Top Biden Energy Nominee Testifies About How Minorities Are Harmed By U.S. Policy

Shalanda Baker, who would lead the Energy Department's Office of Minority Economic Impact, said non-white communities are often "invisible to lawmakers."

The Biden administration’s nominee to head its Office of Minority Economic Impact at the Department of Energy, Shalanda Baker, testified Tuesday before the Senate that she will lead with an eye toward those harmed most by the country’s energy policies.

President Joe Biden nominated Baker to be director of the Office of Minority Economic Impact in April, calling on her to transition from her current role as the Energy Department’s first deputy director for energy justice. Both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris frequently discussed environmental justice as they campaigned during the 2020 election, calling it a critical component of racial justice. With the nomination of Baker ― a Northeastern University law professor, former Air Force officer and author of “Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition” ― the Biden administration is helping to address an issue of great importance to progressive activists and many Democratic lawmakers.

During her testimony, Baker explained her personal ties to the energy sector, as “the daughter of two Black Americans” whose lives intertwined with the industry in different ways.

Her father grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, near one of the largest oil refineries in the world, and Baker said he died of heart disease after years of working in the energy sector, ingesting toxic chemicals emitted from the refinery as he worked. Baker said her mother raised her in an “energy insecure home,” where her family was forced to rely on the oven to generate heat in their Austin, Texas, apartment. “Our household, like so many households, was invisible to lawmakers,” she said.

The Department of Energy is expected to be a centerpiece of the Biden administration's efforts toward environmental justice.
The Department of Energy is expected to be a centerpiece of the Biden administration's efforts toward environmental justice.
ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP via Getty Images

She declared her testimony, balancing her family’s dependence on the energy sector with the industry’s harmful effects, was “in recognition of the complex ways” the energy system shapes American lives.

“If confirmed, I would be honored to help lead the administration’s transformative Justice40 initiative to ensure that communities like my father’s, as well as those whom we’ve relied on for coal, oil and gas production, have a future in the new, clean-energy economy,” she said.

The Biden administration announced the Justice40 initiative in January, shortly after Biden took office. The initiative centers on the administration’s commitment to deliver at least 40% of the benefits from all climate-related investments to disadvantaged communities.

The realities of climate-related injustice and its effects have crippled cities across the country in 2021, revealing significant, sometimes-deadly infrastructure failures while the Biden administration attempts to gain support for its ambitious plan for investment. In February, a deadly winter storm devastated major parts of the power grid in Texas, leaving thousands of residents ― disproportionately Black and brown residents ― without heat and running water for weeks. In Texas, Republican lawmakers have long opposed efforts to protect the state’s power grid from the effects of climate change, such as extreme cold. That same storm destroyed public infrastructure throughout the Wouth, with non-white residents bearing the brunt of the pain. In Jackson, Mississippi, where 80% of the population is Black, residents were left without clean running water for weeks after poorly maintained pipes froze and burst.

“Energy justice requires that we rethink and redesign the entirety of our energy system,” Baker said Tuesday, adding that justice also means officially acknowledging the “tremendous sacrifices” families like hers have paid to ensure other Americans have had access to energy.

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