Shalanda Baker sees energy policy as the next domain for advancing civil rights. She says too many communities of color have experienced the harm - but not the benefits - of energy development.



A key part of the Biden administration's climate plan is environmental justice, which aims to protect minority communities, poorer communities that are disproportionately hurt by pollution and climate change. This morning on Capitol Hill, one of Biden's Energy Department nominees will have her confirmation hearing. NPR's Jeff Brady reports Shalanda Baker brings an activist voice to the administration's climate efforts.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Shalanda Baker is a former Air Force officer, a law professor and a leading advocate in the emerging field of energy justice. Baker sees energy policy as the next domain for advancing civil rights. Here she was at a virtual Earth Day event connecting the police killing of George Floyd to energy.


SHALANDA BAKER: And 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.

BRADY: 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 energy justice advocates want to fix these problems through government policy. For Baker, that begins with involving affected communities in energy planning right from the start. In an online interview, she told celebrity activist Jane Fonda about her experience working in Mexico and Hawaii.


BAKER: 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 policymaking space.

BRADY: The Department of Energy declined NPR's request to interview Baker now that she's been nominated. She already works at the department and is being promoted to director of the Office of Minority Economic Impact.

JAMES CAMPOS: It's a unique position with the U.S. government because it's one-of-a-kind office.

BRADY: James Campos held the position during the Trump administration. He's critical of how fast the Biden administration wants to transition to cleaner energy. Still, he says, this director position is important as the country becomes more diverse.

CAMPOS: The growth of the minority communities, the impact the minority communities will have on - upon our economy and the need to be inclusive at all levels.

BRADY: Campos says part of the job is bringing more people of color into the energy business. Mustafa Santiago Ali says one way to do that is to make sure more of the billions of research and development dollars the Energy Department allocates make their way to a broader range of colleges.

MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI: There were certain academic institutions that were the ones who received the lion's share.

BRADY: Ali worked at the EPA for more than two decades and now pursues his environmental justice work at the National Wildlife Federation. He'd like to see more federal money flowing to historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges.

ALI: So 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.

BRADY: The Biden administration goal is that 40% of benefits from federal money spent on climate change should reach disadvantaged communities. If Shalanda Baker is confirmed by the Senate, part of her job will be to make sure that happens.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.