Justice40 Initiative," a goal he set early in his presidency to ensure that 40% of the benefits of federal investments in clean energy get channeled to communities that are overburdened by pollution.

“The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool will help federal agencies ensure that the benefits of the nation’s climate, clean energy, and environmental programs are finally reaching the communities that have been left out and left behind for far too long,” CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory said.

Using census tract data, the web-based program identifies communities as being disadvantaged if they are above the 65th percentile for income and above the 90th percentile for any of 25 indicators ranging from local asthma rates to traffic and hazardous waste site proximity to unemployment.

But an indicator that is conspicuosly absent is race. A Biden administration official told reporters that the tool was designed to be "race neutral" to be able to withstand potential legal challenges.

The omission has disappointed some environmental justice advocates.

Sacoby Wilson, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health who helped developed a state-level screening tool for Maryland, said the decision not to use race as an indicator is political.

"The science is clear. Race is the biggest predictor of environmental hazard," he told Reuters.

"We are missing an opportunity by exlcuding race in the tool," said Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. "The tool is not telling the full story of a community."

The Enviromental Protection Agency also on Friday launched a revamp of its own screening tool, EJSCREEN, which can be used to guide environmental rulemaking. L1N2M11WM

The CEQ will take public comment on the tool for 60 days.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Stephen Coates

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Valerie Volcovici covers U.S. environment and energy policy from Washington, DC. She is focused on climate and environmental regulations at federal agencies and in Congress. She also covers the impact of these regulatory changes across the United States. Other areas of coverage include plastic pollution and international climate negotiations.