European Model for Managing State’s Environment

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Eye from Albany
July 2000

European Model for Managing State’s Environment
by Paul M. Bray

In order for the State to move ahead environmentally and economically in the global economy, two goals more inextricably linked than most politicians have realized, it is going to take trust and planning, two things in short supply in the State.

The nation and State woke up to pollution in a big way 30 years. Pollution was transformed from a cost-free activity to one of limits and restrictions on what pollutants could legally be released from a smoke stack or drain pipe.

Current thinking is that the system of legal, administrative and technical requirements for preventing and controlling pollution isn’t working adequately for either business or for guaranteeing a healthy environment.

The argument goes that the requirements are too costly, that they often overlap and are contradictory and that the regulatory approach is out of step with current economic conditions of the global economy. An article in the journal Corporate Environmental Strategy by David Monsma and Janice Mazurek point out that, ‘A state of constant corporate restructuring (i.e.,debt and equity), acquisition, merger, and short-term strategic partnerships makes it harder and harder for EPA, its state, local, and tribal counterparts to identify, prevent, and control pollution’.

The preferred alternative to the existing compliance regulatory approach is a more comprehensive and complex performance-based environmental management system. Under a performance approach compliance continues to be a first line of protection, but environmental management and pollution prevention becomes increasingly driven by long-term measurable goals for sustainable enterprise and stewardship. Government’s role is to define environmental excellence and provide a mix of rewards for business achieving the highest environmental performance and checks and balances when that doesn’t occur.

Experiments in performance-based approaches have been tried by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A voluntary program ’30/50′ created performance goals encouraging a reduction of emissions of seventeen target chemicals by fifty percent. Participating firms exceed the goal a year in advance of the target date.

Last year the Connecticut Legislature enacted a law rewarding companies that demonstrate, ‘an exemplary record of compliance with environmental laws’ and are registered as meet internationally-recognized principles for sustainability.

Yet, the impediments to the performance-based approach in New York State are great. The State’s regulatory program must conform in many ways to Federal laws and regulations and despite Federal attempts at innovation, the states have limited slack to deviate from the federal way. Industry also complains that the governmental staff who write performance-based standards have no experience in the affected industries and no understanding of what truly motivates business. Besides government moves slowly and is most comfortable with one size fits all regulations at a time when corporate management is increasingly less static and more into time to market concerns.

New York’s own impediments of having a culture of distrust and not having any real planning capability at the state level are daunting.

There is great suspicion between the watchdog environmental organizations like Environmental Advocates, Sierra Club and Citizen’s Environmental Coalition and the business community. It is likely to continue as long the environmentalists see corporations like General Electric trying to side step the costs of cleaning up hazardous substances like PCBs that they once discharged. At the same time the business community continues to smart from the environmental regulatory battles they lost since Earth Day. In the Legislature, the result is usually stalemate on critical issues like brownfield cleanup.

When, for example, Governor Pataki proposed a tax credit for building green buildings, the Business Council raised a red flag. What if, they suggested, the standards for green building materials were next used for purposes like procurement by the State.

Suspicion on all sides is the name of the game in Albany if the issue involves the environment. In this climate it doesn’t help that the State is essentially without a planning entity. Since the late 1960s when the State Office of Planning Coordination led the nation as a planning agency, the state planning function has all but disappeared. We neither have a good sense of what is the health of our environment nor a picture of where we want to go economically or environmentally in the future.

In these less than fertile conditions for environmental planning and regulatory reform and innovation a Dutch model of green plans for a sustainable future is beginning to germinate in the Legislature.

The Dutch and New Zealand model is being advanced by a California nonprofit organization, Resource Renewal Institute, which has become a worldwide missionary for what it calls green planning. Its Albany representative, Eric Siy, has aggressively courted the business and environmental communities in the State using the success of the model in the Netherlands to spark change here.

The likely and unlikely legislative spear carrier is Assemblyman Pete Grannis (D-NY)who is championing a bill to create a sustainable development task force to study the feasibility of goal oriented and performance based regulatory systems. Likely comes from Grannis’ long history of successfully leading the way with innovative and challenging legislation like the cigarette smoking control laws and lobbying reform. Grannis doesn’t shrink from formidable challenges. The unlikely comes from the strength of his ties with the most active environmentalists for whom he is carrying the ‘environmentalists’ brownfield cleanup bill.

Siy working closely with Grannis has worked hard to sell the notion of green planning and promote the task force legislation as a vehicle to ‘leap forward’. They have collected support, albeit sometimes skeptical, from the Business Council, the New York State Chemical Alliance, the New York State Conference of Mayors and various environmental organizations including NRDC and Environmental Advocates. Senator Balboni (R-LI) is sponsoring the legislation in the Senate.

If created, will the task force work’ Almost needless to say, there are many reasons to be skeptical that it would work. Over the years commissions and task forces have been a favored vehicle to sidetrack an issue to oblivion. Yet, some like the first Temporary State Commission on the Adirondacks heralded significant break through.

In order for green planning or any other form of environmental regulatory reform to work, it is going to take public and private leadership of the highest order. That means that the Governor and legislative leaders are going to have to be willing to commit the funds necessary to build up state and regional planning capacity and cooperative in defining state standards for environmental excellence and the rewards and checks to uphold those standards.

Leadership is also necessary from the corporate community. Rensselear Politecnic Institute Professor and author of In Search of Environmental Excellence: Moving Beyond Blame Bruce Piasecki tells me that there are three corporate approaches to the environment. Many corporations want to go no further than compliance with environmental regulation. Define the environmental hurdle and they will jump it and do no more. Some other corporations seed the PR value in looking green. They do allot of green marketing (‘green eyewash’), but look below the surface and they are doing little more than simple environmental compliance.

The third way is found with corporations that believe there is economic success in producing products in a way that is more environmentally compatible and beneficial conserving resources with minimal environmental contamination. This approach leads to the first hybrid cars, the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, getting more than 60 miles to the gallon.

Government needs to be ready and able to enable corporations that are willing to move beyond the environmental norm and reward them when they succeed. Just as corporations have to believe that government will follow through with rewards, environmentalists have to be willing to allow government and corporations enough slack to innovate and to trust that government will step in when warranted. It will take trust on all sides.

Like the Netherlands which has seen significant economic advances coupled with environmental improvement, New York State has the markets, access to capital and brain power to spawn new and diverse environmental industries of the future. Stay tuned to see if the capacity to plan and to trust can be found.