‘Conservative’ environmental protection shouldn’t mean ‘less’


“Conservative” environmental protection shouldn’t mean “less.” We’re great at rejecting imbalanced, heavy-handed environmentalism, but we often come up short putting forth policies that demonstrate genuine concern for our planet.

We have fighting Environmental Protection Agency overreach down to a science. It’s not that difficult when the EPA doesn’t make a serious effort to balance economic costs accurately against environmental benefits. William D. Ruckelshaus, the EPA’s first director, made the agency’s intent clear from its inception. “The EPA is an independent agency,” he said, “It has no obligation to promote agriculture or commerce; only the critical obligation to protect and enhance the environment.” If that’s your attitude as an agency, developing “job-killing” regulations isn’t really a problem so long as you accomplish an environmental objective.

The EPA notwithstanding, Americans do care about our environment. A March 2016 Gallup Poll found that 73 percent of respondents personally worry about the environment either a “great deal” (42 percent) or “fair amount” (31 percent).  That said, we shouldn’t need a poll to realize the deep importance of our air, water and habitats.

Conservatives don’t like “big government” solutions. With respect to the environment, Americans let pollution get to a point in the 1960s where slight policy adjustments weren’t going to cut it. Our response under the Clean Air Act is a real success story, even if it was a “big government” response. From 1980 to 2014, the United States experienced a 98 percent decrease in lead pollution in the airCarbon monoxide pollution has dropped 85 percent over the same period. Particulate matter (PM10) in the air has dropped by 36 percent from 1990 to 2014. In fact, all of the criteria pollutants have declined markedly, even as our economy and population have grown.

Denying that the EPA was instrumental in cleaning our environment is revisionist history. But our environmental success has changed the policy dynamic. Some of our more recent control efforts have made marginal gains at a high economic price. Even Ruckelshaus recognized this phenomenon later in his career:

We thought we had technologies that could control pollutants, keeping them below threshold levels at a reasonable cost, and that the only things missing in the equation were national standards and a strong enforcement effort. All of the nation’s early environmental laws reflected these assumptions, and every one of these assumptions is wrong…The errors in our assumptions were not readily apparent in EPA’s early days because the agency was tackling pollution in its most blatant form. The worst problems and the most direct ways to deal with them were apparent to everyone.

Right now, we don’t have political consensus on the worst pollution problems or the best ways to handle them. That leaves a Republican-controlled Congress with an opening a mile wide to develop the next generation of pollution-control policies.

First, we should balance our economic needs and our environmental ones. Acting as if we’re only concerned about one or the other isn’t helpful. The natural gas boom is a perfect example. In electricity generation, natural gas is a far cleaner fuel source than coal. The fact that it’s also in our economic interest has accelerated the closure of coal facilities at a far quicker clip than would have happened otherwise.

There’s also an opportunity to look for adaptive solutions to environmental issues. When it comes to the Gulf Coast, I don’t really care whether you are a climate change alarmist, denier or something in middle. Coastal erosion is a problem. In medium to low wave-action areas, living shorelines are an environmentally superior solution to bulkheads and seawalls. Earlier this year, the Army Corps of Engineers authorized a nationwide permit for living shorelines that should make the process of installing them much easier. For the environmentalist, it’s a way to combat sea level rise due to climate change. For the conservationist, it’s erosion control that creates a great habitat for speckled trout to spawn. Sometimes we can agree on solutions even if we disagree on causes. That’s particularly the case with environmental adaptations.

Here’s another idea. We’ve all heard environmentalists wax poetic about wetland habitats and biodiversity in coastal areas. As it turns out, preserving wetlands also has a big economic impact when it comes to hurricanes. They act like a buffer that weakens storm surge. Protecting and restoring wetlands isn’t some subversive liberal plot, it’s a smart economic decision to mitigate storm damage. One of the best tools to do that is continuing to push back on flood insurance subsidies in environmentally sensitive areas. That’s the very definition of a conservative, market-oriented policy response.

We also need to more seriously consider revenue-neutral pricing of pollution. America is going to regulate any number of pollutants. How we do that is important. Would conservatives rather have the EPA tell industries how to reach certain emission thresholds or allow the marketplace find the most efficient ways to meet them? By putting a price on exceeding a pollution threshold, Republicans could create economic certainty, end the coercive practice of sue-and-settle and develop a market incentive for innovative new pollution controls.

With Republican electoral success comes real responsibility. It’s not enough to say “no,” and EPA Director Scott Pruitt can’t sue himself. Right now, we have an opportunity to promote a policy agenda that’s an alternative to the usual Democratic offerings, but no less serious about protecting our environment. It’s time conservatives embrace the conservation identity and develop policies consistent with it.

Image by Chinnapong


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