Where the parties stand on environmental regulation: Six essential reads


Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of archival stories related to environmental regulation and the presidential campaign.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have taken starkly opposing positions on environmental regulation. During their second debate on Oct. 9, Trump stated,

“The EPA is so restrictive that they are putting our energy companies out of business. And all you have to do is go to a great place like West Virginia or places like Ohio…and you see what they’re doing to the people, miners and others in the energy business.”

In response, Clinton said that her energy policy

“really does include fighting climate change, because I think that is a serious problem. And I support moving toward more clean, renewable energy as quickly as we can, because I think we can be the 21st century clean energy superpower and create millions of new jobs and businesses.”

Scholars have examined many aspects of environmental regulation for The Conversation. Here are highlights from our coverage.

Do no harm

Republicans and Democrats disagree sharply over whether environmental regulation helps or hurts the economy. Georgetown University law professor Lisa Heinzerling observes:

“On the right, particularly since the Great Recession of 2007-2009, politicians have associated environmental regulation with job losses and economic decline. These claims have increased, not decreased even as the economy has improved. … In contrast, the Democratic [presidential] candidates embrace EPA’s regulatory power.”

With Congress gridlocked, President Obama has used regulations to tighten environmental restrictions in many areas, from wetland conservation to power plant emissions. Republicans have called this strategy a “regulatory assault.”

The coal-fired Robert W. Scherer electric power plant, north of Macon, Georgia, is the largest single source of greenhouse gases in the United States and would be substantially affected by proposed regulations on power plant emissions. Antennas/Wikipedia

But Stuart Shapiro, associate professor of public policy at Rutgers University, points out that many presidents have resorted to the administrative process during their second terms as their influence over Congress wanes. Moreover, he says, this approach does not violate constitutional limits on executive power:

“When a regulation is finalized, the other two branches of government get another crack at it. Congress can pass a law to overturn the rule, although that law will need to be signed by the president or passed over his veto.”

Republicans have threatened to undo regulations that are key elements of President Obama’s climate policy, especially under a Republican president. But Robert Percival, professor of environmental law at the University of Maryland, observes that courts have been skeptical of such attempts:

“When President Reagan’s Department of Transportation rescinded its air bag regulations, the Supreme Court held that it had acted arbitrarily and capriciously because the decision was not supported by the factual record showing that air bags save lives.”

Weighing costs and benefits

Presidents, members of Congress and interest groups have also clashed over the costs and benefits of specific regulations.

In 2015 the Supreme Court blocked an EPA proposal to limit mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants, saying the agency should have performed a cost-benefit analysis to see whether the burden of complying with the rule was justified. George Washington University professor Susan Dudley called the decision

“ … a victory for common sense regulation, and for Americans who object to government agencies spending consumers’ money as if it were free.… In this case, the incidence of regulatory costs will fall not on power plants but ultimately on households and individuals, who will face higher electric bills.”

Sources of mercury in U.S. streams, 2005. U.S. Geological Survey

But when MIT atmospheric chemist Noelle Eckley Selin and doctoral student Amanda Giang quantified health and economic benefits of the mercury rule to the United States as a whole, they found it provided substantial benefits, some of which had not been studied by EPA:

“Our research suggests that including a larger set of health effects – namely, both IQ and heart attacks – and the impact on specific populations could lead to mercury-related benefits estimates that are orders of magnitude larger than those reported by the EPA.”

After EPA revised its analysis of costs and benefits, the Supreme Court rejected another legal challenge to the rule in 2016.

Equal protection?

Regulations on the books are not always enforced consistently. Environmental and community groups have criticized EPA and other agencies for many years for failing to police environmental violations effectively in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

Environmental justice protest in Detroit, 2010. Toban B./Flickr, CC BY-NC

Robert Bullard, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, sees this dynamic in the crisis over lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water. Bullard observes:

“In studying the history of environmental justice, you see over and over that it generally takes longer for poor communities to be heard when they make complaints. Government officials received complaints in April 2014 expressing that something was wrong with the water in Flint. If regulators at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had had to drink that water, or serve it to their children, their response would have been different….We have one set of laws and regulations, and they should be enforced equally across the board.”