Acton Institute Powerblog

Reining in the EPA’s regulatory overreach

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President Donald Trump turned heads and drew criticisms for his efforts to curb the regulatory reach of the Environmental Protection Agency. With the appointment of Scott Pruitt to lead the agency, Trump has vowed to create a leaner bureaucracy by requiring agencies to repeal two regulations for each new regulation enacted. This, however, is no small task considering the sheer number of regulations left behind by previous administrations.

The Obama administration—which broke the record for the most rules and regulations issued in a single year—used the EPA as an instrument for advancing special interests in clean energy at the expense of more efficient, albeit politically detested, oil and gas alternatives. As a result, the Obama administration produced roughly 4,000 new EPA regulations, adding more than 33,000 pages to the Federal Register (180,000 in total) and $50 billion in annual state costs. EPA regulations now make up nearly 20 percent of the entire Federal Register.

For his part, Pruitt has stated that he intends to “run this agency in a way that fosters both responsible protection of the environment and freedom for the American business”. Practically speaking, Pruitt seeks to halt the tremendous exertion of legislative and executive power by the EPA and recognize the role of the states in determining environmental policy.

Last week, I sat in on a lecture titled “Free-Market Environmentalism,” delivered by economist P.J. Hill at Acton University in Grand Rapids. In the Q&A session after the talk, Hill mentioned Pruitt’s support for state-run environmental regulation and argued that “many of the environmental regulations could be devolved to a lower level, and you [would] then get much more sensible sorts of regulation.” This would eliminate the crippling effect of the EPA’s one-size-fits-all policies. Hill, a senior fellow at the Property and Environmental Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, said regulatory devolvement allows for much more sensible regulation because law-making authorities would be able to base policy off the needs of the cities and communities that are closest to their jurisdiction, rather than for an entire population of businesses whose environmental needs and circumstances greatly vary. In fact, decentralizing the regulatory power of the EPA opens up possibilities for markets to exercise their creative power in resolving many of the environmental issues present today, Hill said. Free market environmentalism, he added, is a logical reaction and formidable solution to the top-down legislative approach used by the EPA.

What exactly is free market environmentalism? It is the idea that the use of decentralized information, the recognition of property rights, the prices that flow from them and the reliance on entrepreneurship will bring about the most effective solutions to the many environmental issues we face today. Free market environmentalism offers an alternative bottom-up approach to the top-down planning used by many federal regulatory agencies today. Environmental concerns, according to Hill, are nothing more than conflicts over property rights. So, as long as there exists a robust system of property rights to settle disputes, free market environmentalism is a worthy pursuit.

Looking ahead, we should not conflate the reduction and decentralization of EPA regulations with the destruction of the environment and those who live in it. People are rational planners, so it is already within our economic interests to do business while caring for the environment and, by extension, for those around us.

Morally speaking, as devolvement occurs and the restrictions on businesses are relaxed, Christians need to step in and remind the commercial world that humans, as stewards of God’s creation, have the duty to recognize the sanctity of all creation. While it is true that protection of the environment is crucial, we cannot forget about the protection of man himself, whose inherent dignity affords him proper protection and restitution against the poor environmental stewardship of others. It is important to keep in mind the words of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice:

The dominion granted to man by the Creator is not an absolute power, nor can one speak of a freedom to ‘use and misuse,’ or to dispose of things as one pleases. The limitation imposed from the beginning by the Creator himself and expressed symbolically by the prohibition not to ‘eat of the fruit of the tree’ shows clearly enough that, when it comes to the natural world, we are subject not only to biological laws but also to moral ones, which cannot be violated with impunity.

No amount of environmental deregulation or decentralization is sufficient for mankind to recognize that human flourishing is the primary end of environmental concern. Nevertheless, we should applaud Pruitt for his commitment to roll back the scope of regulatory authority. The extent to which he does so unleashes the creativity of the marketplace and allows human beings to exercise their innovative capacities to care for one another. When we care for one another, the inextricable link between mankind and the environment becomes clear. As Pope John Paul II said in his 1999 World Day of Peace Message:

Placing human well-being at the centre of concern for the environment is actually the surest way of safeguarding creation; this in fact stimulates the responsibility of the individual with regard to natural resources and their judicious use.

These powerful words remind us that the human person ought to be the foremost environmental concern.  Cultivating a respect for this truth will guarantee the proper use the resources entrusted to us by our Creator.

Cover image does not require attribution.

Anthony Rozmajzl

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