Setting the Course for More Effective Environmental Policy

The following is based on Mackinac Center Director of Science, Environment, and Technology Policy Diane Katz's speech "Setting the Course for More Effective Environmental Policy," delivered  April 29, 2002, at the Mackinac Center Issues and Ideas luncheon in Lansing.

The rules of speechmaking dictate that I open with an amusing anecdote or joke, the better to establish rapport with you all. But as everyone here well knows—being, as we are, within a few miles of a good many environmental lobbying firms—the  environment is a very serious matter. Or as one wag recently said on C-Span, "Too serious to leave to the environmentalists."  So I will move directly to the task at hand, which is: "Setting the Course for More Effective Environmental Policy."

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Let's get our terms straight first. More effective policy, in my book, does not necessarily mean more stringent or restrictive rules and regulations. It has long been an article of faith in the green liturgy that ever tighter government controls on industry, in general, and Michigan's Big Three, in particular, are the best and only way to improve environmental quality. And while the regulatory regimes established under the federal Clean Air and Clean Water Acts have yielded results, it is also true that there would have been even greater environmental improvements faster and at far less cost to the nation had Congress instead relied upon the transformative powers of technology, property rights and the free market.

In his book "Clearing the Air: The Real Story of the War on Air Pollution," author Indur M. Goklany documents that air quality had significantly improved prior to federalization —and would have continued to improve in the absence of Washington's regulatory hammer.

So what I mean by more effective policy is that which maximizes environmental benefits per unit of effort, be it dollars, regulation or sweat—and which we know definitively is not the expansion of the regulatory state. Whether we talk about Superfund, endangered species or soot and smog, as much or more effort has been expended on political jockeying and paper shuffling than on actually reclaiming brownfields, protecting habitat or controlling emissions. Simply put, what matters most are outcomes, not inputs. And to the extent that we focus on results rather than crafting punishing regulatory processes, public policy will prove more effective.

That's easier said than done, of course, as demonstrated by the environmental equivalent of the arms race currently underway in the gubernatorial campaign. But more on that later.

Again, I gratefully acknowledge that substantial gains in environmental quality have occurred over the past three decades. Billions of dollars worth of new technologies have dramatically reduced industrial emissions. Smokestacks and tailpipes no longer pose the gravest environmental threats. Carbon monoxide concentrations have been reduced a whopping 57 percent; lead 94 percent; sulfur dioxide 50 percent; and nitrogen dioxide 25 percent. Forestland, too, is flourishing, now covering 44 percent of the state.  The rate of wetland loss is in decline.

Great Lakes wildlife, meanwhile, is thriving, indicating healthier waters. Wild trout have rebounded, with hatchery stocks comprising less than 20 percent of the trout population in Lake Superior. The bald eagle population has increased from just 50 nests in 1961 to 366 in 2000.  More than releases of PCBs, DDT, or lead, the biggest challenges to our waterways now include "natural" phenomenon such as the "invasion" of non-native species.

As a national measure of progress, Americans are living longer than at any time in history—76.9 years, on average.  Centenarians, in fact, now rank among the fastest-growing age groups in the nation, with an estimated 75,000 among us having celebrated their 100th birthday. No period in history has experienced such a dramatic increase in life expectancy.

And yet the public perception persists that our collective nest remains dangerously fouled. And no wonder. Almost daily, we are fed outright falsehoods about the environment by those who profit handsomely from peddling doom and gloom. Toxic clouds choking our children, poisons tainting our tap water, a fatal fever looming over the planet. But all this calls to mind the Soviet political prisoner who, facing banishment to Siberia, said: "If the United States is such a terrible place, why not send me there instead?"

Our progress is both a blessing and a challenge, however. With most major pollution sources now largely under control, the more marginal improvements become harder to achieve. Just as dieters struggle hardest to shed those last unwanted pounds, so, too, will further headway on the environmental front demand more concentrated effort. Now more than ever, then, more effective policy is needed. 

But loathe to be tarred as anti-environmental (or mean-spirited, in green parlance) many elected officials simply retreat from substantive debate on the issues. Not surprisingly. To question an environmental do-gooder is to issue an open invitation to scorn. And yet this political timidity has all but ceded environmental policy to the statists who, intentionally or otherwise, confuse good intentions with actual results. The sad fact is, that this ideological monopoly undermines environmental protection.

Take, for example, the state ban on directional drilling enacted last month. As the Mackinac Center's Michael LaFaive reported, insurance data confirm that the actual environmental risks of drilling 1,500 feet from shore are, in fact, negligible.  In the past 20 years, insurers have recorded only 12 claims nationwide involving drilling to depths of 5,000 feet—none in Michigan, by the way, although some 3,800 direction well bores—including 13 beneath the Great Lakes, have been drilled in the state. Moreover, Canadian firms have safely drilled 2,200 wells under Lake Erie since 1913, and two pipelines have carried oil and natural gas across the Mackinac straits for more than three decades.

Moreover, the Michigan Environmental Science Board concluded in 1997 that "there is little to no risk of contamination to the Great Lakes bottom or waters through releases directly above the bottom hole portion of directionally drilled wells . . . ."  The one "small" risk identified by the board was contamination at the wellhead, far from the water's edge.

Now you may well wonder what's wrong in being cautious? Isn't it better to avoid all risk? But zero risk doesn't exist, and there are negative and perverse consequences to acting as though it does. On the drilling issue, for example, the state will now forego the mineral leasing rights that would otherwise generate more than $416 million for the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands. Consequently, lawmakers and the governor have effectively abandoned thousands of acres of potentially imperiled habitat to buy insurance—and to score political points—against a virtually nonexistent threat. What we get instead, then, is a false sense of security that actually leaves our lakes more vulnerable, not less.

Too, this zero-tolerance mentality toward natural resource utilization forecloses development of environmentally friendly technologies, and in doing so diminishes the wealth creation necessary to further enhance environmental stewardship. Well-meaning though lawmakers may be, effective policy this does not make.

Nor are of the gubernatorial candidates offering particularly enlightened policy prescriptions. On the contrary, they appear to be attempting to distinguish themselves among voters by out-greening their opponents with promises to grow the regulatory machine. But voters would do well to recognize that by actually streamlining environmental regulation, the supposedly anti-environmental administration of Gov. John Engler boosted investment in brownfield redevelopment seven-fold between 1996 and 2001.

Congressman David Bonior, for example repeatedly refers to Michigan as a "Cathedral of nature" and hands out seedlings while campaigning door-to-door. That's all well and good. But Mr. Bonior also has proposed legislation that would facilitate a federal takeover of lakes management, which would seriously hamper regional efforts to improve water quality. And if you have any doubts about the advantages of state vs. federal controls, consider that Lansing proposed raising highway signs after a series of heavy snowfalls while the feds instead advocated lowering the highways.

Just kidding. But you get the point.

Mr. Bonior also is dedicated to closing Michigan landfills to out-of-state trash, the consequence of which would likely be much higher tipping fees for state residents—and thus more illegal dumping. And to limit sprawl, Bonior proposes to "get the housing industry, environmentalists and others together to discuss where and how new development should take place." But land-use controls elsewhere have actually contributed to sprawl, as developers respond to demand for new housing by building in so-called greenfields outside no-growth boundaries.

Jennifer Granholm, meanwhile, is promising to reconsolidate the Departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources. Not only would resurrecting the bureaucratic quagmire of a single agency impede the state's conservation programs, but permitting functions would likewise be hindered—ensuring less environmental investment on the part of industry. And in her capacity as attorney general, Ms. Granholm prosecuted station owners who rationally raised prices in an attempt to prevent a gasoline shortage following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That's hardly a hallmark of sound resource management. 

Jim Blanchard, for his part, promises to establish a new state department of Great Lakes and Water Quality among his first acts of governor. This might have merit to the extent Mr. Blanchard would consolidate the myriad programs competing for control of the lakes. But based on his past performance, I suspect that Mr. Blanchard is more interested in increasing regulatory inputs than on improving outcomes.

Like his Democratic rivals, Dick Posthumus appears to be distancing himself from Gov. Engler's undeserved reputation as Environmental Enemy No. 1. His web site states: "This may be something you are not used to hearing from a Republican," he says, "but I am committed to ensuring that our water and natural resources are cleaner the day I leave office than the day I enter."

Mr. Posthumus is promising to develop an environmental Marshall Plan, and proposes rebuilding the state's sewer infrastructure. Like his democratic rivals, he also opposes directional drilling for oil and natural gas as well as any diversion of water from the Great Lakes.

Notwithstanding all the campaign rhetoric, Michigan's next governor will achieve more effective policy only by applying the most basic truths of good governance. Such as, incentives are more powerful than punishment; sound science yields better results than demagogy; and, most important, citizens are far better stewards of their property than the state will ever be.

Advancing these simple but time-tested principles is the goal of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's new Science, Environment and Technology Initiative. If I do nothing else it will be to dismantle the statist monopoly on good intentions. My colleagues and I care deeply about the environment.   I have circled Isle Royale in a canoe and marveled at our Pictured Rocks and Taquomenon Falls. Some of us regularly fly fish the Au Sable and summer on the golden beaches of Lakes Michigan and Huron. Our respect for the natural wonders of our state is why we are dedicated to optimizing environmental policy.

Unfair though it may be, lawmakers and the public are predisposed to take false environmental claims at face value. Therefore, we will counter myths with truth. We will demonstrate that the best guarantees of a healthy environment are free minds and free markets. And we will prove that reason—scientific and economic—constitutes far more effective environmental policy than any amount of green propaganda.    

"Almost daily, we are fed outright falsehoods about the environment by those who profit handsomely from peddling doom and gloom."