Policy Study

Race to the Top

The Innovative Face of State Environmental Management


A sea-change is taking place in environmental management in the United States today; the states are its leaders.

The old environmental vision, formed in the 1970s and 1980s, was crisis-driven. It distrusted markets and the private sector; punishment rather than cooperation was the method of choice for securing environmental progress. The old vision, which assumed environmental problems and conditions were similar everywhere, called for “onesize- fits-all” regulations mandating acceptable technologies and cleanup methods. Moreover, the prevailing wisdom took it almost as an article of faith that the states lacked the capacity to regulate effectively, would strike cozy deals with bad polluters, and would “race to the bottom” in their attempt to cut environmental standards to attract businesses from other states.

As the largest environmental problems have been addressed, with the remaining problems being smaller, subtler, and varying from place to place, the costs and inadequacies of inflexible, prescriptive, and confrontational policies have become more apparent. Achieving future environmental goals will require innovation, flexibility, cooperation, and decentralization.

Our new environmental vision stresses problem-solving instead of primarily relying on punishment for failure to follow one-size-fits-all approaches. It strives to balance competing values-both environmental values against other values, and some environmental values against other environmental values. It seeks flexibility in compliance methods, so that companies can choose the lowest-cost way of achieving a given level of environmental quality rather than following prescribed approaches. It views the private sector as central to environmental improvement. And it tries to bring decisionmaking authority to the lowest possible level where it makes sense-so that local problems can have local solutions, state problems can have statewide solutions, and federal problems can have federal solutions.

Many states have taken the lead in enacting environmental reforms based on these principles. This report chronicles some of their efforts.

This report builds on NEPI’s report, Building Partnerships for Accountable Devolution (Fall 1996), and on Lynn Scarlett’s report, New Environmentalism (January 1997). Information in the report was drawn from in-person interviews and conversations with representatives from state agencies across the country, and from material provided by the Environmental Council of the States.