Some environmental groups are warning that the Republican takeover of Congress could result in a major attack on environmental regulations. Mitch McConnell from coal-heavy Kentucky, expected to be the new Senate Majority Leader, has said his top priority next year is to rein in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
But the Republican election victories won’t necessarily result in a rollback in environmental protections, said Dr. Jerry Emison, a professor of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University who was former acting regional administrator of EPA.
“We have to recognize a more conservative view of the environment is going to prevail in Congress,” Emison said. “But at the end of the day, I think very little will get done because anything major has to cross the president’s desk. I don’t think this president will sign major anti-environmental action. The president has indicated he won’t hesitate to exercise executive authority to dampen any really extreme actions by Republican legislators.”
However, expect to see very energetic Congressional oversight of EPA.
“That would be the classic way they would intervene,” Emison said. “There will be lots of hearings. You are also likely to see extremely restrictive appropriations for EPA. There will be use of the appropriation process to restrict EPA’s latitude.”
Hearings could be used to expose flaws in the administration of environmental programs. Emison points out that, of course, it is a lot easier to expose deficiencies in programs that have never been well funded.
Regarding one of the biggest environmental issues, regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants and other sources, Emison said there may not be that much impact because EPA has been ordered by the courts to deal with greenhouse gas emissions.
“The courts have found that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant,” Emison said. “So that is a reality that EPA will have to deal with despite whether the Congressional Republicans want it or not. EPA is under judicial order to deal with that.”
There could be danger from concluding the recent elections mean Americans favor relaxing environmental regulations.
“The mistake that the Republicans have repeatedly made on the environment in the past 30 years, whenever they have gained control of institution like Presidency or Congress, is they have misread the American public’s view concerning the environment,” Emison said. “In trying to carry out that misreading, they have basically overplayed their hand and lost the opportunity to make meaningfully, responsible, substantive improvements to the regulatory process.”
Emison said the opportunity before the Republican majority is to make environmental regulations more effective, economic and sensible. “People want a clean environment, but they don’t want to do stupid things to get to a clean environment,” he said. “Poll after poll shows environmental protection is a core American value now. This is the opportunity the Republican Party has to do things that will improve environmental protection. If they try to dismantle environmental programs, which is contrary to the mainstream views of the American public, I despair for the Republican Party and the environment.”
EPA may have overstepped its bounds to regulate greenhouse emission, said Dr. Luke Fowler, who received his Ph.D. from Mississippi State in public policy and administration and now teaches at Valdosta State University in Georgia.
“Congress will not receptive to that in the next two years,” Fowler said. “But will the President be willing to have that fight? The President will face many fights in next two years with Congress controlled by the opposing party. Will the President be willing to prioritize climate change regulations?”
Fowler said the current divided government is not helpful to businesses and industries. They get one message from the President, another from Congress and then the possibility of lawsuits also makes business planning difficult.
“It puts businesses in a sticky situation,” Fowler said. “It is hard to develop a strategy to go forward when that is happening.”
As Fowler sees it, federal environmental regulations and policies have not necessary been very helpful in some areas like shale oil development. EPA has dragged its feet in developing regulations for the rapidly expanding shale oil industry. The is why groups like the Center for Sustainable Shale Oil Development that consist of representatives from environmental and business groups are showing so much promise. Fowler said industry and environmental groups working together can come up with regulations that benefit the environment with the most cost effective methods to control pollution, and benefit industries by reducing the potential for lawsuits from environmental groups that can be very costly and delay progress year after year.
“It would be great to see more of this type of cutting edge, state-of-the-art collaboration,” Fowler said. “A lot of businesses are not afraid of government regulations, but of the lawsuits from environmental organizations. Generally, oil companies don’t want to get sued and environmental organizations want the most benefit for the environment. Groups like the shale oil center can come up with collaborative ideas to satisfy both sides. It is a strategy that works.”
Fowler said the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is a great example of how a project can be kept in limbo by environmental lawsuits. He said the Tenn-Tom took 30 years to complete because of lawsuits.
“The environmental organizations played it out well,” he said. “It was a great strategy on their part. But from the business perspective, if you can avoid that litigation trap, you are in a much better place.”
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