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'Energy Justice' Nominee Brings Activist Voice To Biden's Climate Plans

Shalanda Baker listens during a confirmation hearing Tuesday to be Director of the Office of Minority Economic Impact for the Department of Energy.
Alex Brandon
Shalanda Baker listens during a confirmation hearing Tuesday to be Director of the Office of Minority Economic Impact for the Department of Energy.

Updated June 8, 2021 at 11:50 AM ET

Capitol Hill lawmakers Tuesday questioned one of President Biden's top picks for the Department of Energy, a woman with a history of activism who will help shape the administration's focus on environmental justice.

Shalanda Baker already works at the department in a newly-created role of Deputy Director for Energy Justice. Her confirmation hearing is for a promotion to become Director of the Office of Minority Economic Impact.

Baker introduced herself by talking about her parents. She says her father grew up next to one of the largest refineries in the world in Port Arthur, Texas, and made a good living in the energy industry. Baker described her mother's home as "energy insecure" and said these experiences will inform her work at the department.

"Like one in three American households, 52.2% of Black American households, and 61.5% of Native American households, we used the oven to warm our apartment in Austin, Texas, where I grew up," Baker told senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Baker is a former Air Force officer and a law professor at Northeastern University. She co-founded and co-directed the Initiative for Energy Justice. An Energy Department announcement for her nomination mentions Baker's recent book Revolutionary Power: An Activist's Guide to the Energy Transition, where she "argues that the technical terrain of energy policy should be the next domain to advance civil rights."

At a virtual Earth Day event Baker drew a connection between energy policy and the racial reckoning over the police killing of George Floyd.

"I would suggest to you today that the energy system is not immune from that broader reckoning, and that in many ways, the energy system is complicit in the structural violence that is routinely experienced by people of color in this country," said Baker.

Baker says people of color too often are subject to the downside of energy development — like pollution from burning fossil fuels — and rarely get to experience the upside, such as jobs and owning power plants. Even more unfair, she says, poor communities spend a larger share of their income on energy.

She and other advocates for "energy justice" want to fix these problems through government policy. The emerging field starts with the idea that everyone should have access to safe, affordable, and sustainable energy.

"Energy justice considers the disparities that arise along the entire energy system spectrum — extraction through production, and then also through consumption and waste," says Indiana University Professor Sanya Carley. In other words, she says, it's "planning our energy systems so humans matter."

In many ways, the energy system is complicit in the structural violence that is routinely experienced by people of color in this country.

Baker says that means involving affected people from the start of that planning so they have a voice in the outcome. She talked about this in a recent online interview with celebrity activist Jane Fonda, as they discussed Baker's experience working in Mexico and Hawaii.

"People didn't understand why a law professor was talking to grandmothers and aunts and uncles about energy, and I believed that those voices needed to be heard in the energy policy-making space," said Baker.

The Energy Department declined NPR's request to interview Baker now that she's been nominated to head the Office of Minority Economic Impact.

"It's a unique position with the U.S. Government because it's [a] one-of-a-kind office," says James Campos, who held the position during the Trump administration.

He's critical of how fast the Biden administration wants to transition to cleaner energy. But he says this position is important because of "the growth of the minority communities, the impacts the minority communities will have on our economy, and the need to be inclusive at all levels."

Campos says part of the job is bringing more people of color into the energy business. One way to do that is to make sure more of the billions of research and development dollars DOE allocates make their way to a broader range of colleges.

"There were certain academic institutions that were the ones who received the lion's share," says Mustafa Santiago Ali, who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency for more than two decades and now pursues his environmental justice work at the National Wildlife Federation.

Ali says more federal money should flow to historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges.

"If we want to grow, both the next set of engineers and scientists and a number of others, then we have to be investing in the infrastructure that would exist inside of those entities," says Ali.

The Biden administration's Justice40 Initiative sets a goal for 40 percent of benefits from federal money spent on climate change to reach disadvantaged communities. If Shalanda Baker is confirmed by the Senate part of her job will be to make that happen.

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Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.