America / Energy

The Role of States in Environmental Policy

On February 15, 2013 the House Energy and Commerce committee held a hearing to look into the role of states and the protection of the environment under current law. The delegation of power between the state and federal government is one of the most prominent debates in American history. It is a debate that is applicable to many issues, though this hearing was focused the present state of environmental protection and how the states deal with and implement environmental policy.

Do the states lack the will and means so support and carry out environmental law? Many who testified spoke to the contrary. Teresa Marks, a representative from the Arkansas department of Environmental quality, spoke on behalf of the Environmental Council of States and asserted that the states currently play a vital role in environmental policy and it is imperative that that continues. She mentioned that the states implement 96.5% of federal programs and conduct 96% of inspections at regulated facilities. It is much more affordable for the states to hire, train and use employees as they see fit, rather than deploy a set number of federal employees to accomplish the same tasks. Building off that, the states provide 90% of enforcement and provide 94% of data found in the EPA’s largest informational databases. They also pay for approximately 80% of the cost of operating federal programs thus saving the federal government a great amount of money.

In addition, Sarah Pillsbury, administrator for the Drinking Water and Groundwater Bureau, representing the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, emphasized that state workers have a more intimate relationship with the communities they serve. They know first hand that what they do is important and effective. An individual working for and promoting the health of their family, city or state has more incentive than a distant delegate of the federal government.

Therefore, it is the job of the EPA to oversee the activities of the states and create overarching national requirements along with needed tools and information. The EPA can serve to create the “big idea”, and craft general rules and goals for the states to follow. The states can then implement those requirements consistently with local conditions.

However, this hands-off concept may not work best in every situation. North Carolina representative, Pricey Harrison spoke on behalf of the National Caucus of environmental legislators and argued that the states may not always do enough to protect the environment. In North Carolina, there has been a wave of anti-regulation sentiment that has hindered environmental policy. This particularly applies to the production and burning of coal. There have been 70 EPA reports of coal ash polluting groundwater across the nation. The state is not instituting much regulation on coal ash sites, and therefore is putting public health at risk.

This may be an unfortunate consequence of state driven environmental policy, however it is the responsibility of the citizens of that state to act in order to make a difference. As a whole, individual states are very invested in the preservation of environmental quality and public health, and act accordingly. The US is a very large country and each state has different environmental needs and varying natural resources. It is the responsibility of the citizens to empower local governments to ensure the protection of their community’s physical environment. A one-size fits all approach will not effectively and efficiently implement environmental policy and protection.