Study: States Should Take the Wheel of Environmental Progress

Published June 1, 1999

Despite claims by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the contrary, states are not failing as environmental regulators, according to a new report from the Reason Public Policy Institute (RPPI). States are posting significant gains as a result of flexible environmental permitting, and they should not be intimidated by unfair criticism from Washington.

“From Mississippi to Massachusetts, the message is the same–simplify, simplify, simplify,” writes Christopher A. Hartwell, an environmental policy analyst with the Los Angeles-based RPPI. “States recognize that resources devoted to a complex and burdensome permitting system are resources that could be used to pursue direct environmental benefits elsewhere.”

Hartwell’s RPPI report, “Simplify, Simplify: Alternative Permitting at the State Level,” focuses on the efforts of five states to streamline their regulatory responsibilities: Mississippi, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Minnesota.

Hartwell is critical of EPA’s inflexible, adversarial approach to enforcement, which creates animosity between businesses and regulators who see each only when there is a violation.

“For the past 25 years, environmental regulation in the United States has been dominated by ‘end-of-the-pipe’ and technology-based measures to control pollution,” he writes. “Early environmental regulations tended to take an ad hoc approach towards pollution, mandating equipment and processes for industries in a one-size-fits-all manner. By controlling the actual production processes, regulators believed they could sizably reduce pollution and protect the environment from degradation.”

Likening the states to children who have learned to drive safely with parental supervision, Hartwell says it’s time they be given the keys to the car. “It is high time for the EPA to open the garage door and let states take the wheel of environmental progress.”

Hartwell points to several examples of environmental permitting innovations at the state level, suggesting the states are well prepared to assume responsibility for a wide range of environmental issues:

  • one-stop permit systems, which streamline the compliance process;
  • facility-wide permitting, regulating what is produced, rather than how it is produced;
  • industrial standards that allow specific businesses flexibility under a pre-arranged emissions cap; and
  • permit streamlining, which fosters a more cooperative relationship with the regulated industries.

While it is difficult to attribute environmental progress to any one policy, Hartwell contends there is a link between innovation and meaningful, positive results.

In New Jersey, whose complex environmental regulations put it high on the list of states in which not to manufacture chemicals, facility-wide permitting has simplified the process. The environmental permitting process, which used to require an average of 18 months, now takes just two months on average.

Facility-wide permitting has also had a positive effect on the environment. In New Jersey, the Department of Environmental Protection estimates that facilities use approximately 24 million pounds less of hazardous materials per year than before the permit reforms were put in place. Oklahoma’s streamlines permitting process has cut air and water pollution by 55 percent.