Moderate Environmental Agenda on Horizon

Bush's focus will be on problem solving

The Great Chad War is over-Gov. Bush will succeed Bill Clinton as the nation’s next president. Most environmental activists had backed Al Gore. He spoke their language; he shared their comfort with the current regulatory infrastructure. These same environmental activists saw Gov. (now President-elect) Bush as a purveyor of environmental degradation, pointing to continuing air quality challenges in Texas as their evidence. But a political caricature limned in the midst of a presidential campaign offers a poor guide to environmental policy under the new administration-and the new Congress.

There’s an enduring French saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The quip offers a fair starting point for assessing environmental politics for the next few years. For the solid waste industry, business as usual will-for the most part-persist.

Focus will be on problem-solving

At the micro-level-the realm of daily rulemaking-many items currently in the pipeline will probably move toward implementation. The Environmental Protection Agency will finalize clean air standards for landfills. Minor modifications to various hazardous waste definitions will proceed. Haggling over diesel rules will continue. New rules may allow alternative landfill liners to permit leachate recirculation and stimulate use of bioreactors.

But these rules all emerge as part of a larger regulatory framework. It is this overall framework that President-elect Bush’s critics fear will come under assault. I wager that they are wrong.

Consider the governing context. President-elect Bush faces a Senate evenly split among Democrats and Republicans. In the House, Republicans have a narrow edge over Democrats. This is not a political context in which major initiatives to revamp environmental regulations are likely. Even with a sizeable majority in the mid-1990s, Republicans were unable to push through major-or even modest-changes to environmental laws, with a few exceptions. (Congress did reauthorize the Safe Drinking Water Act with some notable revisions.)

But my predictions of a moderate environmental agenda result not simply from tallying the votes in Congress. What will give rise to this moderate agenda are the evolving sentiments of many members of Congress and an emergent “problem-solving” focus among state and local regulators.

Looking for an end to the stalemate

Stalemated over environmental policies for much of the past decade, many members of Congress want some way out of this impasse. Many Democrats and Republicans want better environmental information systems and performance measures. Some members of Congress want to address problems as yet untouched (or only lightly touched) by regulations. And many Democrats and Republicans want to smooth some of the rough edges of the current regulatory system. They recognize, for example, that the current regulatory framework inhibits more holistic, rather than pollutant-by-pollutant, decision making. They also recognize that the current system, in effect, locks in certain permitted technologies and slows the pace of environmental innovation.

These sentiments situate many Democrats and Republicans together in wanting some modest changes designed to enhance environmental performance. The focus is on performance within the context of existing goals-not on the much more divisive matters of cost-savings and goal selection.

This focus is translating into a quiet search for mechanisms that would nudge the current regulatory system toward a performance-focus and away from a prescriptive system, for example. Eyeing some of the modest successes of EPA XL Projects in fostering more holistic, facility-wide permits, other members of Congress are pondering how such programs can be more widely applied and given congressional support.

States have a window of opportunity

Here’s where the emergent problem-solving focus among state and local regulators offers reinforcement for iterative change. States, under delegated authority, now issue most permits and undertake most enforcement actions. This hands-on experience-whether at a landfill, electric utility plant, manufacturing facility, or farm-makes apparent to state regulators the limitations of permits that prescribe specific technologies (rather than environmental results). This experience also makes apparent to them the limitations of laws that segregate permitting processes for air, water, and waste, a segregation that may inadvertently result in pollution shifting (turning an air emission into a sludge problem, for example).

Faced with these challenges, many states have begun to experiment with facility-wide, multimedia permits. Some have introduced incentive-based permits that reward high performance. Several have developed comprehensive performance indicators rather than rely on “bean-counting” of enforcement actions as their measure of regulatory success.

A roadmap for the future

These state regulatory innovations offer a roadmap for a modest congressional environmental agenda-an agenda that centers on fostering and affirming these state efforts while also supporting more investment in development of environmental performance indicators. The state efforts also provide an integrating political context, since states with both Democratic and Republican governors and legislatures are spearheading these modest experiments. Bush’s selection of Christine Todd-Whitman, governor of New Jersey, to head up the Environmental Protection Agency, signals that the new president views the states and their experiences as keys to future environmental progress.

No environmental agenda will be immune from criticism, either from those who prefer the status quo or from those who prefer a major overhaul. Already, for example, one group within EPA has challenged the agency’s own Project XL as inconsistent with current law and unproven in its benefits. These critics will disapprove congressional efforts to foster more XL-type programs. And critics who view current environmental laws as promoting rules unconstrained by science and too focused on negligible risks will still chafe at what they perceive as unwarranted clean-up goals. But a moderate congressional agenda along these lines is likely to mesh well with the political realities faced by President-elect Bush and a Congress with neither Democrats nor Republicans holding a strong majority.

Lynn Scarlett is president of Reason Foundation.