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Columbia Energy Exchange

Addressing America’s Energy Inequities


Shalanda Baker

Director, Office of Energy Justice and Equity, US DOE


Shalanda Baker: We know we need to do this transition at scale and with the speed we’ve never seen before, and so we need all the keys to unlock that speed. Whether that be permitting, whether it be community consent and community alignment. But I do fundamentally believe that we need different ways of doing business if we are going to achieve our climate goals.


Jason Bordoff: Within days of taking office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to create the Justice40 Initiative, a whole of government policy that aims to allocate 40% of the benefits of federal clean energy and climate investments to frontline communities. For the energy sector, this is just one of many factors that has put a growing spotlight on energy justice. With historically disadvantaged communities often being most negatively impacted by the current energy system, lacking access to affordable energy, suffering the harms of climate change, or being excluded from the potential benefits of a clean energy economy.

These are among the many challenges being addressed by the Energy Opportunity Lab we’ve created right here at Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy. What progress has been made in ensuring energy justice for frontline communities? Where do policies around addressing climate change and racial inequality intersect? With the energy transition continuing to accelerate in size and scale, how do we make sure disadvantaged communities are not left behind? This is Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I’m Jason Bordoff. Today on the show, Shalanda Baker.

Shalanda is the Director of the Office of Energy Justice and Equity in the US Department of Energy, and the secretarial advisor on equity. She also serves as Chief Diversity Officer for the agency. Prior to her Senate confirmation in 2022, Shalanda served as the nation’s first ever Deputy Director for Energy Justice. Before joining the Biden Administration, she co-founded and co-directed the Initiative for Energy Justice, which provides technical law and policy support to communities on the front lines of climate change. Shalanda was also a professor of law, public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University.

I talked with Shalanda about her work at the Department of Energy implementing the Biden Administration’s agenda on energy equity and climate justice, including the Justice40 Initiative. We also discussed the historical inequities of energy systems and the complexities of guiding communities through the energy transition. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Shalanda Baker, welcome to the Center on Global Energy Policy here in person in New York. Great to have you at Columbia University, and thanks for making time to be with us.


Shalanda Baker: Thank you so much, Jason. It’s great to be here.


Jason Bordoff: These podcasts usually run just a little under an hour. That will not be enough time to talk about your work and your really quite extraordinary career in academia, Air Force Academy graduate, Senate-confirmed government official, on and on. But I want to start for our listeners by asking what the Shalanda Baker Shield is.


Shalanda Baker: That’s such a surprise. I went to the Air Force Academy, as you mentioned, and while I was at the academy, within my first month at the academy, I discovered that I was pretty good at rugby. I was a four-year all-American rugby player, and I played on the Women’s national team my senior year. I was also on the Women’s US under-23 team, so I played with other college kids at the highest level in the country. A group of officials in Colorado decided to name an award after me, and they called it the Shalanda Baker Shield for the best high school female rugby player coming out of Colorado every year. That’s been in place since 1998, which is crazy.


Jason Bordoff: That alone would make for a fascinating podcast conversation. You’ve played in the Women’s Rugby World Cup?


Shalanda Baker: I did. I played in the 1998 World Cup. I missed my last month of school my senior year, so I had to compress all of my courses into three and a half months-


Jason Bordoff: This is at the Air Force Academy?


Shalanda Baker: At the Air Force Academy. Yeah, so I trained and it was a great experience. I grew up in Austin, Texas and just didn’t have a lot of exposure to international anything, but always had dreams of-


Jason Bordoff: Where was that World Cup?


Shalanda Baker: That was in the Netherlands. It was in Holland and Amsterdam. It was a lot of fun.


Jason Bordoff: You’re still following rugby, and is that going to become more popular in the US at some point than it is?


Shalanda Baker: Well, in the early 2000s, it was one of the fastest growing sports in the US. I’m not sure, I’m actually not following it as closely as I used to, but it was an Olympic sport. I think it became an Olympic sport about 15 years ago and mainly in the form of sevens. I don’t know how much you know about rugby.


Jason Bordoff: Not enough, not enough.


Shalanda Baker: It’s a great sport.


Jason Bordoff: You will teach me.


Shalanda Baker: It’s the ideal sport. Normally, there are 15 players on the field and there’s a scrum, which is eight players and a person who transitions the ball from the scrum of usually big, burly folks to the backs, which are the faster people that are the running backs of the rugby field. There are 15 people in total, but there’s also a more condensed version of rugby called sevens, and it’s seven minute half, so it’s very fast. It’s still the same size pitch or field, and that’s the format that made it to the Olympics initially.

Jason Bordoff: You were doing this at the Air Force Academy and the intention was to become a  military officer, that was the career goal at the time?


Shalanda Baker: Yeah, it was. I played rugby and was a cadet, like everyone else, and everyone who graduates from the academy becomes commissioned as a second lieutenant. After graduating, you have a five-year service commitment.


Jason Bordoff: You did not serve for five years. Tell our listeners why that is.


Shalanda Baker: Sure. Back when I was in the academy, there was a policy that, it’s so funny, a lot of younger people don’t even know about this, called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It was a policy that was established in the Clinton Administration that allowed LGBT military service members to serve so long as they never told anyone about their orientation. I came out to myself and a small group of friends my junior year, end of my junior year, beginning of my senior year. At the academy, there was always a lot of joking about the policy, but I lived in fear of being discovered for about a year and a half, while I was a cadet. I was commissioned and I did enter a relationship with someone who was abusive, and she was a woman.

While I was in that relationship, she essentially blackmailed me and said, “If you leave this relationship, I will out you to your superiors and you’ll lose your career.” Rather than have her hold that over me, I did a lot of soul-searching because I did expect that I would serve a mighty career or a 20-year career in the military. But rather than have her hold that over me, I came out and I came out in my third year of service. I was discharged honorably, but I was ordered to pay back for my college expenses. That bill stayed with me until the policy was eventually undone by the Obama Administration in 2012.

For about 11 years, every time I told the story, I would still have this chill down my spine thinking, “Okay, they’re going to come after me for this money.” It was a shadow.


Jason Bordoff: You had to pay back?


Shalanda Baker: I never had to pay back, but it was something that stayed on my record. I sent it through the appeals process, and there’s a patchwork of different decisions from the ’90s and the early 2000s. A lot of LGBTQ service members who were forced to come out were witch hunted in various things during that period, but I came out-


Jason Bordoff: Knowing that it would mean you would be asked to leave the military?


Shalanda Baker: I knew that was a high probability and I was 23 years old or something like that. I was a baby, but I knew that I didn’t want to live in danger. Also, I had sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. I said, it’s ironic to have sworn to defend the country, but I don’t feel safe in my own life, so I left. I came out knowing that it was likely that I would be discharged. I didn’t know if I would be discharged honorably or dishonorably. It was really a roll of the dice at that stage.


Jason Bordoff: It was honorable?

Shalanda Baker: Honorable.


Jason Bordoff: Yeah, right.


Shalanda Baker: Honorable discharge.


Jason Bordoff: That, I presume, had a formative impact on how you think about all the work you’ve done since then. You wrote, when this policy was still in place, I think about five years before the Obama Administration undid it, a law review article where you said you were going to speak out on how unjust this policy was. I was struck by something you wrote in that article. You said, “If that doesn’t work, let’s say it again. If that doesn’t work, say it again and again and again.” I’m wondering if that is still how you think about the work you’re doing today on justice and the equity transition.


Shalanda Baker: Yeah. Thank you so much for pulling that out. I started the work of energy justice back in 2012 or so. I was a corporate lawyer and I’ve been living and working in Japan for about a year. It was during the financial crisis, and I knew I didn’t go to law school to be a corporate lawyer. I knew I went to law school to fight for social justice. That was always at my core.


Jason Bordoff: That was after your discharge, so people know the journey. You then got a law degree.


Shalanda Baker: Yes. Right. Absolutely. This experience coming out under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, was absolutely formative. There was no turning back, which is to say, in any space I would occupy from that point forward, I would always be myself. I would hold the convictions of justice within me and never be afraid to speak truth to power essentially. At 24 years old or so, I made that choice and it’s been 20-plus years since that happened. But that experience shaped every decision I made and put me often in the crosshairs of folks who weren’t as forward-leaning or didn’t share my views or thought maybe I was a little bit ahead of my time or ahead of the issues. That definitely applied to the climate and energy space when I entered it.


Jason Bordoff: When was that? Just remind people the law degree and then practice and then law professor.


Shalanda Baker: Yes, sure. I was discharged in 2001, right before 9/11, so I officially got my paperwork and was out of the military right before 9/11, which was ironic because, actually, footnote, a lot of folks ended up being retained after 9/11. A lot of LGBT folks were not allowed to or were not discharged and were retained because they needed those skills. I was discharged and I moved to San Francisco and had my own awakening as a human and read a lot of books and was very much a part of the LGBT community in San Francisco. I worked at a nonprofit that was focused on providing support to teachers who were in underserved, underrepresented, or underserved schools in communities that were pretty overburdened and just distressed in many ways, economically distressed.

That was my first real view of educational disparities. Even though my activism at that point had been around LGBT issues, and I wouldn’t say I was an activist, I just had my own story, but I started to put together different ideas around structural inequality. Obviously, my own experience in the military pointed to a policy that was sanctioned by the government that had created these impacts on vulnerable population being the LGBTQ population. When I worked at this nonprofit, I saw how the school system, the system of education in this country was so unequal. It sounds so naive now to say that, but it was really eye-opening for me.

I was in the Bay Area, as I mentioned, and there were certain schools where kids didn’t have books or they would have to leave the books there every day or there are pages missing from those books. That experience coupled with my own experience regarding Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell inspired me to go to law school. I went to law school and I graduated in 2005. I went to Northeastern University, which was a very progressive and continues to be a very progressive law school. Lots of civil rights leaders come from that place. Lots of social justice leaders come from that place. I was really supported as a young student to stretch and explore different ideas.

I was encouraged by people there. It turns out I also had a proclivity to teach. I was really interested in being in front of the classroom and reading and doing research and writing. My professors there said, “Okay, if teaching is something you want to do, let us know.” But it was still a very daunting endeavor, to think I could become a law professor. I went to law school. I clerked for a year. I clerked for the first black Supreme Court Justice in the Mass Supreme Judicial Court. He was great. Rick Ireland, such a mentor and great supporter. Then, I did go to a law firm. I left law school with the same types of bills that many law school graduates leave with.

I worked at a big law firm called Bingham McCutchen, which is now Morgan Lewis, and I was a project finance lawyer. I helped to put together deals and I did so on the East Coast, but then I had an opportunity to go into Japan. I went to Japan in 2008. I landed there a week after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection. I spent a year in Japan really doing a lot of soul-searching, loving the experience, but the world was falling apart. I don’t know if you remember 2008, it was crazy. I was living in some of the best real estate in the city. I had a view of the Tokyo Tower. I was making more money than I’d ever made and that I ever imagined I would make. My mom who had been a single parent was underemployed.


Jason Bordoff: This was in Texas you grew up, right?


Shalanda Baker: I grew up in Texas, and she was at that time living in Minneapolis. My sister also was living in Minneapolis. My sister had just graduated from law school. She couldn’t find a job. All around me there were people who were getting laid off, and it was also the hottest year on record. It was the year that President Obama was elected. I thought, “If I’m going to leave and actually do work in service of social justice, it will be now.” I spent that year hand wringing and thinking, if I leave, there’s no coming back to this kind of life. I did leave after a year, and that was when I really entered the energy and climate world in a real way.


Jason Bordoff: The economy’s collapsing, the urgency of climate crisis is becoming more and more evident. Then, Obama, a million people come out on the Mall for his inauguration.

Shalanda Baker: Oh my gosh, yeah. Unbelievable. So inspirational. I actually remember being in Japan during the acceptance speech in Grant Park, and it was live-streamed. I was in my office, which was a totally transparent office with a door, but everyone could see in. One of my colleagues came by, one of my Japanese colleagues came by and I was crying. Just tears streaming down my face listening to that speech and seeing a black president, a future president before his inauguration, of course. Then, his wife and kids on that stage. I thought, “This is a different moment for our country.” My very formal Japanese colleague came by and he said, “Baker-san, are you okay?”

He was like, “What’s wrong with you?” I looked at him and I said, using Sam Cooke’s words, “A change has come.” But it was just this moment of reckoning with ourselves as a country and realizing that there was a different moment and there was a different opportunity to do something.


Jason Bordoff: But I want to talk about what that something was, because I remember the moment, and it was a great privilege to be able to serve in that administration for a period of time. The urgency to do something about climate, which manifested itself initially as cap and trade. Then, there were these tragedies like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill at the time. The sense that I have to do something because I see a climate crisis, but for you, that manifested as justice and energy justice. You founded institutes at universities working on energy justice at a time when… You tell me, I don’t think that was infused in the conversation about the transition the way it is increasingly today.

Why that approach? Why that lens on how to accelerate decarbonization, which one might say is a technical challenge or a finance challenge. We got to decarbonize the economy. We need more low carbon sources of energy. But now, you’re saying, yes, but we have another big problem to solve too, which is energy justice.


Shalanda Baker: To answer that, I have to go back a couple years before I got to Japan. For whatever reason, I decided that I wanted to learn Spanish. I was working at a big law firm. I don’t know if you’ve had that experience. You work all hours of the day and night, especially as an associate. I somehow was able to carve out time two or three times a week to go to a Spanish class. I would sneak out of my office around 6:00, go to this class, and then go back to the office and work until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. My teacher, one of my Spanish teachers was from Colombia. She brought in a lot of information about Colombia, what’s going on there.

At that time, it was a pretty distraught country in terms of a lot of the drug trade, et cetera. But she also brought in stories about indigenous communities who were fighting against oil and gas and coal development. A development that had completely devastated their environments. I thought, “Okay, after this job, I’m going to go and become a human rights lawyer, an international human rights lawyer. I’m going to work in Colombia or another place in Latin America with communities that were fighting against oil and gas or coal.” I spent my year in Japan, and I still held this dream of possibly going to Latin America.

Fast-forward, I ended up leaving the firm and I bought myself a one-way ticket to Mexico. I lived in this place called Oaxaca, which is one of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever been. It is the second poorest State in Mexico. It is home to 14 different indigenous groups, and it’s ground zero for Mexico. It was, at the time in 2010, ground zero for Mexico’s energy transition. Tons and tons of renewable energy was going into that area in a very expedited way. For example, there are now I think 2700 megawatts of wind there in places that were rural. Folks rely on the land to support assistance way of living, they fish. But there’s a place called La Ventosa, which is one of the windiest places in the world.

When I was in Oaxaca, I met indigenous people who were fighting against large-scale wind development. My idea had been, when I went to Mexico, to work with indigenous communities fighting against coal, oil, or gas. My whole world got turned upside down meeting those folks who were fighting against clean energy. Because what I realized is that the same mechanisms that created dispossession, that created environmental harms for communities, that excluded communities from process were being replicated in the clean energy transition, and so you’re absolutely right.


Jason Bordoff: We just saw Enel lost a big case in a dispute with the tribe, and Killers of the Flower Moon, that was made famous for lack of consultation over wind farm. Another example of what you were talking about just in the last few days.

Shalanda Baker:

Yeah, but in 2010, no one was talking about that. I thought, “Oh, my gosh, we are going to create a more unequal world, a more unjust world in our march to avert catastrophic climate change.” I jumped into that issue and immediately began to work on… Well, I did a lot of research in Oaxaca, Mexico. I ended up becoming an academic and entering the academy. I spent the first seven years or so of my academic career digging into the structural dimensions and the equity dimensions of our energy transition, mainly focused on Mexico, but also looking at the global south writ large.

I argued that if we did not infuse equity and justice and indigenous rights at the outset, we were doomed or destined to replicate injustice in our march to avert catastrophic climate change. Again, that was very unpopular because back in the 2010s, we were more concerned with having climate change be a part of the lexicon and the mainstream discourse in the United States. Getting people to believe that climate change was a thing was the fight. To suggest that not only did we have to worry about climate change, but we had to worry about equity and climate change together was just too much. It was too much for academics.

It was too much for many activists who were working in the climate space. It took about 10 years, 12 years working on those issues before the idea that justice had to be a part of the climate conversation became relevant.


Jason Bordoff: Just explain for people what that means to you, the energy justice. How should people conceive of that goal, that objective, that phrase?


Shalanda Baker: Sure. Energy justice is about the social and economic participation in the energy system. When I talk about social, I am talking about prior consultation. I’m talking about communities shaping their energy future, doing community energy planning, doing regional energy planning. Essentially, communities having a seat at the table, which is a participatory element. It’s procedural justice. The economic piece is more complicated, but it can mean getting a royalty from a project. It can mean having an equity stake in a project. It means that true economic benefits are derived from the system, and it also means that we’re not disproportionately burdening certain communities.

The burdens and benefits of the system are equitably distributed, which is our distributive justice component. We have a history in this country of disproportionately burdening certain places like the Gulf South, like Appalachia. Places that have been sought out for their resources but have never really benefited in any material way, many of the community members there anyway, from the resources that they house.


Jason Bordoff: The fact that they’re seeing the impacts of extractive industries, pet chem facilities, cancer alley, et cetera, but not seeing any economic benefits.


Shalanda Baker: Correct. Correct. We can see that play out. In my current role, we are doing a lot of work to make sure as we transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy, even as we’re asking some of the same communities to house clean energy, we’re doing the project development and design in a totally different way so that we don’t create disproportionate burdens in those places.


Jason Bordoff: What’s an example in the clean energy economy of the disproportionate burden that-


Shalanda Baker: Sure.


Jason Bordoff: I get the benefit that you might develop clean energy, and maybe there’s not equity stakes in the project or something like that, but what are examples of the burdens and what’s an example of a way to do it right?


Shalanda Baker: Sure. The clean energy transition will require a lot of building of a lot of stuff. Even though the ultimate end product may be a wind facility or a solar farm, that’ll still require trucks, and a lot of pollution will happen in the interim period between the initial investment and the actual project going live. There’s externalities that are created even with clean energy development, and that’s in the traditional sense. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at environmental impacts of clean energy development, et cetera. Those are more traditional energy projects.

When people think about clean energy, they think about wind, they think about solar, they think about distributed generation as well on rooftops. But taking it a little bit deeper, we know we have legislation in this country that is facilitating our clean energy transition. It’s requiring the building of battery manufacturing recycling facility so that we can onshore batteries here, and we don’t have to worry about the supply chain issues that we’ve seen. Building a battery manufacturing and recycling facility though is building an industrial facility. Again, that will create some environmental externalities, that will create some harms in the community where that’s housed.

Taking us a little bit deeper, if we look at decarbonizing our existing fossil fuel infrastructure, we are talking about capturing carbon from existing polluting facilities. Because of the way that we have cited those facilities, a lot of that new infrastructure is going to happen on top of communities that have already housed petrochemical facilities, fossil fuel generating facilities, oil and gas facilities. A lot of that is happening in the Gulf South. Even though we’re working to clean up, which is to say bring down the carbon footprint of those facilities, the cleanup process also requires industrial development. We don’t want to create more harm even as we’re trying to avert climate change.


Jason Bordoff: Right. Well, just on that topic you just brought up, which is carbon capture, much of the modeling, including from the International Energy Agency shows we’re using a lot less oil and gas in a net zero scenario, but not zero. There is a role for carbon capture. If we presume that is the case, and obviously, the Department of Energy is spending a lot of time and resources on that, and I think we also often see opposition to carbon capture and carbon removal technology from those local communities and from environmental justice communities. How do we square that circle? How do we get this technology right, in your view?


Shalanda Baker: Yeah, so that is one of the biggest questions that we’ve been grappling with at the Department of Energy. When Congress gave the department $62 billion of taxpayer money to do our energy transition, a large portion of that was dedicated to carbon capture and removal, storage, pipelines, transportation, lots of carbon technologies, carbon based technologies. The question then became, okay, we know that this is an element of our energy transition, but how do we do it in a way that doesn’t create more burdens and harms? We developed a framework called the Community Benefits Plan framework, which requires that every single applicant for DOE funding has to put together a plan for community benefits.

With respect to procedural justice, they have to have a plan for involving communities and putting them at the table on day one or maybe day zero, before a project is even contemplated. They have to do consultation with the community where development is proposed. They have to have a plan for creating true economic benefits. This was, again, the economic share. Job creation in those communities. One footnote here, one of the things that we’ve seen is that in many of these distressed communities, because often their tax base has been eroded, ironically, their school systems are in disrepair. They don’t have a ready workforce to participate in these job opportunities that are going to be created.

We’re creating a plan or requiring a plan for getting local folks hired in these new carbon dioxide removal-based jobs. They have to have a plan for economic development, including job creation, but also supplier diversity. They have to have a plan for working with local community colleges and technical colleges, minority-serving institutions in the area. They also had to have a real plan for creating good high-quality jobs, and union jobs would be obviously the ideal. All of that is an innovation and an intervention that we have implemented at the Department of Energy for this suite of technologies that we know are necessary and that we know are going to be brought online in the next five to 10 years.

It’s 20% of every single application score, which means that we’re not just focusing on the technical. Of course, we have lots of sophisticated applicants who are very solid on the technology, but they also have to have a plan for the social aspects of the development.


Jason Bordoff: That’s a lot of plans.


Shalanda Baker: Yes, a lot of plans.


Jason Bordoff: You talked about community benefits and consultation and engagement, and all of that sounds incredibly important, and all of it sounds like it takes time. I also hear about permitting reform, and we have to build clean energy so much faster. Are these things intention or do they not need to be?


Shalanda Baker: They’re actually, in my view, aligned. In some ways, well, this is the social license to operate, right? You mentioned in your prior question that a lot of communities are not happy with these technologies. The argument is, “Hey, you’re giving a lifeline to the same industry that polluted my community, that killed my uncle and my aunt, that gutted my community economically. You’re giving a lifeline to this industry and I don’t want it. I want no part of it.” This is helping to create more of a social license for this next generation technology to come into place, because we know that communities will protest not only in the streets, but they’re going to protest in the courts. We’ve already gotten-


Jason Bordoff: If you do this consultation up front, you reduce the likelihood of those lawsuits and local opposition, is what you’re saying?


Shalanda Baker: Absolutely. Yes, the development risk arguably goes down. Now, they have to have authentic benefits that are trackable and traceable and all of that as well. As you’ve alluded to, the plan is one thing, but actually the rubber hits the road when actual projects go online and jobs are created. This is a dilemma that I think we face in the administration right now. We have this historic legislation both in the bipartisan infrastructure law, but also in the Inflation Reduction Act that requires us to have a little bit of a runway to actually get projects in the ground. A lot of the benefits of these projects won’t be felt for another five to 10 years.

Getting folks to understand that, “Hey, these benefits are coming. We need you to be patient. We need you to work with us,” is really one of the challenges. But in my view, this framework that we have created does ultimately reduce the development risk.


Jason Bordoff: How do we think about, or how should we think about trade-offs in this transition? You talked about some things like building a battery plant and assess the impacts, what it means locally. We know we need a lot of mining for a clean energy transition, and it’s hard to do mining without impacts on communities and the environment. You want to understand them, you want to minimize them. We need to accelerate a clean energy transition that in some cases can lower energy bills, but not all, like green steel, green cement, green aviation fuel, even electric vehicles, depending on the timeframe you’re talking about.

For lower income people, the time value of money matters, and it’s harder to say it’ll save you money over 10 years if you’re thinking about today. There is a cost sometimes to the transition, which I think is lower than the cost of not having a transition. But how do we think about the distributional burden of accelerating this clean energy transition?


Shalanda Baker: Yeah. Well, I start with first principles. The investment that we’re making is as a country, and that investment is American taxpayer money. We have to do right by the taxpayers who expect that their resources will be wisely spent. That then requires that we grapple with the distribution of those economic benefits. I am a huge fan of the equity stake. I’m a huge fan of royalty payments. There are certain geographies that require us to make investments in certain places, right? Critical minerals can’t be found everywhere in the country. We know there are going to be certain places that require that.

In those places, we have to make sure the communities that are going to be in the shadows of huge mining operations truly feel like they have a stake in it, truly feel that that project is going to benefit their communities. Regardless of whether they see this as helping to fight the climate crisis, as you mentioned, the time value of money is about, “Okay, is this helping me put food on the table? Is this actually bringing a benefit? Is my son going to get a job? Is my daughter going to get a job in this facility?” We’ve got to grapple with those things, and we have to understand that the American taxpayers require us to do so.

That is, again, I think the promise of this energy transition, that we’re upending different ways of doing things. We’re requiring new things of the industries that we need and the captains of industry to do things differently. That’s the work that we’re tackling head on. It’s uncomfortable because it does sometimes mean that industry needs to take a little bit of a haircut in terms of some of that profit. But again, overall, this is going to help accelerate our transition. It’s going to bring everyone with us, and it goes in alignment with this idea that fundamentally these are taxpayer dollars that are helping to facilitate the transition.


Jason Bordoff: Can you talk about what the Biden Administration is doing, what Justice40 is, and what tools exist to do the work you’re talking about? A lot of the development you’re talking about is on private lands, not public lands. Does this require a new legislation? What is being done? What can be done to achieve what you just described?


Shalanda Baker: Sure. Well, so I entered the administration because of Justice40.


Jason Bordoff: Just remind everyone what that is.


Shalanda Baker: Sure. Yes, yes. When candidate Biden was on the campaign trail, he talked about something called EJ40, which was that 40% of our spending related to climate and clean energy would go to front line communities. By front line, I mean communities on the front line of climate change, but also communities who have borne the burdens of development historically, so environmental justice communities. He talked about EJ40, and I was super interested in that as a scholar, as a researcher, as someone who was running an organization focused on energy policy and community engagement and energy policy. I thought, “Okay, I hope he gets the right person to run that. This is an exciting historic moment.”

He was elected and I was asked to join the administration to lead what became Justice40 for the administration and the Department of Energy, which is to help lead a just and equitable energy transition. On day seven, after he was inaugurated on day seven, he signed an order tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad, which established Justice40. What is Justice40? Tucked into Section 223 of that executive order, tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad, was the Justice40 Initiative. Justice40 sets the goal that 40% of the benefits of our spending on climate and clean energy are going to go to front-lined disadvantaged communities. Immediately, the question was, what’s 40% of a benefit?


Jason Bordoff: Yeah. What’s the answer to that?


Shalanda Baker: Well, it’s a hard one. We had to then define benefits. Well, first of all, we had to break Justice40 down into three components. First was, okay, what federal programs count as climate or clean energy? On day seven of the administration, day eight, we had no bill money, we had no IRA money, we had nothing to hook into. At the Department of Energy, though many of our programs were defined as climate and clean energy. I did a lot of organizing within the Department of Energy to convince my colleagues, scientists, engineers, that what they were doing was relevant to the President’s promise. We were able to gather programs that were considered climate and clean energy.

The second thing which we were doing in parallel was to figure out who were disadvantaged communities, what does that mean? I built a team that helped to develop a map that now is still used at the Department of Energy. We now have a White House map as well. That helped us to understand, okay, these are communities that have faced certain types of burdens. They lack access to energy, or they have energy insecurity, which is not being able to pay for energy. They face historic burdens in the environmental realm. We created a map. We had the programs, we had the map, but the hardest question was, “Okay, well what are the benefits?”

Because at the Department of Energy, each program collects its own data regarding the impact of the program. Having been a scholar of energy justice and read a lot of the literature related to energy issues, I developed a framework of eight different benefits that we would be tracking. There was one university in which we would have 40 different metrics that we were tracking. I kept saying, “Guys, we need eight.” If we could do five, we would do five. But we needed very simple trackable metrics that then could be broken into 40% increments. Job creation is one thing. Business creation. We also want to track access to capital, which is a hard one.

Lowering environmental hazards and harms and burdens, resilience, energy democracy, and all of those things we broke into metrics that could be trackable across programs in an apples-to-apples way. Now, with the bipartisan infrastructure law, we have a whole system of metric collection that imports our framework of eight justice worthy benefits within it. All of that has taken a lot of time to do. The jury is still out. We still don’t have true benefits that are being generated from our bill programs, and we won’t until I think we actually break ground in many ways.


Jason Bordoff: I wanted to ask you, because we can talk for hours, but not enough time.


Shalanda Baker: Oh my gosh, we don’t have a lot of time.


Jason Bordoff: How to think about this concept in the global setting you started with. When you have conversations like the one we’re having with friends, with colleagues, scholars in the developing world, a response I feel like one hears often is this is all important, but this is a high-class problem. We don’t have any energy at all. You’re telling us we can’t have natural gas, and you’re telling us we can’t produce our oil even though US production is at a record level. What does energy justice, how should we think about that concept in the international realm?


Shalanda Baker: Yeah. Oh my gosh, it’s such a great question. I just came from Mexico. I was there all week as a diplomat, which was interesting because my first time there was as a lawyer escaping legal practice. Second time was as a Fulbright scholar looking at issues in the Yucatan Peninsula after the huge energy reform that opened up markets there. That was 2016, ’17, it’s 2024, so about eight years later. I went back and I got to talk to academics. I talked to colleagues I had worked with as a Fulbright scholar. I talked to government officials, those senators. I got to meet with the Commission on Human Rights. I met with state officials, the State of Yucatan’s Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Sustainable Development, Secretary of Women’s Issues.

In every case, I shared what we were doing in the US to break down these large scale infrastructure projects in a way that could create more equitable benefits and more equitable burden sharing. It did resonate with them. The idea that communities should be at the center of debates regarding project design, project location resonated. In fact, I learned a lot from my research in Mexico about what I wanted to import into our system. What I think what you’re talking about though is, okay, there’s a project level and community level work, but there’s also this global discourse regarding our energy transition. Where does energy justice really fit there?

I didn’t hear a lot of pushback of like, “Oh, we’re going to ignore that.” But what I heard was that, “Hey, yes, we do still need fundamental access, and if we are going to get access to energy resources, we want to make sure that access is equitably distributed in our society because that’s going to lift up all of our community members.” Access is one thing, and as that access is making its way here, let’s determine that that’s distributed in an equitable way.


Jason Bordoff: I guess the question was trying to get at the idea that you had described how energy justice would mean, that in the course of this complete overhaul of the economy called the energy transition, let’s make sure the benefits are distributed equally. I think you were talking about the domestic context, and should we think about that in a global context as well? Let’s make sure the benefits of this clean energy economy are more distributed in lower income parts of the world, emerging markets. Is that idea infused in the international climate policy, international economic policy, development policy of government the way that you’re describing in the domestic context?


Shalanda Baker: Well, it depends on how meta you want to get, Jason. A million years ago, I taught international environmental law. I’ve taught courses on international development, and there’s obviously a very active discourse around what is owed to the global south, for example, from the global north. We know that we’re going to be asking our neighbors in Africa and Latin America to be sources of critical materials for this energy transition. That is absolutely a space for this discourse on energy justice to take hold, for us to bring the principles of distributive justice to the table, where subsistence communities and Chile, for example, are providing lithium for batteries.

What does it look like to ask them to do that in a way that doesn’t totally disturb their ecological and environmental, their environment, but also lifts them up? Those are the questions that we have to grapple with as a global community, and particularly in the global north. I think I’ve always had this view that we can leapfrog some of the issues that we confronted here in the United States around the total centralization of energy. It may not be of energy resources, so it may not be economically feasible for some of the most rural places in the Sub-Sahara to have huge generation facilities that require lots of transmission to go into cities.

There, there’s a need to distribute that energy in a way that’s affordable. Maybe it’s purely distributed energy, it’s cell phones and small batteries that become the source of power or some other system that is put in place versus a main very centralized facility that is owned by a multinational corporation. I think we can learn a lot from what we’re trying to do here, but we can also avoid a lot of the challenges that we’ve faced here by thinking about justice at the outset, by thinking about logics of development as well as we’re doing our work. I think at a very meta level, in terms of climate policy globally, we have to confront those issues of distribution.

We have to understand that we’re going to be asking more of our neighbors in the global south as we’re doing a transition here. I think at a project level, we can also think creatively about how we do energy access. Again, avoiding many of the issues we’ve faced here in the US.


Jason Bordoff: Just so listeners understand the context in which you’re doing the work you’re doing here in the US, energy poverty, which for much of the global south means no energy access at all, and extreme poverty. Energy poverty, not to compare the two in a different sense, but it is an issue in the United States as well, correct?


Shalanda Baker: It is. We talk a lot about energy insecurity in the US and we know that one in three Americans faces the tough choice of whether to heat or cool their home or eat on a regular basis, one in three. Of course, that goes up and down, but this is data that comes straight from the Energy Information Administration. When we disaggregate that data though, and look at households headed by people of color, 47% or so of Latinx households and 52% of black households experiences energy insecurity and so-


Jason Bordoff: Defined as that choice?


Shalanda Baker: A choice of whether to heat or cool your home, keeping your home in an unsafe or unhealthy temperature, not being able to buy other things necessary for life because of the cost of energy, so medicine, food, struggling with that. There’s a survey that gets conducted every five years or so that tells us that. There’s also a poll survey. I think it’s done every three months or so by the census.


Jason Bordoff: Half of African-American households.


Shalanda Baker: Half. That’s pretty devastating. Energy poverty though is not something that we track as well as we should, but if you want to talk about zero energy access, we know that there are communities that are unincorporated, that lack access to power. We also know that many native communities, my dear colleague, Wahleah Johns, who heads up our Office of Indian Energy, often talks about the lack of access to electricity in Navajo nations where she grew up. It is still a pervasive issue, but we know it’s more pervasive internationally, but it’s also right here in our backyards.


Jason Bordoff: That concept of energy justice does it, for you, does it include as well, you talked about the benefits, the communities that may be disrupted, dislocated in this transition of coal communities, oil and gas communities, and how do we address the concerns which are political as well as economic, and the matter of equity in the transition to help communities adjust over time?


Shalanda Baker: Yeah, so I think what you’re mentioning here is just transition. Sometimes it gets folded into the broader energy justice conversation as well. I think of it a little bit separately, conceptually. The same order that established Justice40 also established an inter-agency working group on coal communities. A lot of that work was accelerated to really think about how we were going to bring more resources into those communities. Again, not again, but just to put a fine point on it, when we’re talking about coal facilities, fossil fuel facilities that are being shut down, it’s not just the jobs in the plant that are the problem and that are lost, it’s the entire ecosystem.

The economic ecosystem around that facility that gets impacted. The mom and pop grocery stores, the guy who sells the breakfast sandwiches and the coffee, all of that, the dry cleaners, all of those things are impacted. In the bipartisan infrastructure law, we actually have Congress provided some hooks for us to support those communities through advanced energy manufacturing. We have, I can’t remember the exact amount of funds we have, but it’s in the, I think it’s 750 million, but that specific pot of money is for those communities in transition, to do advanced energy manufacturing in those communities. We also have some provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act that require us to reinvest in those communities with clean energy as well.

Congress is thinking about it. We are thinking about it at the Department of Energy. We know that often those are communities that, again, are distressed economically. They face some environmental challenges as well because we’ve asked them to shoulder our energy system for the last hundred years or so. We’re focused on them from an energy justice standpoint, in making sure we equitably share the benefits and burdens of our transition, but we’re also focused on them from a just transition standpoint to make sure they’re not left behind either as we’re transitioning to a clean energy future.


Jason Bordoff: I imagine we have a lot of people listening who are inspired by what you’re saying and want to help do some of this work. We talked about your career path earlier. It’s a nonlinear one. It might be hard to replicate exactly the Women’s World Cup and coming out and changing career trajectories. But talk about advice that you give young people who want to pursue this work.


Shalanda Baker: Yeah. Now is the time to be involved in these issues. We’ve never seen anything like this moment. We’ve never seen this type of investment in climate and clean energy. We need more. We need more investment, and hopefully, more and more investment will come in the years to follow. But there absolutely is something happening in every single community on climate, every single community on energy, because of the pervasiveness of this transition. It’s happening everywhere. I would say for students who are in school, take the courses that light you up. Seek out the internships with nonprofits, with international NGOs that are doing work, merging the technical and the social.

That’s where we need a lot of the work to happen. Folks who can talk to engineers and finance people, but also can talk to communities. To me, that intersection is the one that needs to just be exploited and where we need more expertise and translators to actually be able to move between both worlds. We know we need to do this transition at scale and with the speed we’ve never seen before, and so we need all the keys to unlock that speed. Whether that be permitting, whether it be community consent and community alignment. But I do fundamentally believe that we need different ways of doing business if we are going to achieve our climate goals.


Jason Bordoff: Shalanda Baker, thank you for the work that you’re doing, for your service in the military and in government.


Shalanda Baker: Oh, thank you.


Jason Bordoff: Thanks for making so much time to be with us today and explain it to all of us. I appreciate it very much.


Shalanda Baker: Such a pleasure, Jason. More to come.


Jason Bordoff: Thank you.


Shalanda Baker: We’ll talk soon. Thank you.


Jason Bordoff: Thank you, again, Shalanda Baker, and thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Columbia Energy Exchange. The show is brought to you by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. The show is hosted by me, Jason Bordoff and by Bill Loveless. The show is produced by Erin Hardick from Latitude Studios. Additional support from Diana Hernandez, Vivek Shastry, Lilly Lee, Caroline Pitman, and Kyu Lee. Roy Campanella, engineer of the show. For more information about the podcast or the Center on Global Energy Policy, please visit us online at

Or, follow us on social media, @ColumbiaUEnergy. Please, if you feel inclined, give us a rating on Apple Podcasts, it really helps us out. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next week.

Within days of taking office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to create the Justice40 Initiative. The policy aims to allocate 40% of the benefits of federal clean energy and climate investments to frontline communities. 

For the energy sector, it’s helping to shine a growing light on  “energy justice.” Historically, the current energy system has negatively impacted disadvantaged communities the most – communities that often lack access to affordable energy, are excluded from potential benefits of a clean energy economy, and suffer the greatest harms from climate change. The Energy Opportunity Lab at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs is working to address these challenges, among many others. 

So, what progress has been made in ensuring energy justice for frontline communities? And with the energy transition continuing to accelerate in size and scale, how do we make sure disadvantaged communities aren’t left behind?

This week host Jason Bordoff talks with Shalanda Baker about the historical inequities of energy systems, and the Biden administration’s agenda on energy equity and climate justice.

Shalanda is the director of the Office of Energy Justice and Equity in the U.S. Department of Energy, and the secretarial advisor on equity. She also serves as chief diversity officer for the agency. Prior to her Senate confirmation in 2022, Shalanda served as the nation’s first-ever deputy director for energy justice. Before joining the Biden administration, she co-founded and co-directed the Initiative for Energy Justice, which provides technical law and policy support to communities on the front lines of climate change.


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