What Obama Means for Environmental Policy

My colleagues will be providing some commentary on what an Obama presidency means, realistically, for global warming policy. Here, I’m going to comment on environmental policy more generally.

First, I suspect that we will see the EPA Administrator raised to cabinet rank. With this will come a more radical and assertive EPA. This should not be surprising. Even within this Administration, the EPA has been flexing its muscles. The issuance of the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act was accompanied by reactions from other government departments about how terrible the rules would be, rather than going through the usual process of dealing with these difficulties internally and watering down the rule. Given that Obama has said he will want the EPA, absent Congressional action, to go ahead with its plans, this may be an indication that EPA will become an agency that, in most cases, is primus inter pares.

This would ordinarily be bad news for landowners, industries and anyone else who might run afoul of the EPA’s re-empowered enforcement units. However, the ANPR may be evidence of overreach. Virtually everyone who has looked at the EPA’s plans warn of regulatory overload, with the requirements for enforcement far outweighing the abilities of a normal government department. Traditional environmental enforcement could play second fiddle to the new greenhouse gas enforcement.

Environmental groups will assuredly become much more influential within the new administration, but it is an open question how much political capital President Obama will be willing to spend on their behalf. Easy issues like removing some of the restrictions placed around the listing of the Polar Bear under the Endangered Species Act will please environmentalists while outraging industry but not the public. Incremental moves aimed at making coal use more expensive will also be quite easy to achieve. Large amounts of money will be directed at energy and vehicle technology development. Influential leaders within the environmental movement will be given positions of power within the EPA, Interior and Energy departments. In short, establishment environmentalism will suffuse the new administration, even if major environmental initiatives are not pushed as quickly as some would like.

The question is whether, after the extras burdens and bureaucracy involved cause businesses to relocate and after energy restrictions cause brownouts and blackouts, the administration’s opponents and the general public will be able to join the dots. If they do, environmentalism could be a major factor in any backlash.