States as Full Partners: an exclusive interview with Robert E. Roberts

Published April 1, 1998

Robert E. Roberts is the first full-time executive director of the Environmental Council of States, a position he has held since March 1995. ECOS is the national, nonpartisan, nonprofit association of state and territorial environmental commissioners. It was established in December 1993.

From August 1990 to January 1995, Roberts was secretary of the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources, a cabinet-level position appointed by the government and confirmed by the state senate. During that period, he accepted the first-ever EPA award of excellence made to an entire state environmental department. He led the campaigns that resulted in the most comprehensive environmental protection act in South Dakota history and the first-ever permanent, recurring funding source for major water projects.

A career Air Force officer, Roberts retired in 1990. As base commander at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, a position that corresponded roughly to that of major of a small town, he developed housing and school construction and financing programs that won national awards from the Air Force Association.

Roberts is an honors graduate in history from the University of Alabama, holds a Masters Degree in public administration from Auburn University, is a distinguished graduate of the Air Command and Staff College, and has completed training at the Governor’s Center at Duke University. He spoke recently with Environment News managing editor Bonner Cohen about ECOS and the need to devolve responsibility for environmental concerns from the federal government to the states.

Cohen: What is the Environmental Council of States?

Roberts: ECOS is the national, nonpartisan, nonprofit association of state and territorial environmental commissioners. In every state, called different things in different states, and located in different places in different state governments, there is some agency that corresponds to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Fifty-one of the 55 states and territories are members of ECOS, and we work with the environmental agency heads.

We are a relatively young organization, having been established in December 1993 and having existed, in our current arrangement with a permanent office and staff in Washington DC, only since March 1, 1995.

Our mission is to improve the environment of the United States by: first, providing for the exchange of ideas, views, and experiences among the states; second, by fostering cooperation and coordination in environmental management; and third, by articulating state positions to Congress and EPA on environmental issues.

Cohen: What major policy issues are currently being addressed by ECOS?

Roberts: Let me give you three examples. First, in 1995 EPA and the states created the National Environmental Performance Partnership System (NEPPS), which established a new procedure for negotiation between states and EPA Regions to determine who was going to do what in the coming year and how it was going to be done. Such agreements are called Performance Partnership Agreements (PPAs). There is also an agreement called a Performance Partnership Grant, which allows state agencies to combine environmental grants, making it easier to match funding with local requirements. The NEPPS process is a formalized way to divide the environmental job.

Second, we are working with EPA on a Regulatory Innovation Agreement that would institutionalize how we treat new ideas. When someone has a new idea about how to accomplish an environmental goal, how does it get introduced? Considered? Validated? Implemented? We hope to be able to avoid reinventing the wheel with every new idea. We are very close to reaching agreement with EPA on this subject, and it has the potential to improve markedly how we do business.

Third, we are working with EPA to develop Core Performance Measures. We are pretty good at counting input for environmental efforts–How many dollars did we spend? How many hours did we work?–and we are good at counting output–How many permits did we process? How many notices of violation did we issue? But when we are asked whether those inputs or outputs made a difference in the environment, the answer is: Who knows? What should we be counting to measure the environment? How do we assure that we are spending the taxpayers’ money in the most efficient and effective way?

So, on a broad basis, we are interested in how we divide, reinvent, and count the environmental job, and we believes these projects will make all of those stronger.

Cohen: What kind of environmental system do states favor?

Roberts: While not all states agree on all issues, I think most states would agree on these principles: States want a system where the maximum practicable authority is located at the state level, so that programs can be adjusted to local conditions and requirements. I say “practicable”authority because we recognize and support the necessity of maintaining accountability for the taxpayers’ money and program accountability to meet Congressional requirements.

States also want to be included early on in the development of national environmental policies. In this regard, “stakeholder participation” is not sufficient. States are not stakeholders. States are not branch offices of the federal government. States are, in a federal system, partners, or “co-regulators,” or any other term that you want to use that makes clear our unique position. And we don’t mean that we wish to comment on the proposal when it’s published in the Federal Register. By that time, too much concrete is poured around the base of the program to make much change.

Finally, stats want the federal government to do those things it does best, and states to do those things they do best. For example, the federal government in general, and EPA in particular, has more scientific and technical capacity than any single state. EPA should be developing the scientific and technical underpinnings for environmental regulation. States and local governments should be administering programs on a day-to-day basis, because that’s what they do best. Why not have a system that stated goals but did not mandate means?

Cohen: Defenders of the status quo on environmental policy say that a decentralized environmental protection regime, one where power is devolved to the states, would lead to a “race to the bottom.” Is that a valid argument?

Roberts: It’s not even close to being valid.

I know of no way to predict what stats will do in the future, except to look at what they have done in the past. If state governments were motivated only by a desire to rake in the money by making their states havens of low environmental requirements, then why haven’t stats signed up to build new giant landfills? You know how much money there is in garbage. You know how many locations would be willing to pay top dollar to move their waste to somebody else’s backyard. You remember the stories of the garbage train and the garbage barge and the fights in Congress over the ability to control the interstate movement of garbage. If jobs, money, and taxes are all that matters, why no giant landfills?

Why have state and local governments and communities not stepped forward to house America’s low-level radioactive waste? Again, the money would be enormous, but efforts to establish sites have met with great opposition. If economic development trumped all other issues, someone would have taken this on.

Cohen: OK, so nobody wants his state to be considered a dumping ground . . .

Roberts: And low-level radioactive waste is scary and high-level radioactive waste is really scary . . . so that’s why no state has come forward to solve these problems?

Consider this. There is a federal floor of environmental protection that every state must meet. Above that level, however, every state can adopt whatever standards it wants. If states were going to the bottom, why would any state under the present system have exceeded the federal standard? Isn’t the logic about preserving your competitive position in economic development the same now as it would be in the future? And yet, almost every state has some area where it has either adopted a standard higher than the federal standard, or adopted a standard in an area where there was no federal standard.

But suppose, just for the moment, that I’m wrong. Suppose states did begin a race to the bottom. Who would stop them? Well, I assume that citizens, either in their individual capacity or through organized groups, will continue to watch what their government does. I assume that the press will continue to cast a skeptical eye on what government does. And if environmental protection is as important as many say it is, political opponents will call any laxity to the attention of the electorate.

There simply isn’t going to be any race to the bottom.

Cohen: Do you believe it was a mistake to have centralized so much environmental decision-making in Washington?

Roberts: No. In the early days of environmental protection, a centralized command-and-control system was probably the quickest way to bring about real change.

The real mistake would be to act as if nothing had changed since those days. The truth is that state environmental departments are a lot more competent than they used to be. Industry is a lot more diligent than it used to be. Citizens are a lot more concerned and involved than they used to be. Environmental issues are regularly reported. And economic development is more than smokestack chasing.

In fact, economic development is clean air, clean water, and proper handling of waste materials. And the governor or economic development official who forgot that and tried to do it the old way wouldn’t be around much longer than the next election.

Cohen: EPA Administrator Carol Browner is fond of talking about “partnerships” with state and local governments in formulating and carrying out environmental policy. Do you believe EPA is serious about working with state environmental agencies on a more-or-less equal basis? Or does the agency still see itself as the undisputed senior partner in this relationship?

Roberts: Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is “yes.” People often ask me, “How are the states getting along with EPA?” The answer is that at any one time, there are a number of things we are working with EPA on that are models of cooperation, and other things on which we are working at cross purposes.

The current senior EPA administrators include a large number of persons with experience in state environmental agencies. Carol Browner, Florida; Fred Hansen, Oregon; Bob Perciasepe and Chuck Fox, Maryland; Mike O’Connor, Indiana. So the level of knowledge about states is high. The creation of ECOS four and one-quarter years ago and its establishment of a Washington office about three years ago has helped to focus state concerns about EPA management and procedures.

Cohen: What can stats do better than EPA?

Roberts: State governments can manage local programs better than EPA, because they know the local geography, local people, and local priorities. One size does not, in fact, fit all, and state governments know that. States are also, as a general rule, more accessible to local citizens than the federal government. State government is closer and, usually, more on a scale that people are accustomed to dealing with. States can also do a better job of educating small businesses and local governments as to environmental requirements.

Cohen: What is it going to take to strengthen the states’ role in determining environmental policy?

Roberts: Some states believe that a national statute is necessary to assure that states play an important role in development of environmental policy. Others argue that, in several ways, states are playing a larger role now than used to be the case, and that a larger and stronger role is simply a matter of evolution. Some states want to see the results of recent Congressional action, such as the Government Performance and Results Act, before they take on a new legislative solution.

I believe that part of the answer is the development of greater levels of trust–between EPA and states, between states and national environmental groups, between industry and regulators, and so on–so that we can move beyond the current practice of specifying in several tens of thousands of pages of rules what the next person in the environmental protection line is supposed to do.

And important to the development of trust is the development of performance measures that really, truly measure how we are doing–not how much we spent, or how long we worked, or even how hard we tried–but what did we accomplish for the environment.

Cohen: In addition to EPA, which can be expected to fight to defend its turf, who else would benefit by keeping environmental decision-making centralized in Washington?

Roberts: Much of the opposition to devolution of environmental responsibilities to the states has come from some national groups based in Washington who seem to believe that the states can’t be trusted to carry out their responsibilities. For the reasons I’ve already indicated, we believe that concern is misplaced.

The states–not the federal government–already carry out 85 percent of the enforcement actions in environmental protection nationwide. And 80 percent of the money that the states spend on environmental protection is not federal money. We believe that the states have already demonstrated their commitments, and that they can be relied upon to do their duty.

Cohen: Is Congress ready to devolve more power and responsibility to the states?

Roberts: I don’t know. Some of the environmental issues have moved off the front burners, it seems to me, and the federalism issues are, perhaps, not being pursued as strongly as they once were. This may be the result of a short Congressional session, an election year, and a lot of contentious work still to be done. In the meantime, the states continue to innovate in a number of ways and to improve their management of environmental protection.

Cohen: Could you give our readers some idea of how ECOS would like to see environmental issues addressed in a decentralized world?

Roberts: The goal, it seems to me, is to place responsibility at the level and type of government that can carry it out best. I’ve already referred to EPA’s access to and control over more scientific and technical research capacity than any single state is apt to have. Maybe that’s where it should be concentrating its actions.

Consider for a moment EPA as a parallel organization to the Centers for Disease Control. When CDC announces public health findings, those findings carry a lot of weight. Local, state, and national agencies begin to move on them. EPA could perform that service with regard to environmental matters.

EPA has a high level of technical capacity within the agency that could expand educational and training opportunities for state agencies. EPA should certainly be the lead agency on international environmental issues, and it bears special responsibility for environmental issues regarding a federal duty, such as environmental programs on Indian tribal lands and the cleanup of Department of Defense and Department of Energy facilities and sites.

There will also always be broadly based environmental problems that can be solved only at a national level, such as pollution prevention issues involving companies that operate across the country. And there will always be some kind of enforcement activity within EPA to help states where other approaches do not work.