TCS Daily

Time Will Show Whitman Is No Browner

By Lynn Scarlett - March 12, 2001 12:00 AM

New Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Christie Todd Whitman has beltway denizens perplexed. In rapid succession, she has affirmed diesel regulations advanced by her predecessor Carol Browner, applauded a Supreme Court decision upholding EPA air regulations, and took a page from Al Gore's agenda by talking of the need to reduce greenhouse emissions. At the same time, she has kept talking about state environmental initiatives, the need for regulatory flexibility, and her preference for incentives over punishment.

The press of circumstance has Whitman sounding a lot like Browner as she reacts to court decisions and makes rapid-fire responses to looming regulatory matters. But it is the search for cooperation and flexibility, not the Browner look-alike agenda, that will likely define the Bush-Whitman environmental agenda.

The "kinder, gentler" environmental themes first surfaced in President George W. Bush's campaign messages. And Whitman emphasized them in her confirmation hearing testimony. She reiterated these themes again last week speaking at the National Environmental Policy Institute's annual "Democratizing Environmentalism" summit.

These themes are not entirely new. During the Clinton administration, EPA Administrator Browner heralded common-sense initiatives, asking for smarter, better, cheaper environmental regulations. She even launched a few.

Through Project XL, for example, EPA undertook some pilot programs nationwide through which companies negotiated environmental performance agreements. These multi-media, sometimes plant-wide permits, replaced traditional permits required for each individual source of air or water emissions. Browner's staff also launched a "Performance Track" program of streamlined permits for companies with outstanding environmental records. And early in her tenure, she tried to de-emphasize enforcement bean counting and focus, instead, on direct measures of environmental results.

Browner's efforts, though, were tepid. Her "new environmentalism" never held center stage for the Clinton administration. Browner spent much more time finding new regulatory targets and tightening existing standards. And her impulse remained one of top-down control.

Whitman's priorities will be different, at least once the dust settles. Where EPA, under Browner's direction, came up with a federal guidance document on hazardous waste (brownfield) site clean-ups that would have put Washington in the driver's seat, Whitman talks about state flexibility and initiative, echoing President Bush's call for enhancing federal assistance to the states, not second-guessing their programs.

Whitman also speaks of reinforcing EPA's Performance Track efforts to encourage high performance in exchange for flexible environmental permits. She told the NEPI gathering of state and local environmental officials that incentives should motivate environmental performance, with punishment reserved for environmental miscreants. In both tone and emphasis, this simply was not a speech that Carol Browner would have given.

The Bush-Whitman agenda is neither revolutionary nor an agenda of regulatory relief. Nonetheless, despite its modesty, the Bush-Whitman agenda could begin to reshape America's regulatory infrastructure. What can we expect from this evolution?

First, high standards will continue. At the NEPI event, Whitman reiterated that it was EPA's duty to guard public health -- and that costs should not play a part in determining how clean is clean enough. But those standards will be arrived at differently -- sometimes. For example, there may be allowance for greater variation in local priorities. Under Browner, the EPA's National Environmental Performance Partnership process, which provides block grants to states to give them spending flexibility, was often cumbersome. Whitman may ease the burdensome procedures to lighten federal micro-management.

Second, prescriptions of technology will become less common. They will be supplanted by plant-wide performance goals that leave attainment methods to the discretion of plant managers. Compliance assistance, especially for small businesses, may expand, although it will not altogether replace the old-style emphasis on permits and enforcement.

In the abstract, this nod to local decision-making, partnerships, and performance sounds Pollyannaish. But beneath the benign buzzwords, landmines abound.

Devolution to states threatens old power structures. For some, devolution of decision-making power to local settings conjures up fears of a "race to the bottom." Unhappiness with devolution could lead environmental groups to challenge states' authority to issue streamlined permits in court unless Congress secures their legal status.

The emphasis on partnerships also might unleash endless powwows for more stakeholder input as participants seek often-elusive consensus about ends and means. Consensus-building settings also often trigger bitter contests over who belongs at the negotiating table. For example, a few years ago, a local consensus-building effort, the Quincy Library group, reached agreement on how to manage a particular northern California watershed. Only, national environmental groups that were not part of the original dialogue took action that nearly torpedoed the agreement.

Opposition to this new agenda comes not only from environmentalists. Some companies worry that more localism may spark a dizzying array of programs. For national companies, one-size-fits-all can look attractive by comparison.

Even so, the Bush-Whitman environmental agenda holds promise for better environmental performance at lower cost and with less conflict than the top-down system. "Sticks," that were the essence of old environmentalism, seldom motivate long-term environmental performance. Its technological prescriptions limited innovation, which, in turn, dampened ongoing environmental improvements while increasing compliance costs. Top-down decision-making also has overlooked variations in local circumstance, again boosting compliance costs.

By favoring state experiments in cooperation, flexibility and performance indicators, Bush and Whitman can try to surmount the limitations of the "old environmentalism." Once the dust settles from recent controversies, the nation may better see if their "kinder, gentler" environmentalism will.

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