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Federalism and the EPA

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There’s a lingering issue that continues to bother me about the so-called “global warming” Supreme Court case from 2007, Massachusetts v. EPA (05-1120), and that is a nagging concern about federalism and environmental standards.

As it stands currently, individual states are often prevented from enacting tougher legislation or regulation regarding some forms of pollution than the federal EPA standards. In order for a state EPA to partner with the federal EPA, be “authorized,” and thus receive funds, “a state must have enforcement programs and statutes that are essentially as stringent as the federal programs.”

One basic argument that the court found cogent in the Mass. v. EPA case was that individual states were prevented from creating standards that were more stringent regarding CO2 emissions than the EPA, and that since the EPA had not enacted any serious level of restriction, the states were unable to protect their environment.

This bothers me in part because one of my basic political impulses is a federalist one, an emphasis on the rights and sovereignty of individual states. The relationship between the federal and state environmental agencies seems to me to be fundamentally tyrannical, in that it overrides the ability of states to regulate themselves on these matters.

If you coopt the sovereignty of someone and then let your responsibilities lapse, then you have committed a pretty serious injustice. In 2007, the state of California sued to get the EPA to allow it to enact cleaner air standards, a right supposedly granted under the Clean Air Act. The EPA needed to agree to the tougher standards by granting a waiver, which it declined to do.

So there’s that political concern. But there’s also an economic concern, and this cuts both ways. Most often the federal government invokes the commerce clause to argue that it is within its rights and responsibilities to promote economic trade and stability by enacting nationwide standards. But in the case of environmental standards, that economic argument might not always be salient.

In a recent New York Times column, Tom Friedman calls for “a national renewable energy standard that would require every utility in the country to produce 20 percent of its power from clean, non-CO2-emitting, energy sources — wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, biomass — by 2025.” Friedman repeats the typical argument justifying national standards: “About half the states already have these in place, but they are all different. It would create a huge domestic pull for renewable energy if we had a uniform national mandate.”

John Whitehead, blogging at Environmental Economics, gives expression to the basic economic and political concern I had about the Massachusetts v. EPA decision as well as proposals for national mandates on environmental standards:

Most every environmental economics textbooks explain why uniform national standards are inefficient. Since benefits and costs are regionally different, it makes sense to adopt non-uniform standards — if standard adopting is a must.

Why not give federalism free reign on environmental issues, let states compete against each other, and see how things play out? If California wants to experiment with enacting tougher restrictions while attempting to remain economically competitive, why not see if the state is able to pull it off?

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Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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