Shaping the Future of EPA

Posted on January 29, 2020 by Ridgway Hall

What should EPA and environmental protection look like in the future? A report issued by American University’s Center for Environmental Policy in December, entitled Moving Forward: Future Directions for EPA and Environmental Protection, provides 6 principal recommendations.

The report was written by John Reeder, Executive in Residence at the Center and a 30-year veteran of EPA, based on a conference that was cosponsored last April by AU’s School of Public Affairs (where the Center is housed), its law school and ELI, with a talented and diverse field of speakers including 4 former EPA Administrators.  It was also informed by 5 focus group reports prepared by the EPA Alumni Association, which helped organize the conference.

At ACOEL’s October meeting, Dan Esty issued a challenge to us to undertake a multi-year project to transform our environmental protection framework from the existing “command and control” regulations to one using primarily market-based incentives. On November 21, I posted a blog article titled Dan Esty’s Challenge to ACOEL: Let’s Do It. I pointed out that 25 years ago a wave of thoughtful studies recommended moving away from command and control regulation towards systems featuring multimedia permitting, ecosystem-wide approaches, financial incentives, marketable pollution rights and other innovations, but that very little had come of these.

So what’s changed? Among other things, there appears to be an increasing recognition that when a company acts because it is in its financial interest to do so rather than because a regulation is requiring it to do so, it is more economically efficient (the transaction costs are lower) and the managers are likely to feel better about the fact that they were free to make the choice. Shifting the emphasis in the implementation of environmental laws in this way can yield better outcomes within the underlying regulatory framework. This translates to political acceptance by both industry and the public. In addition, thanks in part to the internet, we have more scientific, technical and economic data regarding environmental issues, we have far more sophisticated methods of using and transmitting that data, and we have more sophisticated abilities to monitor actions and impacts.

Furthermore, the nature of our environmental challenges has expanded to include climate change, energy policies, loss of biodiversity, agricultural practices, water availability and distribution (not just quality), land use, and the environmental behavior and effects of manufacturing wastes like endocrine disruptors and microplastics. Many of these issues must be addressed by multiple federal departments or agencies (Interior, Energy, Agriculture, NOAA  and the Corps of Engineers to name a few). Some, like climate change and the protection of oceans and fisheries, must be addressed on an international basis. Most of these issues cannot be effectively addressed through regulatory controls alone. Finally, issues relating to allocation of costs, environmental justice and public acceptance have become more prominent.

The challenges facing EPA are of two types: 1) threats to the environment or human health, and 2) “system” challenges, reflecting in large part the statutory framework under which EPA addresses those threats. The AU report focuses on EPA’s institutional capacity rather than on  specific policy proposals. The 6 major recommendations are as follows:

  1. Pursue State of the Art Science Capability. EPA will need to keep abreast of rapidly emerging scientific challenges, manage data from numerous sources, and reestablish technical assistance as part of its core mission. Sound science must be a top priority.
  2. Renew the “Environmental Protection Enterprise”. This involves striking the right balance in its relationships with states and tribes between maintaining a level playing field and encouraging flexibility and innovation, partnering with private sector entities, and focusing on outcomes rather than just regulatory compliance. It includes working with other federal agencies and encouraging regional approaches involving multiple layers of government and the private sector (“cooperative federalism”), such as the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay initiatives.
  3. Strengthen International Cooperation. Because many of our biggest environmental challenges are global, like climate change and protection of ocean resources, EPA should work with the State Department and other relevant agencies to strengthen relationships with other countries and international organizations to share information and address these issues on an international scale.
  4. Harness the Power of Consumer Choice and the Marketplace.The use of pollution pricing, cap and trade programs and other market-based incentives should be promoted, with existing regulations largely left in place as a backstop. EPA should continue to encourage corporate sustainability programs, public information campaigns like the Toxic Release Inventory and ecolabeling.  
  5. Advance a Forward-looking Regulatory System. EPA’s regulatory programs should anticipate rapid technological change and make use of vastly expanding monitoring and reporting technologies. They should emphasize transparency and public accountability, help reduce the “overhead” costs of regulations, and include market-based approaches wherever possible.
  6. Engage the Public to Raise Awareness About the Environment. EPA should promote public awareness and education from elementary school through college on environmental issues, challenges and opportunities. Its regional offices should work with state and local entities to make scientific information and teaching materials and online instruction available.

There is a lot more in this report than I can summarize here. It is thoughtful and important reading for anyone interested in the future direction of EPA and environmental protection.

Managing Interdependence in a World of Chaos

Posted on August 8, 2018 by Dan Esty

Managing interdependence in our complicated world of nearly 200 nations and thousands of other interests pushing and pulling on global policymaking is never easy. And yet the challenge of getting the world community to work together to solve problems remains urgent – especially for issues of inescapably global scope such as climate change. The international chaos of the past several weeks (with the U.S. President attacking allies, denigrating longstanding alliances, cozying up to autocrats, and brandishing tariff increases like a hotheaded D’Artagnan slashing his way through a Three Musketeers movie) shows just how fragile our collaborative regimes can be. Against this backdrop, the success of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement in getting so many nations and so many others (including mayors, governors, and CEOs) to commit to a joint effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions looks more amazing today than it did when the COP21 negotiations concluded three years ago.

Continued progress to address the threat of climate change cannot, however, be taken for granted.  Discord in one domain of international relations has a tendency to spill over into others.  Indeed, successful collaboration often depends on give-and-take across policy realms as well as within particular treaties or other cooperative endeavors. President Trump’s bellicose behavior on the international stage thus adds stress to the efforts to maintain momentum for climate change action – on top of the discord that he had already introduced by promising to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement.

But the news from the climate change front is not all bad.  President Trump cannot actually remove the United States from the Paris Agreement until 2020 based on the accord’s carefully specified withdrawal provisions.  More importantly, the leadership slack is being taken up by others.  Not only have foreign leaders, such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Macron, grabbed the climate change mantle, a whole series of mayors (including Anne Hidalgo in Paris and Frank Jensen in Copenhagen not to mention hundreds of municipal leaders across America) and governors (including Jerry Brown in California and Jay Inslee in Washington state) have ramped up their greenhouse gas emissions control initiatives. Indeed, nearly 3000 subnational leaders across all 50 U.S. states have signed on to the “We Are Still In” coalition, and their actions have kept the United States more or less on target to achieve the emissions reduction commitment set out by President Obama in the U.S. “nationally determined contribution” to the Paris Agreement.

So while the Trump Administration’s non-cooperative posture may yet slow down the global march toward a clean energy future, it may also hasten the creation of a new multi-dimensional structure of global climate change action – and a framework for managing international interdependence more generally -- capable of withstanding the President’s belligerence. With layers of state and local activities as well as national and global ones, supported by initiatives from the business community and many other non-governmental actors, the pace of progress need not falter. And the unintended gift of a more diverse and robust regime of global collaboration may well endure.