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William O'Keefe
CEO, George C. Marshall Institute

William O'Keefe

William O'Keefe is CEO at the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank that promotes better use of science in public policy. He is a former COO at the American Petroleum Institute. ALL POSTS

How clean is clean enough?

Q: April 22 marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the launching point for America's modern environmental movement. To what extent has the U.S. delivered on the vision of Earth Day's founders, and where has the modern environmental movement gone wrong?

By any reasonable and objective measure, there has been tremendous environmental progress since the first Earth Day. Though there will always be more that can be done, no one can deny that air and water are much cleaner and exposure to toxins are much less.

Now is the time for a look back to assess which mechanisms worked, how well, and what could have been done more efficiently with the benefit of hindsight. Given our significant progress to date, future incremental gains will be challenging and will not come cheaply. So it is appropriate to ask how clean is clean enough.

Resources are not free, so consuming disproportionate resources for marginal gains is a questionable practice. Accordingly, the goal of environmental action should be to achieve benefits that clearly exceed their costs, including those incurred by unintended consequences. Yet, this has rarely been the approach used in the past. And federal regulators show little indication of plans to slow down any time soon.

When Congress decided to mandate reformulated gasoline, research conducted by the oil and auto industries demonstrated that tailpipe emission reductions could be achieved at a lower cost than the formula written into legislation. However, Congress wanted to transfer wealth to agricultural interests, so gasoline became more expensive than it had to be. Similarly, when EPA decided to reduce sulfur levels in gasoline and diesel, it chose a level that imposed unnecessarily high costs on refiners. If the hidden objective of fuel regulation is to discourage mobility, then higher costs are better even if not efficient.

Now EPA is moving ahead to propose a lower ozone standard even though it may put most of the nation in non-attainment, may produce negligible benefits, and perhaps for some regions be unachievable. If the agency is successful, states will have to take actions that will impose large costs on their citizens and businesses. Actions have consequences; however, EPA seems to be acting without any regard for those consequences and the impact they will have on average citizens, especially those already struggling to make ends meet.

Instead of continuing a command and control regulatory approach that is from the center and top down, it is time to consider whether Washington needs a course correction. Now may be the time to pursue a model that involves greater flexibility and a true partnership between states and the federal government. That would have the potential benefit of promoting what is called civic environmentalism.

Civic environmentalism is a new different way of thinking about environmental problems. It combines the most effective elements of command-and-control regulation with market-based environmentalism. While regulation succeeds in focusing attention on a particular problem and setting national standards, it often fails to craft effective, cost-minimizing solutions. A market based approach encourages the most flexible and specialized fixes.

It also recognizes that "the environment" is not a special realm reserved for experts and professional activists, but an essential aspect of public life. That kind of thinking may be anathema to the big environmental groups, but it's the only effective approach to today's diffuse, varied, and highly local ecological challenges.

Civic environmentalism incorporates market-oriented policies to encourage private property owners to contribute to the public good of environmental protection. The approach is designed to provide greater levels of accountability at the local level while allowing better environmental protection at lower costs than federal regulation. Civic environmentalism synthesizes the strengths of the federal government in making environmental policy and the unique abilities of state and local governments. And a side benefit is that it also promotes good citizenship.

The George C. Marshall Institute has published several documents on this approach --

By William O'Keefe  |  April 19, 2010; 9:14 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

Under the light of truth, the green movement has turned into a bowel movement.
But this is what happens when the wacko leftist radicals get hold of legitimate environmental concerns for their agenda.

The 5 Most embarrassing decisions made by Ameicans.

1, I bought an Edsel
2, I bought Bennie Babies to make a fortune
3. I believed the Global Cooling Hoax
4, I believed the Global Warning Hoax
5. I voted for Obama

Posted by: jblast2000 | April 23, 2010 2:30 AM
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IF you could change your mind to the idea that the way our society utilises banking and finance are not the only options for our planet, then you may realise that the limits placed on our efforts are dictated to by an amoral financial system that is killing humanity. Debt based banking and fiat currencies which have been fractionalised by corrupt men and markets are doomed. Your Fed is a private company and unaudited! Your debt is insane and the system is collapsing around you all, yet the same mindnumbing dribble is all the world hears.
The past 40 years are a total disgrace to every human on this insane little planet. Constant wars and state sponsored terrorism by your own government should wake you all up, but oh no! We keep our two party fascist regime because we vote for anything. If you Americans don't get your heads out of your rear ends real soon, the world as you know it is doomed. You assasinate your presidents if they don't toe the party line, and the world is laughing itself into a frenzy watching the USA get screwed financially by the banking world aka the UK as payback for your war of Independence. Corporations are destroying our world because that criminal Kissinger duped the Arabs into tying oil to the U$ dollar! Every war has been a false flag operation, just like 9/11 and the invented 'terrorist' threat. Please get with the program mate. Arrest Bush and Co. Sack Obama and get a decent system. Concerned Australian.
Mark S Filby

Posted by: markfilby | April 23, 2010 1:18 AM
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