A Missed Opportunity for Environmental and Energy Justice Engagement

A continuous line drawing of a power plant in front of a painted splotchy pastel background

Areas across the U.S. are starting to see the beginnings of winter, bringing with it worries about what the demand for electricity will be this season due to extreme weather and what the power grid can bear. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recently held its day-long Annual Reliability Technical Conference, which included panels on the reliability and security of the bulk-power system, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants under section 111 of the Clean Air Act. However, notably absent from the conference’s panels was any discussion of environmental justice, energy justice, or equity considerations, even though environmental and energy justice communities often face the harshest impacts from reliability and security issues during an energy crisis, including lack of access to backup generators, poorly-insulated homes, or inability to pay to temporarily seek refuge elsewhere.

In the past few years, nearly every region of the country has felt the effects of dangerous winter storms. In February 2021, the Pacific Northwestern, Southern, Midwestern, and Northeastern regions of the U.S. were hit by Winter Storm Uri, and in December 2022, Winter Storm Elliott blasted the Pacific Northwestern, Western, Midwestern, and Northeastern regions. Both storms resulted in injury and loss of life. Additional harms included displacement resulting in climate refugees and increased toxic emissions in communities already disproportionately exposed to pollution. In Buffalo, New York, Winter Storm Elliott disproportionately resulted in the deaths of people of color, in part due to a lack of critical public infrastructure and processes (including emergency vehicles and personnel, warming centers, and emergency alert system); power generators; food and medical supplies; and other life-saving resources.

This past June, WE ACT for Environmental Justice led a coalition of environmental and environmental justice organizations in publishing a white paper discussing the connection between reliability, the energy transition, extreme weather events caused by climate change, and the energy transition’s impact on the environment, human health, and environmental justice communities. The coalition urged FERC to “reject the false choice between quickly ramping up transmission and protecting communities from harmful permitting decisions.” The paper also highlighted how community-forward approaches focusing on environmental justice communities and other stakeholders are needed.

At the November 2023 FERC reliability conference, Commissioner Allison Clements discussed the connection between reliability and environmental justice communities. She explained that “gaps in reliable service affect disadvantaged communities the most, especially in extreme weather,” and highlighted that these communities are hit with “costs or more dire impacts.” She stated that the conference would be “incomplete without the consideration of energy and environmental justice issues and equity,” and urged that “we must take extra care to ensure we consider how our adaptation strategies will impact consumer needs and costs.” Clements stated that FERC’s Office of Public Participation (OPP) was “outside to answer questions.” In 2021, former Chairman Glick announced the creation of the office which is tasked with providing technical assistance to the public on FERC matters – a step in the right direction.

However, of the 28 panelists who spoke at the conference, none were representatives from community or environmental or energy justice groups. Of the 16 questions posed in FERC’s conference agenda, or the additional dozen or so questions posed to panelists live by the commissioners, not one question concerned the impact that reliability issues have on environmental justice or energy justice communities, or the disproportionate burden of polluting generation facilities on these communities. This was a missed opportunity, especially given FERC’s stated intentions to expand its engagement with environmental and energy justice communities. FERC is now accepting post-technical conference comments, with a deadline of December 20.

At FERC’s inaugural Roundtable on Environmental Justice and Equity in Infrastructure Permitting, held in March of this year, panelists had stressed that environmental justice and equity considerations need to be addressed, not in silos, but as integrated parts of FERC’s information-gathering and decision-making processes. Overall, this year’s Reliability Technical Conference was another example of how FERC must do more to show that the Commission’s commitment to environmental justice is, as Moneen Nasmith, a senior attorney at Earthjustice stated, “more than just words.”