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What Matters Most in Environmental Policy: Federal or State Government?

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My name is Indiana Lee writing to you from the Pacific North West.. I have been a professional writer for almost a decade and you can find a small sample of my work on my...

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  • Jun 30, 2021
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The idea of “the environment” is a relatively new one in the grand scheme of things. Newer than the idea of free speech and newer than ideas surrounding equality and civil rights. The modern idea of protecting the environment is so new that numerous members of our society today can look back into the past when there were few rules and regulations governing the way the world we live in was treated. 

Environmental policy and protections may be a relatively novel factor in lawmaking, but the environment has always been intrinsically tied to our lives. Something as simple as the food we eat is thoroughly dependent upon environmental quality factors such as soil, weather, and nutrient availability. Advances in technology have taken many of us out of the fields — leading to a weakened environmental understanding —  and yet we’re all still highly vulnerable to environmental conditions. 

It’s something we all should want to protect. 

But when it comes to this protection, questions quickly arise. For instance, should our environmental protections be dictated by the federal government or more locally by states?

Who Does What When?

Though it certainly seems contentious in this day and age, the idea of protecting and improving environmental conditions was not always a partisan issue. In fact, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created, it was done by a Republican president and a Democratic Congress. The ideas were bipartisan and broadly supported by most people. 

Ever since then, the federal government has set the baselines for environmental regulations, while states have had the opportunity to raise the bar individually. There are certainly pros and cons to this strategy. Many would argue that more responsibility should fall to the states as they are more tightly attuned to local issues and solutions. 

In general, most regulation is left to the states unless issues have been elevated up to the federal level, or the issue is directly related to federal lands. These include things such as endangered species, superfund sites, or festering pollution issues states have been unable to adequately address. Concerns regarding federal lands specifically may seem unfamiliar unless you live in the West where the federal government owns and manages a significant portion of the land. 

Feds and the Environment

Thoughts surrounding the federal government and the environment are varied and often complex. Some believe strongly that the federal government should return all land and environmental regulatory responsibility to the states. Others are strongly opposed to this as their states have a history of limited environmental protections and short-term thinking. 

In general, there are some very strong arguments for keeping a substantial amount of environmental policy in federal hands. A few include:

  1. Money: The federal government has the ability to appropriate funds to specific environmental issues that a single state may not be able to cope with. For example, forest fires in the West are expensive. If states managed all the National Forests, one bad fire year could break the budget. Likewise, superfund sites are called superfunds for a reason: they are expensive environmental cleanup projects. States simply don’t have the budget to do the cleanup required to protect local communities in these areas. 

  2. Coordination: The federal government is also in a much stronger position to effectively coordinate large, multi-state environmental projects. Take, for example, wastewater pollutants in rivers. Without federal coordination and regulation, it would be challenging for downstream states to force regulation upon their upstream neighbors that pollute the rivers. It would also be challenging to enforce clean air policies on a state by state basis as the wind could easily blow pollution in from a neighboring state. 

  3. Social Justice: Many social justice advocates are quick to point out that some of the nastiest pollutants allowed in the U.S. today are more commonly spewed in minority neighborhoods. As a result, more minorities suffer from pollution and other environmental degradation-related illnesses. As with most civil rights and social justice concerns, it is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure that all citizens are being treated equally and protected from harm. 

States and the Environment

Though there is a lot of environmental policy and regulation that does (and should) fall upon the federal government, that doesn’t mean that states can’t or shouldn’t have a significant role in their local environmental standards. In reality, the federal government typically just sets the baseline pollution standards and states are highly encouraged to go further in their regulations as necessary to promote the health of their populace. 

There can be some profound benefits that come out of this agreement such as:

  1. Local issues and local solutions: There is no denying that a federal solution doesn’t always meet the needs of everyone. States in the west have very different environments than those in the east, and some of the environmental solutions that work well in one area may falter in the other. For example, California has a huge population and unique climate and environmental issues. The state has enacted tough environmental regulations that are helping to drive down environmental issues at a faster rate than any other state. 

  2. Creativity abounds: Local solutions are typically also creative solutions. Individual cities that have addressed climate and environmental issues have each had a different take on how to solve them best. This includes encouraging efforts like sustainable smart home adoption throughout communities. Smart homes consistently use less power to heat, light, and cool, and they are often more secure. The creativity involved in making a home a smart home knows very few bounds and can be customized to each family in a community and the communities themselves.

  3. Individual involvement: States also have the unique ability to get local people involved with environmental policy and regulation. After all, policies have a major impact on people, and people care about any change that is going to alter their way of life. Getting people to care about the environment is the only way to save ourselves. 

When it comes down to it, dithering over whether environmental policy is made at the federal level or the state is wasting what little time we have left to work in. Our climate situation is dire, and we need to start making drastic changes if we’re going to be able to make any real impact. Taking care of the planet isn’t just important, the very fate of the human race depends on it.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 30, 2021

I think the federal government can/should have the bigger role, but the reason you see states stepping up to the plate is because of the inconsistent and incomplete manner in which federal government is making environment and energy a priority (even when leaders in positions of power have promised to be those champions). States are doing what they can to protect their more localized resources and making impact in their backyards

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Bob Meinetz on Jun 30, 2021

Indiana, you raise some excellent points in your post.

"In general, there are some very strong arguments for keeping a substantial amount of environmental policy in federal hands."

I agree. There was a time when environmental problems were local problems - the Hooker Chemical Company's dumping of 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals into Love Canal; or the Exxon Valdez disaster, when a negligent captain had allowed his oil tanker to run aground and dump 11 million gallons of crude oil off the coast of Alaska.

Climate change, however, is a problem beyond the reach of individual states - yet we enact state policies that amount to self-congratulatory publicity for local politicians, and accomplish little to solve the problem.

In California, state officials have created the aura of environmental responsibility largely by outsourcing CO2 emissions to other states. For example: after San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was permanently closed in 2013 we were told its carbon-free electricity would be replaced by renewables - but instead, it was replaced by energy imported from coal plants in Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming. To avoid detection of this devil's bargain, the imports were listed as "unspecified sources of power", a special category created in 2008 for the express purpose of hiding their source.

Last month, the California Public Utility Commission announced it would be replacing the electricity from Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant and several California gas plants with five billion watts of "unspecified sources of power." Not coincidentally PacifiCorp, an energy company with significant holdings in Wyoming coal (both mines and electricity plants) is building a high-voltage transmission corridor, the Transmission Gateway, that will soon extend to California.

Five billion watts translates to 30 million metric tons of CO2 emissions - ones that California policy will "reduce" by simply emitting them elsewhere. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is only permitted to regulate interstate trade and guard against monopolistic behavior, thus, the only hope of putting a stop to these crimes against the environment is an empowered Environmental Protection Agency.

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