The Future of the Environmental Protection Agency

by Bill Chameides | February 3rd, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments

Paul Anastas is the Science Advisor and Assistant Administrator for Research and Development for the US Environmental Protection Agency. He sees disruptive technologies as the key to a sustainable future.

Is EPA a dinosaur set for extinction, or at the cutting edge of green innovation?

The Environmental Protection Agency, which just turned 40, is celebrating this milestone, but it is not a joyous occasion for all. In case you haven’t noticed, a general notion afoot in these United States has it that our economic problems stem from too much regulation — even the prez has got into the act. (I find it a little ironic since the general feeling in 2008 and 2009 seemed to be it was the lack of regulations that got us into the mess we’re in today. But hey, maybe that’s just me). Given that much of what EPA does substantively is to issue and enforce rules and regulations, such anti-regulatory fervor probably doesn’t give the folks at the agency the warm and fuzzies.

One Vision: Newt Wants Nukes, Not EPA

But in case the rhetoric against regulations hasn’t gotten the message home, there have been more overt assaults. Front and center has got to be former Speaker of the House (and possible presidential hopeful) Newt Gingrich, who has called for the elimination of EPA, opining that “EPA is based on bureaucrats centered in Washington issuing regulations and litigation and basically opposing things.”

Mr. Gingrich wants an agency that is more about innovation and working with industry. He proposes to replace the Environmental Protection Agency with a new Environmental Solution Agency. High on his to-do list are to push “clean coal” technology and rewrite regulations governing small nuclear plants. Gingrich made these remarks (you fans of presidential prognostication make note) while he was in Iowa to speak to the Renewable Fuels Association. You gotta hand it to the guy for being able to make headlines by making nice to the coal, nuclear and corn industries all in one day.

Another Vision: EPA’s Anastas Sees ‘Disruptive Technologies’ As Key to Sustainable Future

Given all the EPA negativity, I found it interesting to be able to hear the story from another point of view.

Last week Dr. Paul Anastas, the assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development and the science advisor to the agency, was at Duke giving one of the keynote addresses at our recent conference on corporate sustainability.

Paul provides a counterpoint to all the talk about EPA regulations, because he is not about regulation. Trained as a synthetic organic chemist, Paul is known in some quarters as the father of “green chemistry,” having spent much of his career on the design of safer, more benign chemicals and chemical processes.

Ironically, Paul’s vision of what EPA should be doing in the future is not all that different from Gingrich’s — they both see innovation at the forefront. Paul, who called himself a “scientific and technological optimist,” believes in the power of science and technology to solve problems and define the future. Case in point: he took out his smart phone and noted that “all the technology that it took to get to the moon is now on my little phone.”

Paul boldly stated that the key to a sustainable future is “disruptive technologies.” Efficiency is good, he said, but it will never get us to where we need to be. He noted that “we can carry out unsustainable practices efficiently” but that won’t make them sustainable. And trying “to do the right things the wrong way like what we’ve done with biofuels” will not suffice either. He called for new metrics to define performance and sustainability to help drive the innovators of today and tomorrow to the truly disruptive technologies. And that, he thought, is the area where EPA will be concentrating to help move the ball down the field.

In closing, Paul made note of an address EPA administrator Lisa Jackson made at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. This is a part of her address:

“It’s not clear that the strategies of the past are the best strategies for producing the necessary solutions.

Historically environmental protection has been shaped by questions like:

  • What is the maximum amount of pollution that can be emitted into the air without sacrificing regulatory compliance?
  • What is the highest level of toxicity that can be present in our products without breaking the law?
How many people must fall ill before a standard needs to be strengthened?

The old approach was essential to helping us assess and manage risk the way EPA has for nearly three decades. But — as you can see — it focused on how environmentally abusive we can be under the constraints of risk and law.

We have a new opportunity now to focus on how environmentally protective and sustainable we can be. It’s the difference between treating disease and pursuing wellness.

It’s a difference, I believe, that will be fundamental to the future of EPA.”

Pretty innovative, but I wonder if that’s the kind of innovation Gingrich has in mind.

filed under: coal, faculty, policy, politics, sustainability
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  1. Sam Pardo
    Feb 9, 2011

    If folks don’t like the idea of the EPA dictating the extent of their environmental impacts, they’ll most likely loathe the EPA telling them how to actually go about their business. Perhaps what Ms. Jackson, Mr. Gingrich, and Mr. Anastas have in mind is, dare I say, an entirely new government agency. Although, I’m not sure what’s wrong with good ‘ole fashioned competition spurring private innovation. Market-based approaches have a solid track record of doing just that. We need the EPA to make rules and protect the public’s interest. Besides, if we ask them to innovate they’ll just contract private companies to do it for them. Sorry EPA brass, I love ya but I need more convincing on this one.

    • Bill Chameides
      Feb 21, 2011

      Sam: Market-based approaches work, provided someone (usually the government) sets ground rules for competing in the market. If polluting is cheaper than not polluting, companies will pollute to maximize profits at the expense of all of society. If the cost of polluting is internalized into the market, the innovative approaches to not pollute and compete will likely follow.

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