Since Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency 30 years ago, conservatives have struggled to deal with the environment as a political issue. And, with the exception of occasional tactical victories, we have miserably failed.
By now, the positions conservatives take on environmental issues are not only out of touch with the American electorate; according to some polls, they are out of touch with the views of self-identified Republicans. As things stand in most voters’ minds, what Republicans say about the environment is marred from the start by a lack of credibility. Voters accept dogma from environmentalists as truth while taking truth, when conservatives utter it, as dogma.
The news from polls is uniformly bad for conservative positions, even from polls paid for by advocacy groups and accordingly skewed to favor the positions of those commissioning them. It doesn’t matter how one manipulates the sample, tweaks the questions, or pushes the focus groups. It doesn’t matter who is doing the research. The fact is that American voters not only support today’s environmental protection; the plurality wants more and stricter regulation. And they see conservatives as opposed to their wishes.
According to two decades’ worth of Wirthlin polls, Americans overwhelmingly agree with this statement: "Environmental standards cannot be too high and continuing improvements must be made regardless of cost." The low ebb was in 1981 at 45 percent — the only year support dropped below 58 percent. At the bottom of the last recession in 1992, support for that statement sat at 80 percent.
Gallup’s latest Earth Day polling found that 83 percent of Americans agree with the goals of the environmental movement (as compared to 86 percent agreeing with those of the civil rights movement, 69 percent with those of the gun control movement, 61 percent with those of the abortion rights movement, and 49 percent with those of the gay rights movement). Though the question obviously loads the dice for a liberal response by asking about agreement with a movement’s "goals," it is telling that environmentalism has become such a universally accepted value that adherence to it is about as widespread as support for civil rights for blacks.
Another way Gallup looked at the question was to ask people about their activity in environmental groups. Sixteen percent said they were active, 55 percent were not active but sympathetic, 23 percent said they were neutral; only 5 percent said they were unsympathetic. The Polling Company found nearly identical numbers last year.
Whom do Americans trust as a source for environmental information? Coming in first at 78 percent were national environmental groups — followed by local environmental groups and the EPA. Who came in seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth most trusted of the 10 categories given, bottoming out at 37 percent? Small business, the Congress, the Republican Party, and large corporations.
Last, but hardly least, after nearly eight years of Carol Browner’s zeal as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, 57 percent of Americans think the government is not worried enough about the environment.
Even when people try to give the numbers a tweak, the results are scary. A poll done for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and packed with leading questions, asked which party does a better job handling environmental issues. It found Democrats won 46 percent to 20, and nearly 30 percent of the sample was Republicans. In short, not even two-thirds of Republicans have faith in their own party on the issue.
Even more telling are the answers to really loaded questions. Consider the following: "I think the government should pass new laws and regulations dealing with global warming, even if agreement on the causes of global warming isn’t reached by the vast majority of scientists. It is better to pass strict environmental laws even if these restrictions hurt our economy and standard of living in order to protect against the possibility that pollution is causing global warming." In the case of a question like this, the wonder is not that some people disagreed, it’s that 36 percent actually nodded in assent.
Whether public opinion is out of touch with reality or not, the political fact is that to win national elections, Republicans need the votes of millions of people whose stated commitment to environmental protection is fully in line with such far left groups as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace. In no other arena of public debate have Republicans and conservatives let themselves be so thoroughly whipped for so long without stopping to figure out what went wrong.
Dodging the concerns
It’s not that conservatives are silent on the subject of the environment, nor for that matter, that our policy prescriptions don’t actually make sense in many cases. It’s that the conservative nostrums don’t resonate as the real thing — namely, environmental protection — with the public. Here are some examples:
Accounting: We need cost-benefit analysis in order to determine which regulations will cost more than they will save, argues Kenneth W. Chilton of the Center for the Study of American Business, along with a host of others. To most policy makers, this seems obvious. Yet as an environmental reporter, I have never talked to a parent who bought into this standard. From the poorest blacks in rural Louisiana to the prosperous suburbs of Detroit, I have interviewed hundreds. When you talk about cost-benefit analysis, voters think about putting a price tag on a human life. They don’t like that, and they don’t like people who do.
Dubious reforms: Repeatedly, Republicans, with the backing of conservative policy elites, have fought epic battles for regulatory reform, sometimes even getting their legislation signed into law. It’s worth asking what has really been gained in this arena. Almost nothing. A case in point is the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act, UMRA, passed in 1995. The law contains this statement: "Any compliance or noncompliance with the provisions of [the law] shall not be subject to judicial review [nor shall] any provision of [UMRA] be construed to be enforceable by any person in any judicial action." In other words, a law fought for tooth and nail by Newt Gingrich’s revolutionaries has no enforcement provision. Republicans withstood a withering barrage of environmentalist attacks about gutting the Clean Air Act and trashing the Safe Drinking Water Act in order to pass a law that changed nothing.
Jobs, jobs, jobs: The macroeconomic models seem clear to me. Environmental protection costs money, money that almost surely would be more efficiently spent in some other way. That means fewer jobs and less wealth for everyone, not just those who pay the onerous costs of environmental protection. But 30 years after the creation of the EPA, this is almost an impossible sell. People know two things: Over the past 30 years environmental protection has been getting more comprehensive, expensive, and strict (Republicans have been telling them so), yet as the regulatory ropes have constricted, the economy has grown more dynamic — the 1980s were better than the ’70s, the 1990s better than the ’80s, and every sign points to more prosperity in the coming decade (Republicans have been touting this, too). So conservatives are reduced to telling people that their experience is not true. The public is not likely to be picking up those macroeconomic studies any time soon.
Good news: Every couple of years, a business group pops up to start selling the idea that the environment is cleaner than ever, and we can all just relax. This year’s entry is the Foundation for Clean Air Progress. The organization is right, of course, but that doesn’t matter. Good trends aren’t news, nor do they provide the dramatic tension that juices up a story line. So, no matter how effective the Clean Air Progress folks are at getting their message out, there will always be 10 or 100 times more bad news.
Junk science: It’s all true — every shameless case of covered-up studies, ignored research, stacked expert panels. And it only gets worse by the day. The EPA just lost a court case about tighter water contamination regulations in which the agency announced a standard for chloroform of zero at the same time it admitted that higher levels of the chlorination by-product were perfectly safe according to its own best science. But with the exception of the occasional court victory and public relations triumph, the EPA and environmentalists trundle along secure in the knowledge that their viewpoint is believed by the public over industry arguments 2-1.
Comparative risk: Conservatives often argue that the actual risks posed by pollutants are overestimated in the public mind and that people would benefit from information enabling them to compare such risks with the risks encountered in ordinary life. The point is that if people understand they are far more likely to die in a freak cooking accident, they won’t care so much about the two parts per trillion of dioxin.
The problem with this approach is that people like walking in the park and are willing to accept its inherent risks — wild animals, bugs, landslides. Most people like the freedom of owning a car and scooting off wherever they want, whenever they want, so they are willing to live with the risks there, too. People do not, however, like companies that dump wastes into rivers and lakes. They want them to stop.
Can’t win for losing
I spent two years covering nothing but the environment and the EPA before it began to dawn on me that there might be a problem with the way conservatives were fighting their environmental battles. Before I became immersed in the subject, I certainly never questioned either our tactics or the value of taking on the agenda of extreme environmental groups as moderated through the EPA.
One series I wrote made things clear to me. In February 1998, the EPA released something grandly entitled "Interim Guidance for Investigating Title VI Administrative Complaints Challenging Permits," which in English means the EPA had decided to apply Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to environmental permitting. Thus any local environmental group could stifle any development plans requiring some kind of permit from a state or city environmental agency by claiming the project would have a disproportionate impact on minorities. Needless to say, business groups and local governments were more than a bit miffed by the new "environmental justice" policy, particularly since they were blind-sided by its introduction.
In but a couple months of digging into EPA records and interviewing staffers, I found the agency had performed research and then covered up the findings when the conclusions were unwelcome (twice). EPA had hired outside analysts to diagnose an environmental justice problem, but ignored those results too when they didn’t come out right. EPA gathered a group of its own lawyers to investigate several individual "environmental justice" complaints, and when those lawyers came back with reports that said there was no problem, they disappeared as well.
But that was only the beginning. EPA ignored its own lawyers’ conclusion that they had to go through a formal rule making process to issue the regulations. EPA ignored the recommendation of a senior staff committee that the agency involve local governments and business in drafting the rules. EPA issued more than $10 million in environmental justice grants to local activist groups in a thinly veiled attempt to drum up complaints about environmental injustices while pretending they were paying for "educational" programs.
All this was enough to convince the House Commerce Committee to hold hearings — at which the EPA was suitably embarrassed (and even then, the agency attempted to withhold documents). And in the fiscal 1999 budget, Congress passed and President Clinton signed a small provision that cut off funding for the rules until they were rewritten.
But EPA’s embarrassment was not complete. At about the same time the hearings were starting and the House Appropriations Committee was preparing the language to cut off money for the project, the EPA accepted an "environmental justice" complaint about a proposal for a small steel mill in Michigan. The complaint that minorities would be grievously injured by pollution from the plant quickly became a cause within the agency and among EPA-funded environmental groups. The only hitch was that EPA never bothered to check the demographics of the area around the plant before its meddling had essentially derailed the project. It turned out the area was 95 percent white, far whiter than the state or county as a whole.
One might think that EPA would simply jettison the whole mess and move on to other issues. I certainly thought so; after all, my reporting had shown they were wrong on the law, wrong on the science, wrong on the economic impact, and only had support because they were creating it with multi-million dollar grant programs. (Americorps was even pitching in "volunteers.") And indeed, the project went into a year-long hibernation as the agency organized state governments, cities, and business groups into a committee to give them advice on how to turn the policy into something workable. In due course, the committee delivered a report asking for all kinds of changes and other issues to be addressed. In due course, the EPA ignored the recommendations and, according to staffers at the agency involved with the project, will be releasing the virtually unchanged rules sometime in summer 2000.
Thus a combination of aggressive reporting, congressional hearings, and legislative action managed to achieve exactly nothing in the face of EPA intransigence. There is a pattern here: EPA acts. Conservatives expose the shoddy science and destructive economic effects. EPA gets embarrassed, maybe loses a court case or two. EPA rejiggers its regulations, and we are back where we started — only more than ever, conservatives look like they are anti-environment.
How silly was the Alar ban? Very. But how soon does anyone expect to see Alar back on apples? Remember PCBs? Last fall the EPA admitted in a Federal Register notice that, whoops, it overestimated PCBs’ cancer-causing potential by as much as 100 times. I feel safe in saying that a PCB comeback is unlikely. The examples go on and on — passive smoke, acid rain, asthma, and air pollution — all positively refuted, yet all with intact regulatory agendas still in place.
Missing the point
When government regulations strip land of all value to its owner in the pursuit of some public goal, conservatives rightly decry the injustice. We’re in favor of environmental protection — but not at the expense of property rights and certainly not without just compensation. But when President Clinton announces a halt to development on publicly owned land where mining and grazing and forestry take place only because of outrageous subsidies, Republican politicians react with indignant anger — as if Montana ranchers have any more right to a lifestyle based on public largess than Chicago welfare mothers. Small wonder, then, that the public concludes that Republicans don’t stand on principle any more than politically opportunistic Democrats.
Or consider Republican opposition to Clinton administration attempts to remove grandfather clauses found in the Clean Air Act that allow old power plants to emit far more pollution than modern ones — thus locking in a competitive advantage for the inefficient and dirty while forcing new competitors to pick up the slack. What principle are Republicans standing on? How is this different from union bosses protecting their own at the expense of everybody else?
One popular idea among conservatives with libertarian leanings is to replace environmental regulations written in Washington with common-law remedies based on property rights, trespass, etc. Supposedly, the argument goes, these methods worked for a long time — until the government began squashing those old rights in the name of allowing industrial advancement to take place. The most famous case involves the British government ending the ability of farmers to sue when sparks from passing trains set their fields ablaze. Yet this may be the only case in which conservatives think more lawsuits and more fees for the plaintiffs’ bar are the solution to a problem.
So where are Republicans politically? The good news consists almost entirely of the fact that the environment is nowhere near the top of voter concerns. According to Gallup, the environment ranks below crime/drugs, morals/family values, education, economy/jobs, peace, health insurance, and foreign affairs — and equal to poverty and children’s issues. And Republicans can sink no lower in public regard on this issue. In a recent Pew poll ranking which candidate would do best on different issues, Vice President Al Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Bush did his worst on the environment (Gore led 55 percent to Bush’s 30 percent).
But it is after the election when things will really start to matter. Even in the face of a Republican lock on the two elected branches of government, if that is the outcome, Democrats will surely deploy their most effective weapon, the mantra "Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment." On the first three, Republicans are at least armed. On environmental issues, they have nothing. If the past is any guide, the only question about what will happen in the next Congress and under the next president is how far conservatives will have to retreat.
Consider the environmental record of the previous Bush administration, for which we are still paying the price. The record was a mess both for political and policy reasons. In politics, environmental issues proved a constant distraction and a drag on the president’s popularity. That political drag led to the policy capitulation of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.
That law, which bloated the Clean Air Act by 800 pages, was the groundwork for the morass of regulatory overreach that has marked the Clinton administration’s stewardship of the EPA. New regulations that curtail "Hazardous Air Pollutants" are now pouring out of the EPA, not because we have new science to show they’re dangerous, but because Bush’s 1990 compromise defined science and public health out of the question of whether something actually was a "hazardous" air pollutant. Bush’s compromise brought us the Clinton administration’s new nitrogen oxide and particulate National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which promise to be the most expensive environmental regulations in a decade, but are now fortunately held up in court.
This spring, the Clinton administration finally admitted that one "solution" to air pollution problems, adding the compound MTBC to gasoline, may be resulting in the pollution of ground water across the nation. It wasn’t the Clinton administration that paved the way for MTBC, it was the Bush administration and the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.
Why exactly did Bush agree to this compromise and preside over an EPA largely on autopilot? Largely because he had no politically effective plan of his own to give his "environmental president" rhetoric the teeth it would take to make the public actually believe him. Thus the recipe for more of the same — lots more. In a Cato Institute book, Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute has said many of the same things about the Reagan years — no agenda, no communication strategy, only a slow foot-dragging retreat in the face of environmentalist and Democratic success.
"Welfarizing" the environment
The question is what to substitute for this vacuum of policy. The Republican Party’s self-styled moderates and a corps of Teddy Roosevelt revisionists argue we should simply do what the public wants — capitulate on almost every level to the most strident of environmentalists.
But that is not what the public wants. What the public wants is for the environment to be protected — on a path to being ever cleaner, with the assurance that people need not worry about the health effects of what they are drinking and breathing. How that happens is inconsequential. In other words, the capitulationist wing of the Republican Party mistakes the distrust of conservatives for a distrust of conservative ideas. They are two very different things.
The problem for conservatives is that the public only seems to hear our ideas when they are useful for fending off some policy initiative proposed by Democrats and their environmentalist allies. The public hears the conservative voice saying, "I really care about the environment, but we can’t do this. So instead, we have this alternative." After a while, they stop believing the "I care" part — perhaps because they only hear it when conservatives are saying no to a proposal for protecting the environment.
This is not fair, of course. It’s simply a first impression Republican elected officials create. Lots of things may be happening behind the scenes, and Republican policy alternatives may be just as good for the environment, or better for that matter. The fact remains, however, that Republicans are never pushing a plan to protect the environment; they are pushing an alternative to somebody else’s plan for protecting the environment. Before conservatives will have the credibility to win these arguments, we will have to prove we care, and that means advancing environmental protection even when we don’t have to fend off the destructive ideas of environmentalists.
I am not the first to say this, but the model for how to approach this issue is welfare reform. For years, conservatives made economic and policy arguments about the deleterious effects of welfare programs until there was no new way to make them. But this discussion was largely philosophical, or at least theoretical. Conservatives only found real political success when we argued from a set of values that the middle of the American political spectrum shared.
Hence a subtle change in the argument. Welfare is not working, we said; we have to rescue people from a system that traps them in squalor and violence. Welfare is not a hand up, it’s a cage. The problem is not that we are wasting money, it’s that we are wasting lives. Even then, it took years before the public would believe us — until they were sure of our motives. Only then did the political pressure become too great for the Democratic Party to resist. It was then Democrats’ turn to propose alternatives to a plan to save the poor.
Liberal interest groups screamed as never before. Clinton administration officials resigned in protest. But years later, there are few signs of any desire to back away among politicians or the public; the conservative solutions Republicans offered are proving their value as caseloads continue to decline. The issue has turned around so completely that under a new Republican president, it is likely there will be a new round of welfare reform on more conservative lines.
Foes and friends
There are two important conceptual problems that conservatives will have to address before we can seize the environmental issue. CCI’s Smith identified these in the chapter he wrote for the Cato Institute’s book. The first is that every time conservatives attack EPA, the environmental activist groups gain. The reason is simple: American voters see themselves as environmentalists. And they see two potential standard-bearers for their goals: the federal agency that oversees environmental programs or the environmental "watchdog" groups. If Republicans tear down one, the public naturally looks to the other for guidance. This may explain why environmentalist groups seem almost keen on keeping the EPA in a state of chaos — with unreachable goals of zero pollution, unreasonable deadlines embedded in every environmental law, and a constant barrage of lawsuits. Conservatives must recognize that once we start gaining ground on environmental questions, the most important goal will have to be to rebuild the credibility of the EPA, no matter how galling, simply because it is the only powerful alternative to the environmental grievance industry in Washington, now a $1 billion a year business.
The second problem is to stop thinking of business groups as allies. They are not. With the EPA’s tentacles entwined around nearly everything business does, from where factories are placed to how widgets are designed, business has had to go native in order to survive. Consider the basics of cost/benefit analysis. From a business perspective, there are many factors a reasonable company will take into consideration that are far from conducive to good public policy. For instance: What effect will a proposed regulation have on my competitive position vis-à-vis my current competitors? Do I have a technology that will enable me to comply more easily and thus give me an advantage? What impact will this have on my industry compared with competing industries, for instance coal versus oil or natural gas? Does this regulation present a barrier to entry by new competitors? All these issues might make the cost-benefit analysis of some or even many regulatory programs positive for individual businesses or entire industries even though they are destructive of things that many Americans, especially conservatives, value. Perhaps just as important, reform programs perceived as a product of business influence are more politically vulnerable to attack.
Here, then, is a new political approach: The point is not the cost of environmental regulation or the jobs needlessly lost or the sloppy "science" that informs so many of our environmental regulations. Conservatives are angry because Democrats and the environmentalists insist on environmental schemes based on discredited economic and regulatory thinking. It’s not that their ideas are bad for the economy — it’s that they’re bad for the environment and public health. Their rigid, centrally planned scattershot model makes further environmental improvement harder, not easier. Their programs waste money that could be used to make greater environmental improvements faster.
For the proof of this failure, one need only look to the EPA itself. The Clinton administration has been singularly unimpressive in terms of enforcement. For five years, the EPA’s enforcement numbers have wavered, with some enforcement statistics like civil penalties up, others down, and still others like criminal cases simply flat — at a time when the American economy has grown by 20 percent and the U.S. population has grown by millions. And the quality of what little environmental enforcement there is has become such a joke that the Clinton Justice Department refuses to follow up on 70 percent of the cases EPA refers for prosecution.
How could this be? As Al Gore and other Democrats who understand environmental policy know perfectly well, it has become too complicated, bureaucratic, and out-of-date to work.
As a result, one of the first things the Browner team at EPA did upon taking over was to change the enforcement office into the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assistance. And according to a number of stories, most of what that office does now is compliance assistance, not enforcement. Simply put, those strong environmental advocates at EPA decided they would get more done if they led U.S. businesses by the hand and showed them exactly what to do rather than sweep in and sue when things didn’t go right. If that’s what you have to do — when even Fortune 500 companies with legions of lawyers and hordes of environmental technocrats can’t be sure they’re obeying the law — you should know you have a problem.
But Democrats don’t have the heart to actually fix what’s broken. This spring the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a revealing report on a 1997 claim by Gore’s "reinventing government" task force that EPA had undertaken reforms eliminating 25 million hours of unnecessary paperwork annually. GAO says that is true only if you accept cuts in projected growth in paperwork as cuts in actual paperwork. According to the gao, at no time did the actual EPA paperwork burden on business go down.
Twenty-five million hours is roughly $10 billion a year. Imagine what an intelligently designed environmental program could do to clean the air and water and toxic waste with that much money over 8 years. If they know it’s wasted, why don’t they care?
The fact that the Clinton administration has made no big priority of environmental legislation should also be a clue to the fact that officials know the system is broken. In eight years, one important (i.e., expensive) piece of environmental legislation has passed — and that through the Republican-controlled Congress in 1996, the Food Quality Protection Act. This about equals the dismal legislative agenda of the previous Bush administration, which was half as long.
The results are showing up in court, too. According to a recent report in Regulation magazine, the EPA loses in court twice as often as any other federal agency. Why? Simply because the tangle of laws, science, regulatory precedent, and the necessary bureaucratic record make challenges to any new regulation assured and second-guessing by the judiciary highly likely. The number of suits is mind-boggling. I started a count of lawsuits mentioned in the Bureau of National Affairs’ Daily Environment Report over the past two years and stopped counting at 250 — outright losses and settlements on the plaintiff’s terms were approaching 100.
As a result of this broken system — billions in waste, and complexity that drives EPA to hand-holding rather than law enforcement — improvements in air and water quality have trickled in during the Clinton administration at a slower pace than at any time since we began keeping records. Conservatives believe in the rule of law and its fair and strict enforcement. It is as central to a functioning and free society as strong families, thriving private organizations, and strong democratic traditions. Law that is so complicated that even the honest can’t comply is broken. The conservative solution to these problems is not only to simplify the laws, but to see that they are vigorously enforced.
So what does a conservative administration do to seize the issue? Rewrite the regulations so they can be understood, so it doesn’t take two lawyers, a chemist, and a fortune-teller to decipher EPA edicts. Double the cadre of enforcement and prosecution officials at the EPA and the Justice DEPArtment. Once environmental laws are as understandable as those for robbing banks and speeding, prosecution should be just as swift and sure. Ask Congress for a moratorium on all the deadlines in EPA’s authorizing legislation so that science and common sense can catch up.
Failed right to know
Sometimes it seems as if EPA and the environmentalist organizations don’t want to know what’s really going on in the environment so they can actually address it — as opposed to carping about it, raising money, and having a campaign issue. For decades, the U.S. has had a national system for monitoring levels of the most dangerous air pollutants. Over the past eight years, the Clinton administration has directly spent and required corporate America and local governments to spend more than $1 trillion on environmental protection. Do we have a similar water monitoring system? No. Do we have plans for one? No.
What we have is an inconsistent state by state effort generating data that are incomplete and unreliable, making trends indeterminate year by year even in the same state. In any systematic way, we have no idea whether all our efforts are doing any good — except by anecdotal examples like bird egg samples.
Or consider the Toxic Release Inventory, supposedly a triumph for the public’s right to know. Most of the chemicals that have to be reported are on that list because they were compiled for another list by lawyers as part of a lawsuit involving the EPA. In other words, there hasn’t really been any independent scientific review of whether these chemicals are actually toxic in the first place. Even the numbers themselves in the Toxic Release Inventory are mostly fictional — well-meaning, government-approved fiction, but still fiction. Companies use one of numerous government-approved estimation techniques to determine what their facilities are spewing into the environment. Spot checks are flimsy, updates optional. And the techniques have changed over time, so trends are an iffy bet. What if a plant leaks or spills? Maybe it will be included, maybe not.
This state of affairs turns out to be great for everybody. Activist groups can slice the data one way to scare donors and the public while demanding more regulations. Business can cut the data another and claim victory against the forces of darkness. And the EPA can cut it yet another way to say the agency needs more money and power. Good public policy is the only loser in the haze. This ought to be easy for conservatives. Nobody can make good decisions without good information, and if we’re serious, this is something we should be willing to pay for. Business and other polluters should provide accurate accounts of their own activities. What does a conservative administration do? Require business and the states to provide information — standardized so that it can be compared across time, across facilities, and from state to state. Maybe it will be expensive, but no more so than basing important public decisions and political debates on "facts" that all the participants know are no such thing.
Science races by
The world we knew in the 1970s is far different from the one we live in today, and much of that change is due to science and technology. To read through clippings from the early 1970s from the newspaper for which I covered EPA, the Detroit News, is to enter a strange time warp. The most esteemed figures in science were warning that the oceans would be devoid of all life within a decade, famine would wrack the world, the globe would cool. Public health officials for the city of Detroit were predicting that the health scourge of the 1980s would be "laser pollution." Yet much of the structure of today’s environmental laws was written back then — with only minimal and sometimes counterproductive updating since.
One of the most obvious failures of the time was the decision to divide pollution regulatory authority by place — air, water, or land. These seemed to be obviously different problems then. Today we know that air-pollution-curing MTBC pollutes the water, air pollution scrubbers produce solid waste that has to be disposed of, and when water pollution controls get too tight, companies find a way to send the same stuff up the smokestack or out the back door in a dump truck.
In the mid-1970s, environmentalists could say with a straight face that public health was seriously at risk from pollution. "It is now widely accepted that cancer is an environmental disease. Estimates by the World Health Organization, the National Cancer Institute, and other authorities in carcinogenesis suggest that most human cancers, perhaps as many as 90 percent, are caused by chemical carcinogens in the environment," wrote the Environmental Defense Fund in its January 1975 newsletter. Advances in genetics and a host of other fields show that that is nonsense.
Today, the unspoken fact is that almost every public health scourge blamed on environmental pollution in the 1970s is roughly the same as or worse than it was. Cancer rates are roughly flat when you take out the impact of decreasing smoking. Birth defects are up slightly. Better data exist for low birthweight and premature births, and these are also up slightly. Asthma is going through the roof, up 200 percent. At the core of nearly every environmental law is a trigger for new regulatory action that rests on the perceived threat to human health. And indeed, every day scientists release new studies linking some pollutant to a public health problem. Yet after millions of regulatory actions and vast improvements in air and water quality and a landscape purged of toxic dumps, health is changing little.
Something isn’t working, and a conservative administration would seek to find out what that is. It would take money. And acting on the clear fact that our old ways of getting things done have failed, a conservative administration would have to honestly pursue wholesale revision of the environmental laws accordingly.
If you spend much time immersed in environmental policy, you’re going to come across these two sets of letters: NSR and BACT, New Source Review and Best Achievable Control Technology. They are perfect examples of well-meaning big-government mandates that have forgotten their very purpose.
The programs work like this: When a company wants to make changes to an old factory or power plant that already has a pollution control permit, first it has to determine whether the changes are big enough to make the plant a "new source," and thus subject to newer, more stringent environmental requirements — the "best achievable control technology." Typically, a company goes to its state government with its plans and asks whether it falls under NSR. If the state says no, the EPA can join in and second-guess the state decision. The whole process, including court disagreements, can take years. If the plant ends up classified a "new source," the state and the company have to decide what the BACT is — which isn’t always obvious, since available technology changes every day. What another plant did with EPA approval last month isn’t always good enough this month.
NSR and BACT have turned into a hunt to comply with a maze of rules and court decisions in order to avoid having construction plans overturned at the last minute when the EPA intervenes. In the months of up-front effort, rarely does the question turn on whether the plant will pollute more or less after the change. The hunt for bureaucratic acceptance trumps the quest for a better environment. The standard under a conservative pro-environment administration shouldn’t be NSR and BACT. It should simply be: Get better. Have a plan to keep getting better with independent monitoring. If it’s too expensive for you to keep improving, pay someone else to do it for you.
Rules like NSR and BACT, in which environmental protection has become secondary to layers of mandates and precedent, should be among the first to go, but to be replaced by what? This is the hard part. Given the political commitment of the public to environmentalism and the web of laws written over the last 30 years, a new conservative administration will have to rewrite regulations. One conservative approach has been to incorporate market mechanisms. A handful of working programs, including tradable permits for emitting sulfur dioxide, are developing a good track record. But do we believe our free-market rhetoric? The benefit from market mechanisms in environmental protection ought to be that we can require significantly higher environmental standards, implemented at a faster pace — not that business will save money.
It is no small thing to try to change voters’ impressions, especially on issues on which Americans’ minds seem as firmly made up as they are on the environment. Yet such changes can take place. After Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, who would expect that Al Gore would be in a statistical dead heat with tax-cutter George Bush on dealing with taxes and the economy? (According to the Pew poll, Gore is ahead on those issues with the public by 2 percent and 1 percent, respectively.) Democrats have not surrendered on core Republican issues. Republicans should not walk away from fighting over Democrats’.
We don’t have to desert conservative principle to do so, nor the well thought-out policy ideas coming from a host of conservative think tanks and researchers. But we do need to put forth a positive environmental agenda and defend it against the billion-dollar environmental lobby that thrives in and on failure. Just as liberals were trapped by the demands of their welfare lobby, they also are trapped by the demands of their environmental lobby. Only a conservative agenda for the environment offers hope for the progress that Americans want. For 30 years conservatives have been in a political rut, alternating opposition and capitulation mixed with denial. It is time to climb out.
David Mastio is a contributing editor to USA Today and covered the environment for the Washington bureau of the Detroit News.