Did State Inaction Lead to Federal Enviro Regulation?

An interesting article by Jonathan Adler explodes the myth that state and local inattention to environmental problems spurred the passage of federal environmental laws:

Contrary to common perceptions, many measures of environmental quality were already improving prior to the advent of federal environmental laws. The Environmental Protection Agency’s first national water quality inventory, conducted in 1973, found that there had been substantial improvement in water quality in major waterways during the decade before adoption of the federal Clean Water Act, at least for the pollutants of greatest concern at the time, organic waste and bacteria (Freeman 1990, 114).

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, state and local governments began to recognize the importance of environmental quality and adopted first-generation environmental controls. Some states’ efforts were more comprehensive and more successful than others, and different states had different priorities. Environmental protection did not always trump health care, education, or other local concerns. Nonetheless, by 1966, every state had adopted water pollution legislation of some sort.

A similar pattern of state and local action preceded federal regulation in other areas as well. Federal regulation of wetlands, for example, began after a federal district court interpreted the Clean Water Act to require it in 1975. But state and local regulation had begun much earlier. In 1963, Massachusetts became the first state to regulate wetland development, modeling its initial efforts on preexisting local rules. By 1975, all fourteen states in the continental United States with more than ten percent of their land area in wetlands adopted wetland protection measures (Adler 1999).

After offering a series of examples that refute the myth, he goes on to examine the real factors that led to the adoption of federal environmental regulation. Here’s one particularly salient factor:

A fourth, and often overlooked, factor is rent-seeking-the search for favors by special interest groups. Economic and regional interests could gain by shifting environmental policy to the federal level. Perhaps the most prominent example is the adoption of federal vehicle emission standards. Once California started down the road to stringent emission standards for new automobiles sold within the state, the nation’s automakers became concerned that other states could follow suit, resulting in a proliferation of varying state standards. Detroit pushed for federal automobile standards to preempt such state standards (Elliott et al. 1985). This is not an isolated example. In many other areas, ranging from the regulation of coal-fired power plants to standards for evaporative emissions from paint, large national corporations and regional interests have benefited from the imposition of national standards.

Read the whole thing.

Leonard Gilroy is vice president of government reform at Reason Foundation and senior managing director of Reason's Pension Integrity Project.