Can the GOP Be Anti-EPA and Pro-Environment?

Most of the GOP’s Presidential hopefuls have been savage in their criticism of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Indeed, some have called for the agency to be dismantled.  Could this possibly be a good idea?  I’m all for criticizing the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of federal environmental regulation — I’ve certainly done my share — but the agency is not about to disappear, no matter who is elected President, nor would simply closing the agency down be a good idea.

The NYT‘s latest “Room for Debate” poses the question: “What if Republicans Closed the EPA.” Here’s my contribution:

There’s plenty not to like about contemporary environmental regulation. Most of today’s regulatory infrastructure was erected decades ago, and it has not aged well. Federal laws designed to control the nation’s heaviest polluters and maintain regional air quality are a poor fit for the broader environmental problems of today. Yet opposing the Environmental Protection Agency, by itself, is not a serious environmental policy. If Republican candidates are serious about reducing regulatory burdens while maintaining the nation’s historic commitment to environmental conservation, they need to articulate an alternative environmental vision more consonant with conservative values.

What would an alternative environmental vision look like? It would have to marry traditional conservative commitments to property rights and limited government with a genuine concern for environmental conservation. It would embrace technological innovation and ecological entrepreneurship and comprehend that one-size-fits-all approaches rarely fit much of the country very well. It would recognize that the same federal government that enforces environmental protections often subsidizes and encourages the very environmental degradation that regulatory programs are designed to prevent. It would also understand that well-intentioned environmental regulations are often themselves an obstacle to environmental progress.

A good place to start would be targeting environmentally harmful subsidies, such as those for ethanol and polluting industries, and identifying regulatory requirements that penalize conservation and frustrate the development and deployment of cleaner technologies. Another useful step would be to create an ecological waiver process, through which states and localities could seek relief from prescriptive requirements. Such a process was essential to welfare reform and could facilitate meaningful environmental reforms as well.

Improving environmental quality does not require the maintenance of a massive centralized, regulatory bureaucracy in Washington, but restoring rationality to environmental policy is not as simple as shuttering the E.P.A.