This interview originally appeared in Environment Next on May 29, 2019, where it can be accessed here.
Esty, Former Official, Optimistic on Post-Trump Overhaul of EPA
Dan Esty, a former Connecticut environment and EPA official, says he’s optimistic about the potential for a major overhaul of EPA’s structure and mission once President Donald Trump leaves office, arguing that broad reform is necessary to adapt the agency to 21st century challenges and can be achieved with bipartisan backing.
“My optimism is based on the fact that I think Democrats are coming to understand that key to progress on a number of their agendas that they care about like air and water pollution requires winning Republican votes to get the job done,” he says in an interview with Environment Next.
I think on the Republican side there’s a growing recognition that just being against everything environmental is not a politically good place to be.
“And the key to winning Republican votes is to show sensitivity to markets and to be supportive of the parallel goal of economic strength. And I think on the Republican side there’s a growing recognition that just being against everything environmental is not a politically good place to be.”
Esty is currently Yale’s Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy. He previously served as Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner from 2011 to 2013, and a variety of senior positions at EPA from 1989 to 1993.
In 2017 he wrote a comprehensive Environmental Law Review article, “Red Lights to Green Lights: From 20th Century Environmental Regulation to 21st Century Sustainability,” which argued in favor of a 21st century sustainability strategy that prioritizes innovation and relies on market-based mechanisms to protect the environment.
It calls for ending EPA’s “silo” approach of regulating each media – air, waste, water, toxics – separately and instead recognizing the environmental cycle of pollutants; for example restructuring the agency so that it can pursue flexible, cross-media regulatory strategies that encourage industry innovation in reducing pollution.
He is currently editing an upcoming Yale University Press book on suggestions for a slew of 21st century environmental policies and strategies. Slated for release in September, “A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future,” will feature contributions from people Esty described as “thought leaders” including an article on carbon pricing by William Nordhaus, who won the 2018 Nobel Prize in economics, and an essay on protecting biodiversity by Thomas Lovejoy, a conservation biologist who created the term “biological diversity.”
The ideas could help inform an emerging debate over the future not only of EPA but also other agencies and environmental protection more generally.
Esty spoke favorably about American University’s (AU) April event that focused on EPA in the post-Trump era. At that event, former agency chiefs from Democratic and GOP administrations called for “reconfiguring” EPA after Trump leaves office, potentially reversing staffing cuts and some Trump regulatory rollbacks but also overhauling EPA to address looming challenges such as climate change.
“I was surprised by the degree of convergence across administrators on the need to do things in quite different ways going forward compared to the structure of the Environmental Protection Agency up until now – the need to make a commitment to sustainability a central focus was both striking and correct,” Esty said.
At the event, former administrators from the Obama, Clinton and both Bush administrations spoke about the need to pursue sustainability strategies to deal with pressing environmental concerns, including new efforts to target climate change.
For example, while EPA has so far been the lead federal agency for climate policy, former Administrator William Reilly, who served during the George H.W. Bush administration, said, “I think the agency has to be reconfigured to allow it to retain that role … to respond to it with science and ethics.”
In the interview, Esty said the former agency chiefs’ remarks at the event about reaching the limits on targeting climate change under EPA’s existing structure was “an item of relative convergence.”
Sustainability as a broad general term could provide an “overarching structure” for a new approach to environmental protection in the 21st century, Esty said. “Sustainability at its core has the balancing of economic progress and uplifting people in the United States and around the world in terms of job prospects and material wellbeing at the same time as addressing pollution concerns and trying to manage our natural resources for the long term.
To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.
EPA’s website says, “To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.”
Some observers have questioned whether the divided Congress would be able to craft bipartisan legislation to promote sustainability and a new approach to environmental protection. Esty concedes that in the current political climate with the “bitter” partisanship it’s hard to move major legislation. “But I can imagine a day not too far off, perhaps two or three years from now, that an agenda that appeals to Democrats and Republicans from the center of the spectrum could garner majority support” to advance such a new approach, he said.
“I think the kind of sweeping change that I would like to see, and that others are starting to talk about, will require both a new occupant in the White House and some new leadership in Congress,” he added.
Esty believes lawmakers should start with “big picture elements and build out from there” with broad legislation, but also said “I’m a pragmatic guy” and acknowledged that it might only be possible to start with smaller, narrowly tailored bills promoting specific sustainability programs and other changes as a build up to a broader bill. “It might well be that the possibility for transformative restructuring of environmental law could begin with some narrower elements.”
In his Environmental Law Review article, Esty pitched a move away from the 20th century command-and-control approach to environmental regulation to a “harm charges” regime that he says would be more efficient and effective in reducing pollution. This approach, “carefully structured,” would be “a legal structure that requires polluters to pay for the harms they cause (and insists that those who use shared natural resources pay for this consumption) but gives them flexibility in whether and how to adjust their behavior,” he wrote.
Examples of harm charges could be placing a price on carbon but giving industrial emitters the flexibility to determine the best options for reducing emissions, rather than the more prescriptive EPA approach of trying to regulate greenhouse gases under decades-old Clean Air Act authority.
In the interview, he elaborated on the harm charge idea and said the existing silo approach of regulating different media such as air, waste and water individually is not effective anymore.
“I think one of the ways the 20th century approach to environmental protection got off track was having separate air, water and waste programs that were not structured in a way that was integrated and allowed for a systems approach to environmental protection,” Esty said.
For example, “Too often the existing framework encourages polluters to shift harm from one form to another; the classic case is the smokestack scrubbers on top of a factory which capture air pollution but creates a solid waste that is very hard to dispose of, and when that waste is put in a landfill it may leach out into waterways,” he said. “So I’m in favor of a much more integrated approach going forward.”
Placing a harm charge, or price, on pollution would also help to spur innovation by industries in developing new technologies and strategies for reducing that pollution, Esty added. “It would inspire the entrepreneurs in American society to think hard about how to do all the things we want to do in ways that are not just cheaper but also environmentally friendly. I’m a great believer in American innovative capacity, and I think tapping into that enormous capacity for innovation is one of the most fundamental steps for sustainability.”
Asked what prompted him to write the Environmental Law Review article, he said, “One of the joys, but also obligations, of being an environmental professor is to look across time at issues and try to provide a picture of how things could be different going forward, and this piece was my reflection of 30 years of trying to advance the environmental agenda.”
Specifically, he said the article was inspired by his time as Connecticut’s environment chief and trying to find ways to improve environmental regulation on a less partisan basis and with lower cost.
“My hope is that by thinking in new and fresh ways that we can overcome the sense that significant environmental progress can only be achieved at high economic costs,” Esty added. “I think that new strategies, particularly more-careful use of economic incentives and market mechanisms, can achieve higher standards and better results.” – Anthony Lacey (firstname.lastname@example.org)