Washington is providing hundreds of billions of dollars to develop clean energy, eliminate contaminated drinking water and help communities withstand floods, storms and other calamities driven by climate change.
Many supporters’ big fear: Those who most need the cash will be unable to navigate the federal bureaucracy required to obtain it.
The growing worry matches the scale and ambition of the Biden administration’s climate and environmental justice promises, as well as the hundreds of billions of dollars in climate-focused spending that Congress has enacted in the bipartisan infrastructure package. Agencies are under enormous pressure to use much of this money to revive communities at the forefront of the energy transition — including struggling rural coal towns and inner-city communities of color that disproportionately suffer from pollution.
“There’s a new era, a new commitment, and we have people who absolutely are going to be at the front of the line in terms of receiving the benefits which historically those communities, those individuals, those groups have not been able to access,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told POLITICO.
Similar concerns would confront whatever version of the Democratic social spending bill might manage to get through Congress, even after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) torpedoed changes for the House’s version of the $1.7 trillion package. The House bill would have added another $550 billion in overall climate and clean energy incentives.
Needy communities’ local governments often don’t have grant writers on their payrolls or money for outside consultants to help secure federal money. The hurdles are so steep that several organizers told POLITICO they avoid applying for grants and loans from Washington.
And some have already hit a brick wall.
In Vidalia, La., Mayor Buz Craft, a Democrat, said his government spent $30,000 in 2020 hiring an outside engineer to assist in writing a grant proposal for a Federal Emergency Management Agency program to support an expansion of its sewer lift station, which Craft said would help transport sewage to higher elevations as floodwaters continued to overwhelm the system. It was a big expense for his community of just under 4,000 people. He walked FEMA officials around his small town along the Mississippi River, where floods come from underground and inundate the sewer system.
"We applied and of course we were rejected," Craft told POLITICO. And though he resolved to try again even though no reason was given for the rejection last year, "I am not optimistic that it will ever get to where it needs to go."
Agencies such as the Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency are taking steps to make the process easier to navigate, including by offering technical assistance to communities applying for grants. Some environmental justice groups and philanthropies are stepping in as well.
Even so, some local officials lament what they call a lack of communication from the Biden administration about how to take advantage of opportunities for help.
“There is a risk of this all being too weighty, too heavy and too full of bureaucracy and the government needs to recognize that,” said Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, CEO and president of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. But those who want to tackle catastrophic climate impacts "have to learn how to jump through the government bureaucracy.”
The Biden administration will "use the technical assistance and capacity building tools available to agencies to support and empower communities across the country and is interested in partnering with external organizations to help catalyze these funds," a White House spokesperson said in a statement.
The administration is developing a strategy to do this and "talking directly with state and municipal governments to get a better understanding of their needs and priorities" and to build capacity, "particularly in underserved and disadvantaged communities," the spokesperson added.
POLITICO spoke with more than 30 mayors, activists, community organizers, philanthropists, federal officials, lawmakers and organizations hoping to reap the benefits of new federal funding. To varying degrees, they spoke of the tremendous opportunities from nearly $2.5 trillion in approved new spending. But many also have major doubts that the administration can ensure that historically overlooked communities aren’t passed over again while simultaneously crediting the administration for recognizing the problem.
“It’s an issue across rural America,” said Brandon McBride, executive director of the Appalachian Regional Commission, which received $1 billion in the infrastructure law for economic, energy and workforce development projects. “Communities knew that this new funding was going to be available, but they did not have a dedicated staff person to look through the rules or regulations they would have to follow.”
The infrastructure law Congress passed in November brought some hope that things will change, partly because it aims to help federal agencies hire staff to spread awareness of the available aid and help local officials apply for it.
The law included a call for new Energy Department staff to process applications on projects such as clean energy installations at abandoned mines and energy loan guarantees for Native American tribes. It also eliminated requirements that communities provide matching funds for EPA loans and grants to improve access to clean drinking water — removing a financial obstacle for communities with low incomes looking to replace pipes tainted with lead.
“It has to be implemented well. I think people recognize that,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told POLITICO. “And to implement it well, you’re going to need adequate and qualified staff to do it.”
In response, DOE is offering technical assistance to as many as 36 low-income or “energy-burdened” communities to help them craft plans for transitioning to clean energy.
In December, EPA and the Appalachian Regional Commission announced a pilot program to help communities apply for grants.
FEMA is adding staff and reaching out to provide technical assistance to communities with high social vulnerability and natural disaster risk so they can prepare better applications for a major competitive grant program to reduce exposure to hazards before they arise.
Victoria Salinas, FEMA’s associate administrator for resilience, told POLITICO that her agency is discussing legislative changes with Congress that would allow communities with low incomes to either ditch or reduce their financial match for programs aimed at helping protect them from floods and other extreme weather driven by climate change. She is also weighing changing formulas for awards to emphasize social factors, such as racial equity, rather than property values that have traditionally dictated which communities are worth restoring.
“This is truly a moment of transformation within government at a grand scale,” Salinas said. “It feels like one of those generational opportunities to address so many systemic issues.”
Indeed, the federal matching requirements are one of the biggest impediments to communities seeking aid, said Heidi Binko, executive director of the Just Transition Fund, a philanthropically backed organization that helps Appalachian coal communities with economic development projects.
But advocates from communities facing significantly higher environmental pollution and disinvestment, home to largely residents with low incomes or people of color, worry that federal agencies have not established strong enough oversight for how the dollars will flow. They also have criticized distributions that automatically send money to communities based on federal formulas, contending that those calculations prioritize higher property values and therefore leave them in the lurch.
Beyond that, distrust remains because the federal government has not done enough to make inroads with overlooked communities, said Jade Begay, a New Mexico-based climate justice campaign director with indigenous environmental group NDN Collective.
Many agencies do not provide materials for non-English speaking applicants, much less hire staff from within the communities they are designed to help — points the White House Office of Management and Budget made in a July report on equity. Begay said the federal government assigns contractors to assist tribes with grant applications, but they often do not understand local needs.
Begay and other members of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council worry that the Biden administration is setting its marquee environmental justice program up to fail. The effort, known as the Justice40 Initiative, promises that 40 percent of federal benefits will flow to “disadvantaged” places. But basic terms like “benefits” and “disadvantaged” have not been defined, and few organizations that could benefit from the program know it exists.
Larger environmental justice groups have stepped in to host webinars and perform outreach to clue in local groups about the opportunities. Philanthropies also have helped fill the gaps: For example, the Bezos Earth Fund, founded by former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, awarded $130 million to environmental justice groups on Dec. 6 to provide technical assistance for preparing proposals for federal grants.
While welcomed, those efforts have also brought criticism over the Biden administration’s progress on staffing up and reaching communities it has vowed to help.
“Why do we need $130 million from basically a tax-dodging billionaire to implement a government program?” asked Anthony Rogers-Wright, environmental justice director with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “I don’t think that the White House has embraced the delicacy of this situation.”
Danielle Deane-Ryan, director of equitable climate solutions at the Bezos Earth Fund, told POLITICO that organizations calling on elected officials to do more is natural given the massive, systemic problems they face. She said organizations like hers are working to give community groups more resources to solve endemic environmental ills while working in collaboration with government.
"The Biden administration has sent a clear signal that equity matters, and getting these funds to have impact on the ground is critical," she said.
The complexity of the application process has frozen many mayors inundated with a wealth of funding options, said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, who has spent recent weeks coaching the communities he works with on how to make sense of this new world.
“There’s a lot of money out there. How do we actually get the infrastructure in place to go after it?” Wellenkamp said, describing the mayors’ sentiments. “It’s overwhelm[ing] in a good way. It’s a good problem to have. It’s a lot better than the problem of ‘we have no resources at all.’”
Philanthropic organizations like the Just Transition Fund and Justice40 Accelerator, which focuses on environmental justice, have pooled resources to help communities apply for funds. They can provide experts and grant writers, helping communities think long-term about big projects and how to design competitive programs.
The Biden administration has especially made major pushes to aid fossil fuel-reliant towns looking for an economic foothold. The infrastructure law dedicates significant funding to those areas: $1 billion for energy improvements in remote and rural areas, $1 billion for the Appalachian Regional Commission and $500 million for clean energy demonstrations on current and former mine lands, among other spending. Applying for that aid will still require money, technical expertise and hours of labor, however.
Entities like Appalachian Regional Commission try to do some of the work for communities, such as creating clearinghouses identifying which federal grants or programs make sense for them. Philanthropies have also pooled resources to offer assistance like grant writing. But lawmakers have stopped short of letting philanthropies and community organizations apply directly for funds, a step that advocates said would enable more towns and cities to secure investments.
Biden and Democrats’ environmental agenda is now entering a critical prove-it phase. They acknowledge they need to show the money can be used to overhaul the nation’s energy system while righting decades of environmental wrongs in communities of color and low incomes.
“We need to get it right, but we need to also let people know what’s there for them, too. So we’ve got to educate,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) told POLITICO.
The Democrats’ success could help determine whether they can keep control of Congress in 2022 and of the White House beyond that.
“I’m warning anybody that’ll listen — in particular, from the Democratic Party — you can’t keep expecting folks to vote for you if you aren’t looking out for their interests,” said Rev. Michael Malcom, founder and executive director of the Birmingham, Ala.-based faith-based group The People’s Justice Council. “And if things don’t tighten up with these benefits, it’s gonna be a slaughter. Nobody’s gonna be encouraged to come out and rally.”