Resolving the Paradox of Environmental Protection

By Howes, Jonathan; John, Dewitt et al. | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Resolving the Paradox of Environmental Protection

Howes, Jonathan, John, Dewitt, Minard, Richard A., Jr., Issues in Science and Technology

EPA's central challenge is to maintain rigorous national standards while providing the utmost flexibility to states, communities, and companies.

The next big breakthrough in environmental management is likely to be a series of small breakthroughs. Capitol Hill may be paralyzed by a substantive and political impasse, but throughout the United States, state and local governments, businesses, community groups, private associations, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) itself are experimenting with new ways to achieve their goals for the environment. These experiments are diverse and largely uncoordinated, yet they illustrate a convergence of ideas from practitioners, think tanks, and academia about ways to improve environmental management.

One hallmark of the management experiments is an increased emphasis on achieving measurable environmental results. A second hallmark is a shift away from the prescriptive regulatory approaches that allowed EPA or a state to tell a company or community how to manage major sources of pollution. The experimental approaches still hold companies and communities accountable for achieving specified results but encourage them to innovate to find their own best ways to meet society's expectations for their total operations. The experiments share a third hallmark: They encourage citizens, companies, and government agencies to learn how to make better environmental decisions over time.

EPA is initiating some of those changes, as well as responding to initiatives taken by state and local governments, groups, and companies. A report published by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) in September 1997, entitled Resolving the Paradox of Environmental Protection: An Agenda for Congress, EPA, and the States, identified and analyzed some of the most significant environmental initiatives under way in the United States, including EPA's Project XL pilots, state efforts to encourage businesses to learn about and correct their environmental problems, and the implementation of the National Environmental Performance partnership System (NEPPS) with the states. The report also focused on the challenge of developing performance indicators and an environmental information system that could support the new management approaches.

The increased emphasis on performance-based management responds to two social goals: increasing the cost-effectiveness of pollution controls and ensuring that the quality of the nation's environment continues to improve. In the past, EPA and its state counterparts could exercise authority without much concern for the bluntness of their regulatory tools. Over time, the cost of many end-of-the-pipe pollution controls rose faster than the benefits they produced, so environmental improvement began to look too expensive. Now, however, the public expects agencies to strive for more cost-effective and less disruptive approaches.

EPA, state environmental agencies, and the regulated community need to accelerate the shift to performance-based protection, because several environmental problems are likely to become more serious and more expensive to manage in traditional ways. Chief among those problems are emissions of greenhouse gases, which may produce global climate change; polluted runoff from farms, urban streets, and lawns; the deposition of persistent organic pollutants and metals from the air into water bodies; and the destruction or degradation of critical natural habitats, including wetlands. Continued economic growth in the United States and in the developing world will also increase certain types of environmental stresses, particularly those caused by consumption of fossil energy.

EPA could not manage most of these problems through traditional means for three reasons. First, these problems arise from disparate sources that are so small and numerous that traditional end-of-the-pipe pollution controls often are neither technically feasible nor politically acceptable solutions. …

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