Both America’s left and right have failed on environmental legislation
The United States needs a balanced, consistent approach to environmental policy making, not one prone to U-turns every election cycle.
For over a decade, public debate on the topic has been dominated by far-left environmentalist groups and devil-may-care industrialists. The result has been an Obama administration that could only go left on environmental issues, followed by a reactionary Trump administration that is going just as far in the opposite direction. Without a middle ground, this pattern of environmental policy shifts will likely continue. Every four years, policies could alternate between overbearing regulations used to target specific industries and politically-motivated sprees of deregulation followed by ineffective enforcement. That is bad news for manufacturers and mammals alike.
Presidents Obama and Trump both view aggressive environmental policy making as a way to appease their voter bases rather than as solutions for real-world problems. Democrats allowed the far-left environmentalist wing of the party to dominate environmental policy debates, led by vocal advocacy groups and environmental NGOs like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. In contrast, Republicans are using environmental policy making to appease corporate interests and working-class voters who depend on heavy industries for jobs. While both sides have legitimate concerns, their tactics do more harm than good.
Outsized outrage distracts from real failings
These extremely partisan policy agendas and advocacy efforts have left little middle ground where economic and environmental policies can work together rather than against one another. Being forced to choose between green pastures and greenbacks is a perception many policymakers have, but it is not consistent with on the ground experience. So long as politicians make binary decisions, the US as a whole will suffer. Let us take a look at some examples where both these constituencies’ actions have created problems for the country.
One may be tempted to think that environmental groups (ENGOs) have lost their political influence and will not get it back until the next presidential election, but that simply is not the case. In Alaska, ENGOs are aggressively targeting one of the state’s biggest energy producers, Hilcorp, due to recent leaks at Cook Inlet. If one were to only hear the environmentalist side of the story, the two recent leaks – one of natural gas and the other of oil – are utter catastrophes, and the company cannot be trusted to drill a molecule of oil without making a mess.
The natural gas leakage from Hilcorp’s pipeline pales in comparison to the amount that naturally seeps out of the ground across Alaska, and has exhibited no negative implications for wildlife in Cook Inlet thus far. It will be fully repaired once winter ice surrounding the line melts, allowing divers to access the site. Meanwhile, the oil leak is estimated to have only emitted a total of 3 gallons into the Inlet; it was promptly shut down, and a full investigation will be completed before the pipeline is restarted. In this case, the shut-it-all-down argument from the environmentalist camp is the rough equivalent of saying a car should be totaled and sent to the scrapyard because of a flat tire. Yet their ambitious outcry has drawn outsized attention to the issue, drawing in Alaskan governor, and putting public scrutiny on energy projects in a state that desperately needs oil and gas revenue to avoid bankruptcy.
Focus on common sense solutions over partisan hyperbole
This same environmental lobby has been so focused on its campaign against coal, oil and gas producers that it has become easy for policymakers to forget that other issues of environmental importance also require their attention. Many industrial companies, always on the hunt for cost savings and a better bottom line, have no qualms about looking the other way on environmental issues. A notorious example of their negligence is the Elk River chemical spill of 2014, which caused a water crisis affecting 300,000 Americans.
A company called Freedom Industries was storing industrial chemicals in large tanks located just feet from West Virginia’s Elk River, which flows into the Kanawha River and Mississippi Basin. The site had not been inspected by state or federal environmental regulators since 1991, a full 23 years prior to the incident, as West Virginia laws only require inspections of production facilities, not storage ones. On January 9, 2014, approximately 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM, used in coal production) leaked into the Elk just a mile upstream from where a utility takes water to supply it to residents of 9 counties.
President Obama had to declare a state of emergency. Public officials put a ‘no use’ advisory to affected areas, meaning that citizens were warned not to use tap water for anything except putting out fires, causing a run on bottled water supplies. Thankfully, the largely unstudied chemical proved to be essentially non-toxic and tap water was deemed safe about a week later. But as the story of the leak was investigated, we learned that Freedom Industries knew about the leak several hours before it was reported to authorities and made known to the water utility.
In contrast, in Alaska, we see the opposite; minor incidents being handled responsibly and efficiently by environmentally conscious energy business and relevant authorities, with no tangible effects to humans, marine life or the environment. Still activists call for the company to be unnecessarily scrutinized. The United States could be leveraging its expertise and knowledge on environmental issues to prevent and solve the problems that hit Americans the hardest. Instead, it is wavering between policy positions that, in the long run, cancel each other out and help no one.
Inspecting a chemical storage site close to a water source should be an obvious and essential task for environmental regulators to complete on a regular basis. But the partisan environmental policy atmosphere at the state and federal level does nothing to deter corporate and regulatory negligence, because no one scores a political victory in the media by conducting normal and effective governance. The country’s attitude towards environmental policies needs to be brought back to their senses and refocused on the problems that have a direct, immediate impact on Americans. Until then, real environmental crises will continue to occur while partisan interests keep attention focused in the wrong places.