By Michael E. Kraft
The 2016 elections put Republicans in charge of the White House and both houses of Congress, giving them a unique opportunity to reshape policy pertaining to environmental protection, energy, and climate change. Consequently, the Environmental Protection Agency will, no doubt, be at the center of what are likely to be some very contentious debates.
Conservatives have long criticized EPA actions, most recently its Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a gradual shift from coal-fired power plants to cleaner energy sources, such as natural gas.
Other EPA decisions on vehicle fuel-economy standards and improvements in air, surface water, and drinking water quality also have raised industry hackles and prompted critics to assert regulatory overreach even when these decisions were essential to protect public health.
How, then, should Republicans use their new political clout over the EPA and environmental laws? There are two ways they can go about their business.
One is to follow Ronald Reagan's approach and attempt wholesale deregulation and dismantling of programs, budgets, and staffs, which is favored by some. This is a highly risky strategy because, as happened with Reagan, it could easily prompt a loud public outcry and be reversed under public pressure.
Polls tell us that the public wants to be protected from unhealthy air, unsafe water, hazardous and toxic chemicals, and the risks of climate change. Recall the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis and similar concerns over water quality in cities and schools across the nation.
Ignoring such public preferences is never a good idea. In the end, Reagan failed to reform environmental policy or the EPA. Instead, he provided short-term regulatory relief for industry at the cost of political backlash that led to even more stringent regulation.
A second way to act holds a greater promise of long-term success. This is based on a realistic understanding of the problems we face, grounded in solid science and economics. It would pursue broadly backed and much needed statutory and administrative reforms.
The American public has told us for years that it wants to see more bipartisan and cooperative legislative solutions rather than the polarization, animosity, and policy gridlock that have dominated Congress in recent years.
We saw this kind of cooperation earlier this year when both parties voted overwhelmingly for the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act to replace an old and largely ineffectual policy on toxic chemicals.
How might this approach work today? We know a great deal about what needs to be changed in environmental policy and at the EPA itself. We could improve how well these policies function through adoption of flexible and performance-based regulatory reform, incentives for industry to devise and employ more sustainable practices, and well-designed information disclosure programs.
In addition, the EPA is long overdue for administrative reorganization that would help to integrate its statutory responsibilities into a more coherent and long-term strategy for addressing complex challenges such as climate change and sustainable economic development.
Cities and states across the nation and a great many major corporations already have strongly embraced these goals. It is time for Congress to do the same.
With the election exceptionally close, there is no mandate here to dismantle environmental policies. What the American public wants instead is that the two parties work together to reform the EPA and the statutes it administers. President-elect Trump need not blow this opportunity by wrecking the EPA and putting public health and the Earth's future in jeopardy.