The Path of Progress
The Internet has become an essential tool in helping regulators track companies' compliance with environmental regulations
- By William K. Reilly
- May 01, 2007
During my confirmation hearing in the Senate in 1989, I became aware how deep were concerns in the Democratic-controlled Congress that a Republican appointee for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator would not vigorously enforce environmental laws against business. Senator Max Baucus from Montana, noting my reputation as a consensus builder and mediator, pointedly reminded me that I was not being confirmed as “the Environmental Mediation Administrator.” I stated my commitment to vigorous enforcement of the laws, and promised particularly to make Superfund polluters clean up or pay, as President George H. W. Bush had promised in his campaign.
Once in office, I embarked on a course intended to make clear to companies whose lawyers had advised them to “lay back in the weeds” rather than to acknowledge liabilities for contaminating sites, that the days of delay, defer and obfuscate were over. During my time as administrator, the government assessed more penalties, realized more in settlement moneys, and enforced more aggressively than in the entire previous 18 year history of the agency. We enforced at such an aggressive pace -- impartially against municipalities harboring contaminated sites as well as against companies -- that mayoral and congressional delegations began to invite me to private chats and to ask me to ease up, especially on cities’ liabilities for their dumps.
I believed in enforcement of the laws both to effect their purposes and to ensure a fair and level playing field for the law abiders. But I also observed that EPA’s efforts to be even-handed and impartial in focusing enforcement resources failed to discriminate among companies, and also missed opportunities to incentivize innovative environmental initiatives. By the late 1980s, EPA had enough experience to know the problem companies, and the good guys. So I targeted enforcement efforts at sectors and companies – for example, the pulp and paper plants were caught early in EPA’s crosshairs -- that were chronic polluters. And we crafted approaches that encouraged companies with excellent reputations for compliance to experiment with techniques to improve performance. These efforts paid off and gave me confidence to move beyond compliance toward challenging companies to innovate.
I announced the “33-50” plan, an EPA program that asked companies to reduce by a third (33 percent) their lawful toxics emissions by 1992, and 50 percent by 1995. We established “Energy Star computers” to provide labels certifying energy-efficient computers. Other “Star” labeling programs followed. The “Green lights” program offered companies the ability to collaborate with EPA analysts to assess how much electricity they could save by installing compact fluorescent lighting. The results staggered us, as well as the companies, and the resulting reductions in pollution were the equivalent of removing half a million cars from the road! These programs cost the government nothing, yet achieved significant reductions in pollution.
In all of these exercises, data on pollution, as well as on the benefits of changed policies, were vital. To enforce, we needed data. To measure economic benefits, companies needed data. To assess results, EPA needed data. How to get it? The answer lay in comprehensive and sophisticated data collection, monitoring, management and reporting.
Since leaving government and joining the private sector, I appreciate data from a different perspective. Whereas the regulator needs facts to enforce, assess penalties, or reward superior performance, the regulated company needs data to make cost-effective allocations of resources, assess the effectiveness of management, and defend itself against prosecution or lawsuits by third parties. Hence, I give the highest priority to establishing reliable monitoring and data management.
As the nation and the world enter the era of serious carbon regulation, compliance with ambitious and far-reaching requirements assumes a new salience. I associated myself with Enviance, a Southern California company, because I was struck by the need to streamline the regulatory compliance process for industries such as energy production, pharmaceutical, chemical, and other manufacturers. There is an urgent need above all for a reliable means to track greenhouse gas emissions, but also hazardous waste, air pollution and water pollution releases. Using the Internet -- one of the truly revolutionary, pervasive and democratic instruments available to all -- to track compliance with laws is enormously appealing. It is simple and universally accessible to regulator and regulated, as well as to the general public. And, Enviance has the unique capacity to do it.
More than at any time in my career, the new technologies, the innovative products, the environmental and economic breakthroughs that improve our lives are coming from the private sector. If we are to confront the planetary challenge of climate change, it is in the private sector that we must monitor progress, incentivize achievement, and reward results. Government has a critical role in insisting, as President Reagan prescribed during an earlier era of challenge, “trust but verify.” The private sector, with good transparent data, can reassure us of this verification and we can then trust that we are on the path of progress.
This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.