Attacks on Norton, Whitman Focus on Form, Not Results

New environmentalism encourages private sector stewardship

President-elect Bush’s selection of Gale Norton, an articulate champion of property rights, as his Interior secretary has triggered a volley of protests by credentialed environmentalists.

These protests ignore the record. Norton has pursued innovative state and local solutions to problems that respect property rights. Furthermore, Norton as attorney general in Colorado has supported industry self-audits as a means of curbing pollution, something that Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group told the Lehrer News Hour amounted to giving companies a right to pollute.

Cook’s critique puts environmental form over substance. The only means to protect the environment, according to the environmental politicos inside the beltway, is top-down regulation and federal set-sides. Anything less, they believe, amounts to a capitulation to industry and destruction of the environment.

That’s why Christie Todd-Whitman, Bush’s choice for EPA administrator and considered a moderate by beltway standards, has received only a tepid welcome by environmentalists as well. They liked the fact that she supported a big land-protection measure as governor of New Jersey, but fiercely criticized her for eliminating the position of state environmental prosecutor.

What her critics did not explore was the actual environmental outcomes under Gov. Whitman’s watch-and they were good. Through its facility-wide permitting program, New Jersey moved toward a results focus. Participating companies set pollution-reduction and other environmental goals. Their permits were tied to meeting these goals. Under the old environmentalism, permits were issued if companies invested in certain prescribed technologies.

One New Jersey company, Huntsman Polypropylene, received a facility-wide permit through which the company, cooperating with regulators, set performance goals. Under the program, the company eliminated 8.5 million pounds of emissions per year. It also upgraded its plant, getting rid of 107 pieces of old, potentially polluting equipment. New Jersey’s citizens gained from these improvements. But the company gained as well. The old permits filled up ten binders of paperwork; the new permit was reduced to a 1.5- inch packet.

By putting Gov. Whitman to the old-fashioned regulatory and enforcement litmus test, the Sierra Club altogether missed the real performance story.

Similarly, the self-audit law in Colorado that Norton supports was intended to inspire companies to go beyond compliance – to look for environmental problems that regulators were unaware of – not give them a right to pollute.

Old-fashioned regulations, that give companies permits if they follow certain procedures, install specified equipment, and provide mountains of permit-related data, achieve only what the permits require. Regulators learn only about what’s on the permits, get only the emissions reductions they can identify, and nothing more. Under voluntary self-audit programs, companies that voluntarily tried to identify problems, reported them to regulators and then fixed the problems in a timely fashion were to be shielded from fines and punishment for those problems.

Norton and these states have essentially tried to accomplish what former Sen. Tim Wirth, a Democrat, and the late Republican Sen. John Heinz sought in 1988 when they produced a report describing new directions for environmental policy. Theirs was the first of a wave of bipartisan reports calling for a new environmentalism – one focused on incentives, cooperation, and environmental results.

William Reilly, in the first Bush administration, talked this talk. Even Clinton’s environment chief, Carol Browner, talked it for awhile, when she proposed a Common Sense Initiative and worked with states on National Environmental Performance Partnerships to generate a softer, gentler, but effective environmentalism.

Unfortunately, the big national environmental organizations who view this softer, more voluntary and cooperative approach with, at best, caution, have since won the day in the Clinton administration.

They succeeded in pushing back to the forefront their agenda of prescriptions, permits, and punishment, garnering from President Clinton in his last executive actions the unilateral set aside millions of additional “roadless” acres on public lands. Similarly, they’ve gotten Carol Browner to propose over 80 new regulations.

All that’s neglected in these top-down approaches of permits, process and punishment, though, is real protection, performance and progress. What environmentalists fear is that Norton and Whitman may at least try another way to achieve goals their approach hasn’t – a new environmentalism that uses the tools of incentive-based programs to encourage private sector stewardship of our land and natural resources.

Old-style environmentalists used to litigation in a permit-driven regulatory environment are understandably cautious of these new programs. But they are translating this caution into a rhetoric that mistakes the regulatory tools they are used to for the actual environmental results that people want.

Lynn Scarlett is president of Reason Foundation.