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President Biden plans to sign a new executive order on environmental justice

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, President Biden plans to sign a new executive order on environmental justice. The White House says the new directive makes it the mission of every federal agency to protect the environmental health of communities across the U.S. The move follows the passage of the country's historic climate legislation last summer and the White House's approval of the controversial Willow drilling project in Alaska. For more on this, I'm joined by White House National Climate Adviser Ali Zaidi. Good morning.

ALI ZAIDI: Good morning.

MARTIN: So in clear terms, as briefly as you can, what does this order aim to do?

ZAIDI: This order sees the intersecting issues of environmental injustice, racial injustice, economic injustice. And this is the president directing all of his agencies to tackle those intersecting issues, make sure that we're fielding a full team as we tackle the climate crisis, do it in a way that cuts consumer costs, creates good-paying jobs, invests in communities that have been systematically disinvested in. That means building on things like turning our iconic yellow school buses into vehicles that don't belch diesel pollution, tackling risks from lead pipes, getting all of those out across the country - putting methane pollution into the sky - cleaning up brownfields and superfund sites, turning them into hubs of economic activity, planting trees in neighborhoods that have been redlined.

MARTIN: Talk to me about this new Office of Environmental Justice. This is going to be housed, I think, within the White House Council on Environmental Quality. It's being created under this order. Help me see this. Like, what is the problem that this more centralized office will fix? In other words, like, what does it do that the executive branch isn't already doing?

ZAIDI: Two big things that we need to lean into further. First is to accelerate progress where we have data and science gaps. We don't fully understand how things like the cumulative burdens from various pollution stressors impact public health and environmental justice. We need to accelerate progress with our scientific agencies and collect data around that so we can do a better job of addressing those issues. The other part is making sure that in addition to coordinating action across the federal agencies, we are making accountability and transparency part of that program. That's what this office will do, make sure there's a scorecard that can be viewed by the public...

MARTIN: OK.

ZAIDI: ...That shows the progress we're making, whether it's at the Health and Human Services, Department of Labor or the EPA.

MARTIN: OK. So the order comes weeks after the president approved a 30-year drilling project in Alaska, despite his earlier pledge not to approve new oil projects on federal land. Does his approval of that project weaken the impact of this order?

ZAIDI: This order is a historic step forward. It builds on the largest investments in environmental justice that we've ever seen in this country, the largest investments in remediation, in tackling legacy pollution. It also builds on the president's commitment to tackling the climate crisis, with the largest-ever program to do that, built on this premise that we can invest in America to make the solutions here, get them to every zip code in the country.

MARTIN: OK, I got it. Before we let you go - congressional Republicans want to repeal much of that signature climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, as part of their negotiations over the debt ceiling. As briefly as you can, how worried are you about that?

ZAIDI: I'm just surprised that you would want to have Congress spend time on a measure that would raise the costs of energy for consumers, that you would want to have Congress spend time on something that would undermine U.S. manufacturing competitiveness, undermine U.S. energy security...

MARTIN: OK.

ZAIDI: ...Sideline our workers in the global clean energy race. So look; the president's economic agenda has attracted hundreds of billions of dollars of capital into this fight. And we're focused on delivering results.

MARTIN: Ali Zaidi is the White House's national climate adviser. Thank you.

ZAIDI: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINOTAUR SHOCK'S "MY BURR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.