Clean Air Federalism: Do States Race to the Bottom?(*)

By Potoski, Matthew | Public Administration Review, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Clean Air Federalism: Do States Race to the Bottom?(*)


Potoski, Matthew, Public Administration Review


From the lofty heights of Capitol Hill, it may appear the federal government makes all the important decisions about clean air policy. After all, United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) regulations and the detailed provisions of the 1990 Clean Air Act regulate the amount of pollutants floating in the air (ambient air quality), the amount of pollutants released by industrial and mobile sources (emissions standards), and the types of fines and sanctions levied against pollution violators. From the Capitol Hill perspective, these national standards and regulations are absolutely necessary. According to the cynics, if left to their own devices, states would adopt weaker and weaker clean air protection laws, creating a "race to the bottom" in which states compete for economic growth by enticing industry with less stringent--and less costly--regulations.

Do states always adopt the lowest possible environmental standards, as critics charge? Or can the states in fact develop policies that fit their particular political and environmental contexts? If states were involved in overwhelming competition for economic growth, no state would choose to exceed USEPA standards. A second, weaker interpretation of the race-to-the-bottom hypothesis posits that economic pressures to lower clean air standards most severely affect states that rely on heavily polluting industries. This article investigates these questions, drawing on results from the State Air Pollution Control Survey (SAPCS) conducted in 1998 by the Council of State Governments. Overall, the results show that many states have adopted clean air standards and programs that are more stringent than the USEPA requirements. Multivariate analyses of states' standards in three clean air policies indicate that states with "greener" political climates--those with stronger environmental interest groups and public opinion favoring environmental protection-are significantly more likely to develop air pollution standards that exceed USEPA requirements.

The next section of this article discusses the importance of environmental policy federalism for both policy makers and academic scholars. The third section summarizes clean air policy in the United States. The fourth section presents SAPCS data on the number of states choosing to exceed USEPA standards in criteria pollutant clean air policy.(1) The fifth section presents multivariate analyses of states' decisions to exceed USEPA standards. The final section concludes that there is little evidence of a race to the bottom among states in clean air policy.

The Importance of Environmental Federalism

How do states handle policy authority that is delegated from the federal government? In an era of increasing devolution of policy authority from central to local governments, this question has become increasingly important for scholars and for policy professionals. For scholars, the states have been a valuable laboratory for understanding environmental policies. In the early to mid-1980s, scholars of state environmental policy investigated how states responded to Ronald Reagan's New Federalism (Crotty 1987; Davis and Lester 1987; Lester 1986). Lester (1986), for example, categorizes states by their capacity to assume responsibility for environmental programs and the extent to which they did so during the 1980s. As states assumed responsibility for environmental programs, the relevance of this question declined, and scholarly focus shifted to how state (see Ringquist 1993) and local (see Weiland 1998) governments shape environmental policies to fit their own political and policy contexts.

The division of policy authority between a national government (such as the federal government) and lower-level governments is an important factor in policy development. Proponents of stronger central-government authority argue that competition for industrial development creates a "race to the bottom" in which states relax their environmental standards to avoid losing businesses to states with more "business-friendly" regulations (Duerksen 1983). …

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Clean Air Federalism: Do States Race to the Bottom?(*)
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