State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Declining Organizational Capacity of U.S. Environmental Agencies

The attack on environmental regulation we are seeing in Washington is being mirrored at the state level and could result in the first increases in U.S. environmental pollution levels since 1980. The Environmental Integrity Project’s recent report, The Thin Green Line, analyzed state environmental agency funding from 2008-2010 and learned that:

Thirty states reduced the funding for their environmental agencies’ pollution control programs. Twenty-five imposed cuts of at least 10 percent, while 16 slashed funding by more than 20 percent when adjusted for inflation…. Forty states reduced the staffing levels at their environmental agencies over this decade. Twenty-one states cut their environmental workforce by at least 10 percent, and nine of those eliminated at least 20 percent. The only state reporting significant growth was California, where officials boosted state spending on the California Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 75 percent between fiscal 2008 and 2018, adding 1,255 pollution-control staff. Overall, states eliminated more than 4,400 positions at agencies responsible for protecting the environment.

This is a bipartisan cutback. My home state of New York cut environmental spending by over 30 percent during that decade. It is true that some of the cuts represent a move away from pollution control and toward the effort to decarbonize our energy system and implement programs that reduce and recycle waste and those funds would show up in other agencies. Another reason for the reductions probably relates to America’s continued transition from a manufacturing to a service economy. It is also the case that corporations and local governments have increasingly internalized pollution control and environmental sustainability into routine operations possibly reducing the need for oversight. Nevertheless, the signal to polluters and the reduction in organizational capacity in these agencies is troubling.

The reductions are mirrored at the federal EPA which shrank staff during the Obama years from 17,049 in 2009 to 14,777 in 2016 and was further reduced to 14,172 in 2019. Funding has been reduced from a peak of $10.3 billion in FY 2010 to $8.8 billion in FY 2019. These data do not account for inflation so the reductions over the past decade are underplayed by these figures.

However, it is not simply staff size and budgets that have been cut, but the experience and expertise level of the staff now in place. Many of the federal EPA’s most experienced and marketable scientists and regulators have left federal service since Donald Trump became president. While this lost capacity impairs the enforcement of the environmental rules now in effect, paradoxically it is also impacting the deregulatory agenda of the Trump administration. In order to deregulate, you must promulgate new, less stringent regulations and the top leadership at EPA doesn’t seem to know how to do that. In a fascinating report last week on the administration’s effort to roll back Obama-era auto mileage goals, Coral Davenport of the New York Times reported that:

Last April, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, proclaimed at an auto show here that he would soon roll back President Barack Obama’s stringent fuel efficiency standards… Nearly a year later, the rollback is nowhere near complete and may not be ready until this summer — if ever. In January, administration staff members appointed by President Trump sent a draft of the scaled-back fuel economy standards to the White House, but six people familiar with the documents described them as “Swiss cheese,” sprinkled with glaring numerical and spelling errors (such as “Massachusettes”), with 111 sections marked “text forthcoming.” The cost-benefit analysis showed that consumers would lose more money than they would gain. And, because the new auto pollution rule lacks the detailed technical analyses required by law, the regulations would be unlikely to withstand court challenges.”

The main point of the piece was that a regulation that requires automakers to improve gas mileage for consumers would likely result in lower long-term costs for operating motor vehicles. Therefore, any benefit-cost analysis would result in numbers that support more stringent regulatory requirements on mileage. Even if the vehicle costs more initially, increased fuel efficiency eventually recovers those costs. That is true, but what I found even more significant about the piece was that it provided clear evidence of the hollowing out of organizational capacity at the EPA. In the past, EPA regulatory submissions were typically well-crafted and subject to exhaustive internal review. My guess is that in this case, the draft rule was closely held by the political appointees that worked on the rule. Either the proposed rule was not shared with the technical and legal experts that normally review EPA proposed rules and impact analyses, or the experienced folks that used to review these documents are no longer at the agency. Of course, it could be both. Or it’s possible that the career experts that remain decided to sabotage the process by not providing a thorough review. In any case, there is nothing good about a regulatory agency that forgets how to promulgate regulations.

The reduction in staff and funding in state environmental agencies and the reductions in Washington are indications that the technical, legal and managerial capacity to maintain and improve environmental quality are under threat. America’s environmental regulatory framework and the organizational capacity to enforce that framework was put in place from 1970 to 1990. It has successfully reduced air and water pollution and reduced human exposure to toxic substances even as our economy and population have grown. The environmental policy framework developed here has been widely imitated throughout the world and provides hope that we can address existential challenges such as the one presented by climate change.

Private companies and nonprofit institutions like the university I work at have increased their capacity to operate while reducing their environmental impact. The pressure for reducing environmental impact is no longer only coming from those enforcing environmental regulations. Communities, interest groups, the general public, customers, students and an organization’s employees all care about environmental impacts. Each of these entities: Government, stakeholders and employees are part of a system of intersecting roles that result in a cleaner environment. The key role of government is to set the rules and enforce them when organizations or people violate them. If we remove that element, the public, organizations, customers and employees will need to do much more to achieve the environmental goals they now achieve.

Historically, EPA and state and local environmental agencies have been very good at attracting talented, mission-driven staff. In Washington, those people are leaving EPA if they can and they are being replaced by people without their experience, skills or dedication. The Environmental Integrity Project’s report on state environmental agencies provides a reason to fear that this may also be happening at the state level. Reductions in resources are indicators of declining capacity, but not evidence of it. Sometimes resource reductions are possible because organizations have become more productive and efficient due to improved work processes or technologies. However, a poorly drafted regulation is evidence of declining capacity at the U.S. EPA. The lead crisis in Flint, Michigan was evidence of declining capacity in drinking water regulation in both EPA and Michigan. Staff and budget numbers tell us something, but they do not convey the entire story. One needs to dig deeper to understand the reason for resource reductions and their impact.

As an environmental policy and sustainability management educator, I am deeply concerned with the development of the organizational capacity to ensure economic vitality while protecting the planet. I know that most of my graduates are finding work in the private sector. They work at Apple, Jet Blue, Etsy, Citibank, and numerous real estate and hotel companies as well as at universities, electric utilities and consulting firms. All of these organizations work on issues of energy and water efficiency, decarbonization, waste reduction and recycling. Many measure and work to reduce their environmental impact. I believe this will continue with or without government. But not all companies and nonprofit institutions have received the environmental sustainability memo. The vast majority of organizational leaders are good people who do not need government to tell them right from wrong. But some are run by evil and greedy people who would poison their neighbors for a little extra short-term profit. Just as we in New York City rely on the NYPD to prevent and respond to the evil people who commit crimes, so too do we need effective state and federal environmental cops to protect the fragile blue dot in the vast vacuum of space that we call home.

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Prathamesh Sardesai
4 years ago

By declining the power of environmental agencies. They are making sure that no one comes as an obstacle between them and their bad sins which is destroying the environment.