Energy & Environment

EPA In The Balance

Many Western governors, Utah's Leavitt among them, want to meet national EPA standards by using local approaches.
by | October 2003

Beyond California's congested coast, most of the mountains and deserts of the American West are still largely unaffected by commerce and its consequences. As some economists will tell you, those wide-open spaces now are becoming matchless assets for attracting computer-age businesses and footloose entrepreneurs who are looking for wild and alluring places to locate. Western political leaders have been slow to catch on that too much logging, mining and poorly planned growth risk throwing away an incalculable economic advantage.

But some governors have begun to recognize that the West has the most to lose if governments don't get better at managing development and minimizing its polluted byproducts. To square environmental protection with economic needs, the Western Governors Association embraced what it dubs "Enlibra Principles" for dealing with contentious trade-offs. Based on Latin, the term Enlibra was coined by Utah Governor Michael Leavitt and former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber to express their intent to "move toward balance" in resolving the West's embittered debates over logging, mining and protecting native wildlife. Leavitt's a conservative Republican and Kitzhaber's an environment-minded Democrat, but they agreed that states, counties and local citizens must start working collaboratively with federal agencies to figure out how to apply national environmental standards most effectively out on the ground.

Leavitt's been nominated as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, and he says he'll apply the Enlibra approach to how federal pollution control policy is implemented. National environmental lobbies were quick to scorn entrusting a governor from a lightly populated state with the control of pollution in crowded industrial centers. Westerners have always run the U.S. Interior Department, but EPA has been regarded as belonging to the industrial Midwest and coastal regions.

Yet among all 50 state governors, Leavitt has been perhaps the most creative thinker about what roles state and local governments should play in pursuing national objectives. If Leavitt survives the nomination process and can master Washington's divisive environmental politics, the "move toward balance" philosophy just might blaze some new trails for solving some of the nation's most intractable pollution problems.

As defined by Western governors, Enlibra boils down to eight general rules or slogans: National Standards, Neighborhood Solutions; Collaboration, not Polarization; Reward Results, not Programs; Science for Facts, Process for Priorities; Markets before Mandates; Change a Heart, Change a Nation; Recognition of Costs and Benefits; and Solutions Transcend Political Boundaries. These codify common-sense innovations close to ones the National Academy of Public Administration has outlined in several studious critiques of EPA's command-and-control regulatory methods. State pollution-control commissioners have been promoting similar performance-based approaches for 10 years through the Environmental Council of the States.

"Enlibra reads like a state to-do list," says R. Steven Brown, the ECOS executive director. While former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, the one-time New Jersey governor, sounded similar themes, federal and state regulators who've worked closely with Leavitt say he's assumed a take-charge role in brokering environmental solutions.

Utah was one of the first states to sign agreements with EPA that gave its Environmental Quality Department more leeway to target priority pollution problems. Leavitt's administration struck similar partnerships with county governments that were dealing with southwestern Utah's spillover growth from Las Vegas, and with communities that were managing impacts from Salt Lake City's 2002 Winter Olympic Games. Leavitt also took a personal interest in 13- state negotiations that came with a regional air pollution strategy to reduce haze over Grand Canyon National Park.

Leavitt has given a lot of thought to making environmental regulation more effective. Of course, many will sneer at his consensus-building goals, figuring they'll get their own way through the White House, Congress or the courts. "It will be a tougher sell in the East," notes Langdon Marsh, who served as pollution-control chief in New York and then Oregon.

Marsh adds, however, that performance-based regulation and "meeting federal standards while using local approaches" makes sense all over the country. Leavitt's role in dealing with Grand Canyon haze suggests that Northeast and Midwest states might start thinking again about negotiating over regional air quality differences instead of resorting to the courts to settle long-running battles. Down the road, collaborative local strategies will be required to get a handle on nonpoint water pollutants and other widely dispersed threats that EPA's rigid regulatory structure isn't nimble enough to cope with.

Original thinking is crucial, whatever it's called and wherever it comes from. Maybe a governor from Utah can supply it.

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