Blog Post

Thoughts on the Future of Environmental Regulation: Approaching Integration

Oct 23, 2015 | J. Clarence (Terry) Davies

This post is excerpted from my recent article in the Fall 2015 issue of Resources magazine.

The US approach to environmental regulation has evolved in piecemeal fashion. It is fragmented, duplicative, and lacking any coherent rationale. The medium-oriented agencies (focused on air and water) are dominant, but place-based agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, are important as well. So are agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), that are focused on various types of products. The laws that dictate the actions of these institutions are, if anything, more fragmented. Each of the agencies focuses on its governing legislation and proceeds largely as if the other institutions do not exist.

An antidote to this situation is an integrated approach that considers the physical environment as a whole. There are two types of integration—internal and external. Internal integration applies to the relationship among the environmental agencies. External integration applies to the relationship between the environmental agencies and the non-environmental agencies—for example, the relationship between the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture.

The creation of EPA was itself a major step toward internal integration. However, the government continues to have separate laws devoted to air, land, and water, each implemented by a separate bureaucracy. This organizational and regulatory fracture is inconsistent with what is, in fact, a unified and interconnected physical environment. Most pollutants are naturally transported from one environmental medium to another, almost all pollutants can be disposed of in any of several different media, and human and environmental exposure to any given pollutant is usually from multiple environmental routes and from more than one medium. The existing regulatory structure mostly ignores these interconnections. The price is paid in dollars, unnecessary environmental damage, and human injury and death.

The cost of failing to consider the environment as a single physical whole is magnified by the helter-skelter organization of regulatory functions. The same pollutant is examined, evaluated, and regulated by multiple organizations. What is an occupational hazard for OSHA is a consumer hazard for CPSC, a food hazard for FDA, and an environmental hazard for EPA. It is not unusual for the same pollutant to be regulated under half a dozen different laws.

A far more efficient and effective organizational structure would be to combine the environmental agencies into a larger, more vigorous Department of Consumer and Environmental Protection. This new agency could be built around three functions—monitoring, oversight, and research and assessment—with perhaps a crosscutting focus on substances and places.

England and other European countries have already changed to an integrated approach with a single permit for each facility, which regulates all emissions, and a single office to enforce the permit requirements. The European Union has mandated that, over time, all EU nations should change to this type of approach.

External integration is also important but even more problematic. The federal government has developed mechanisms allowing each agency some leverage over its sister agencies. For example, each agency is given a chance to review testimony or legislation proposed by another agency. However, these are cumbersome mechanisms. One possible solution would be for major agencies to create an office of external integration. The mission of the office would be similar to the mission of a diplomatic embassy. It would be responsible for reporting to its own agency the actions and positions of other agencies, and it would try to influence the actions of other agencies to conform to the views of its agency.

If the push for integration in the United States were motivated only by an urge for neatness, order, and logic, it would be easier to dismiss. Bureaucratic structures are almost never neat. But in the current climate, the choice between fragmentation and integration is not between neatness and disorder. It is a choice between a viable structure of environmental regulation and no regulation at all.

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