Report Urges State Control of Environment Policy Making

Published January 1, 1999

In a recent analysis of national environmental policy, an industry group has called for the decentralization of legislative and regulatory authority from the federal government to the states as the best way to provide for future improvements to the environment.

“States are the source for the most flexible, creative, effective, and economically efficient programs to protect our natural resources,” explained Robert E. Cole, vice president of Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Co. Cole is chairman of the National Environmental Development Association (NEDA), an organization of diverse major companies with facilities throughout the United States and around the world.

The NEDA report, “State and Federal Environmental Responsibility: Platform for Effective Environmental Decision-Making,” notes that states are held accountable by their citizens, and that therefore state agencies are more likely to develop effective environmental programs.

“The federal government should focus its efforts on research and development, broad review of state efforts to achieve national environmental goals, standardization of reporting and paperwork requirements, and integrating appropriate national environmental goals with the objectives of the global community. States, on the other hand, should be responsible for the implementation of their specific regional environmental goals within a broad national framework,” the report says.

To guide policymakers and others interested in reforming the current national environmental regulatory structure, NEDA developed six core principles:

1. States should administer and EPA should oversee programs based on clear and stated principles of program administration.

When EPA was created in 1970, states didn’t have the resources or expertise to carry out aggressive environmental programs, the report notes. Since 1970, however, states have emerged as the “preeminent force in this country’s environmental protection efforts, now spending 80 percent of the total governmental resources devoted to environmental protection, and carrying out most of the work involved with implementing our national environmental mandates.”

“Meanwhile, EPA has continued its practices of nearly 30 years, retaining an intrusive presence in state environmental programs that is unpredictable and based on paperwork accomplishments that may, in fact, have little to do with environmental protection and progress,” the NEDA report points out.

2. State and local governments must have authority to prioritize environmental problems and allocate resources on a “worst-first” basis.

Given the competing demands for government resources, officials at the federal, state, and local levels are increasingly compelled to set priorities for limited funds. The days are ending when federal decision-makers in Washington can dictate state priorities, particularly since the federal government can no longer fund what it mandates. “Given the large amounts states are spending on environmental programs,” the report says, “reallocating responsibility to the states is long overdue.”

3. Federal action should be limited to problems that are international or national in scope, where the national interest or interstate commerce require a universal or uniform solution, and should not merely address problems that are common to all states.

The report recommends that the federal government have the primary–but not exclusive–responsibility for environmental problems that transcend national borders. “For matters in which a state is particularly affected by the actions of another country or countries, the views of that state should be followed absent any overriding national consideration,” the report concludes.

After reviewing the nation’s key environmental statutes, the NEDA report urges shifting additional authority to the states for carrying out the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, and Superfund.

4. Authority, responsibility, and accountability for environmental policies and programs should be placed at the appropriate level of government.

Streamlining federal, state, and local regulatory programs is essential, the report says. Flexibility and consistency will foster innovation and allow the regulated community to plan on a long-term basis and to avoid confusion and a waste of resources in meeting compliance obligations. The report alleges that EPA second-guesses the decisions of states administering delegated programs, thus abusing the authority Congress gave it to oversee implementation of environmental laws.

“Threats of overfiling and revocation of program authority are common,” the report notes. “In this atmosphere, regulatory innovation is almost impossible.”

5. National goals and milestones addressing substantive environmental problems should be used as a guide to assist federal and state governments in development of goals and priorities.

Neither EPA nor the states have been able to develop mutually agreed-upon environmental performance indicators, even though doing so would be highly preferable to the current system of “bean counting.”

While work continues on crafting such indicators, the report says states should move forward with developing additional environmental policy and program authority. “And, to the extent that existing law allows, EPA should exercise an explicit system of differential oversight with rewards and incentives to states meeting current national environmental goals.”

6. Current environmental mandates should be reviewed and modified to reflect increased state authority and responsibility.

The nation’s major environmental laws are more than 20 years old. While these laws, together with technological innovations that have taken place independent of them, have led to a reduction in pollution, they have not been updated to reflect new ideas and the increased expertise of state agencies.