True Leadership Coming to EPA, Part III

This is the final part of my three-part open letter to the new EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, regarding the changes that are needed to help us tackle urgent environmental problems more effectively.

Yesterday, I wrote about how we can better implement our environmental laws by using the precautionary principle that is already written into the nation's environmental laws.

Another critical improvement would be to change how we shape our laws and their relation to the market. For too long, environmental protections have had to swim against the current of private profit. We impose pollution mandates, but fail to address the market in which polluters act. Fines are supposed to address profit margins, but, as I noted, they are not fully enforced or implemented and thus do not change the overall bias against protection. With minor exceptions, pollution controls cost money and thus run against private profit.

We need to flip that so that our laws and private interest are aligned as much as possible. And the main way to do that is to put a price on all pollution. A price would encourage private actors to reduce pollution. I'm not suggesting, as some do, that we replace the current Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and other laws but rather that we use a wide array of economic tools to bolster our legal mandates. In addition to specific pollution limits, as we now have in many statutes, we need market incentives.

If we were to require better and more truthful information about the true costs of wasted energy, for example, energy efficiency standards would be more easily adopted, implemented and followed.

Another example: Put a price on pollution by beefing up the natural resource damages provisions so they apply more generally and, in almost all cases, you'll probably find less violation of permits. Put a price on all the types of pollution and make the polluter pay for every bit that is discharged, even pollution within permit limits, and the dialogue over permit limits will change dramatically. Every pound of heavy metal pollution discharges to our streams, every ton of NOx emitted to our air, every pound of pollution from farm runoff -- put a price on all of it. Again, the answer is both, not either alone.

With reference to climate change, there are both price and non-price barriers to clean and efficient energy. Thus, we must put a price on carbon through a cap-and-invest system. But we must also develop efficiency and renewable energy standards, provide financial incentives from auction revenues for clean and efficient energy and transportation, and take other steps.

This approach to climate security legislation draws on lessons from the past. And we can revisit rules under existing laws to create systems where prices and roundtable safeguards mutually support each other. Put a pollution fee on every ton of SO2 or NOX emitted, put a fee on every pound of biochemical oxygen demand or metal discharged and make that fee large enough to provide funds to restore the damage.

In the last 25 years I've spent practicing environmental law, I've come to think that real change requires at least two or three laws mandating the change. Polluters too easily ignore or find ways around any one law. To achieve our environmental goals, the reality of the last decade shows that we need more information and disclosure, more facility specific pollution limits, more ambient environmental targets, and more positive market support. It's not either/or, but both/and.

I urge the new EPA to use all existing laws and regulations to their fullest potential. Once all the existing power is leveraged, it should also go before Congress and seek stronger, more effective measures. These dual efforts should also be complemented by support from the Department of Justice, so that those who harm the environment feel the full force of government - from the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The nature of the crises we face calls for this type of historic, unified effort. We have serious environmental challenges ahead of us and we have a lot of work to do.