EPA Touts 40 Years of Successes, but What Do the Next 40 Hold?

EPA Touts 40 Years of Successes, but What Do the Next 40 Hold?

Forty years ago today, the United States Environmental Protection Agency was signed into being by President Richard Nixon.

It's a testament to the scale and scope of the EPA's successes over the past 40 years that they've faded into the background, or been woven into the fabric of daily life.

All this week, the EPA has been touting those hard-earned successes, including the publication of a report from the Aspen Institute highlight 10 big changes the EPA has made to protect the environment.

Among those successes:

1. Banning Widespread Use of DDT
4. Removing Lead from Gasoline -- and from the Air
6. Vehicle Efficiency and Emissions Controls
8. Controlling Toxic Substances
9. Cleaner Water

A website created by Green For All, ThankYouEPA.com, spells out these achievements more concretely:

• Prevented 205,000 premature American deaths in 1990 alone by providing cleaner air, and prevented hundreds of thousands more in subsequent years.

 

• Saved Americans more than $55 million in water and sewer bills in 2008.

• Reduced 60% of dangerous air pollutants in the air we breathe.

• Increased recycling in American families and businesses that went from recycling about 10% of trash in 1980 to more than 33% in 2008.

• Transformed 67% of contaminated Superfund Brownfield sites nationwide into bustling neighborhoods and business centers.

These achievements form the backdrop for environmental protection in the U.S. today: The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, CAFE standards for vehicle fleets, TSCA chemical regulations, and on and on. To say it's an impressive list is an understatement that can only be made from the vantage point of 40 years of successes.

The EPA is also taking its 40th birthday as a time to look forward as well. On Tuesday, Adminstrator Lisa Jackson unveiled plans to have the National Research Council create a "Green Book" that brings an added focus of sustainability to how the EPA conducts its work. The Green Book is a follow-on to the agency's "Red Book," which in 1983 built risk-assessment and risk-management into the EPA's approach.

But looking beyond the EPA's own plans and celebrations of its past, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the coming years will be arguably the most important and most challenging that the agency will face.

The challenge, of course, comes from the myriad complexities of dealing with climate change. Minimizing the damage from global warming isn't "simple" like banning DDT -- it will involve not just every aspect of U.S. business, government and the public, but similar efforts in every country around the globe.

And if that weren't complicated enough, the EPA is also likely to face unyielding resistance from the federal government, most notably in the form of "climate deniers" in Congress.

With naysayers in the government seeking to stymie any federal climate laws, the EPA is forced to do what it can to bring greenhouse gas emissions within its existing jurisdiction -- a move that the new Republican House majority have already planned to block. The Republican majority will also likely put climate skeptics in charge of key science and environmental committees.

In addition to facing stepped-up political obstacles, the EPA is also going to face challenges in addressing the business role in fighting climate change.

Seeing as how the total gridlock in Washington is unlikely to end at least in the next two years, it's easy to argue that the business community represents the only progress on real-world efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Or, more accurately, a small but powerful slice -- consisting of huge, ambitious and forward-thinking companies like Walmart, GE, Google, HP and numerous others -- of the business community is making real change.

But there remains a much larger swath of the private sector that still stands in opposition to climate action, huddled under the umbrella of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which last year was repeatedly in the limelight -- and which lost a small number of high-profile members -- for its opposition to climate regulations.

Somehow, the EPA will have to figure out a way to encourage those leading companies while also wielding whatever sized stick it can against those that are resisting progress. And the sudden shuttering of the Climate Leaders program in September probably is a bad omen.

The closing of Climate Leaders caught members and observers alike off-guard, and suggested that the EPA is moving away from partnerships with industry and back to a more regulatory role, suggests less carrots and more sticks in the future.

As Paul Baier wrote in October: "It is pretty clear that the EPA has zero interest in receiving input from large companies about this program. Obviously there has been some change at the EPA level on how they want to work with large companies in voluntary programs."

It's a logical position for the EPA to take, if they're focused solely on the Chamber-led obstacles to climate change. But what about the rest?

There's zero chance that those companies that are already seeing huge business benefits from sustainability initiatives -- those companies that we report about every day -- are going to go back to their old ways, with or without strong climate laws. But by shuttering partnerships with those companies the EPA is losing a chance to be at the center of a network of professionals sharing their successes, and using those success to help bring lagging companies up to speed.

At this moment in time, the EPA is going to need all the partners it can get, in order to make the next 40 years as full of success as the last.

Photo CC-licensed by Tambako the Jaguar.