The US Environmental Protection Agency was created at the end of 1970 in response to bipartisan popular interest in improving the environment. Unfortunately, Richard Nixon did not anticipate the subsequent shift of the environmental movement towards the extreme left and did not take the trouble (which would have required Congressional action) to build in safeguards to insure that the Agency pursued only regulations consistent with the best science, economics, and current law. Instead, he followed the easiest route and had EPA report directly to him. Nixon and EPA did, however, create two important checks and balances on EPA by creating strong independent analytic capabilities in the EPA policy office and in the President’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
It would seem self-evident that if one wants an independent EPA that pursues the interests of the population as a whole, the last thing you would want to do is to bring in employees of environmental organizations (or regulated industries for that matter) at high levels in EPA who owe allegiance to these private organizations and expect to return to them once their political appointments end. Yet that is exactly what the last three Democratic administrations have done.
An Early Sign of Trouble
In retrospect, one of the earliest signs of potential trouble in this regard occurred during the Carter Administration, when an employee of an environmental organization (NRDC) was appointed Assistant Administrator for Air, Noise, and Radiation, and then returned to NRDC after his EPA service. What may turn out to have been his most important action while at EPA was to select Robert Brenner as the head of the air office’s “policy office.” It was Brenner who hired his friend, the infamous John Beale, who ended up in a Federal prison for defrauding the EPA. The two together have been described as the leading architects of the EPA air “playbook,” which uses highly dubious science and economics to justify ever stricter air standards, and is still used by EPA despite their departure.
Clinton Administration Permits Destruction of Important Safeguard
Even more serious damage was done during the Clinton Administration, when a Sierra Club employee was brought in as Assistant Administrator for Policy, Planning, and Evaluation, allegedly as a result of a campaign agreement. He systematically removed the Policy Office’s ability to substantively review and comment on proposed regulations, one of the environmental movement’s chief concerns about EPA. This left each “program” office to do much more of what it wanted to do without independent scrutiny within EPA.
Obama Finishes Capture
Finally, the Obama Administration finished the job of allowing the environmental movement to capture EPA by bringing in left-wing supporters of the green energy fantasy (described here last week) and defanging the OMB regulatory office.
What to Do?
The result is that the present EPA is incapable of representing the best interests of the US electorate since in reality it primarily considers only the views of a small segment of it, the environmental movement. Remedying this will not be easy since few new hires have probably been neutral towards the radical environmental movement’s views since 2009. One way is by subjecting all major regulations to the approval of Congress, the so-called Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) legislation. This might be effective, but would also limit the speed with which EPA could respond to even genuine problems. Another way is to change EPA governance to a commission form with representatives from both political parties rather than a single Administrator appointed by and reporting directly to the President. A number of other Federal agencies with much less controversial responsibilities use this type of organization. A third idea is to abolish the EPA and turn its responsibilities over to the states. Unfortunately, this ignores the problems posed by pollutants that travel across state boundaries. One approach might be to leave EPA with only regulations involving direct trans-border pollution. But even this would risk continued capture of EPA’s remaining functions.
Why Action Is Needed
Given the extreme excesses of the radical environmental movement and the Obama Administration, it is clear that drastic action is needed to keep any one group from dictating environmental policy while ignoring all the other constituencies who must live with the results. The basic problem is that the radical environmental movement is intolerant of any other viewpoint and has made dominating EPA and other natural resource agencies a priority. The result is that since there is very little remaining objective analysis within the Obama Administration on environmental regulations, the only remaining check on EPA’s power is the courts since Congress is gridlocked on this issue. Unfortunately, courts are ill-equipped to judge scientific issues and public preferences. Unless the environmental movement relents on its radicalism (highly unlikely in my view) this necessitates a change in governance by at least EPA and probably other natural resource agencies so as to insure that all viewpoints receive a careful hearing and EPA can do its basic job of insuring that good science, economics, and law are used and negotiating compromises that make everyone better off, not just the environmental movement. An Agency that only considers one viewpoint is incapable of doing this.
Environmental policy affects everyone living in the US and can have serious consequences, as detailed two weeks ago. The Agency’s job should be to balance everyone’s needs, not represent only the views of its primary supporters or its regulated industries.
Although this post contains some added details concerning EPA’s capture, my new book, Environmentalism Gone Mad, available from the book website, provides much more extensive discussion and references for these views.