Environmental Groups Snatch Defeat From The Jaws Of Victory

Anastasia Swearingen Senior Research Analyst, Environmental Policy Alliance
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When a cardiac surgeon completes an open heart surgery, he doesn’t root around in the lungs before sewing the patient back up. He stops when the job is done.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the modern environmental movement. By almost any measure, our environment has improved dramatically over the last several decades: by EPA’s own admission, the six common air pollutants have declined by 62 percent since 1980. Water quality has also improved (just ask anyone who is old enough to remember what the Hudson River looked like in the 70s).

Most would call that a job well done. Yet environmental activists are still trying to perform a useless lung transplant after a successful heart surgery. Their ceaseless drumbeat for stricter regulations isn’t doing much good for the environment, but it is imposing enormous costs on American families.

Take the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Since 1970, EPA has had a mandate from Congress to protect our air and water. As a result, EPA imposed baseline standards that everyone must adhere to — at that time, it was clear the benefits of a cleaner environment outweighed the costs of compliance.

That cost-benefit calculation, unlike our water, is murkier now. We’ve made great strides toward a clean environment: new EPA data, for instance, show that methane emissions related to hydraulic fracturing have plummeted by 73 percent since 2011.

But instead of focusing on enforcing the sensible standards already in place, EPA busybodies, egged on by their environmentalist allies, are considering new methane regulations. In a recent letter to the president, Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) call on EPA to “swiftly” curtail methane emissions from natural gas even as emissions nosedive without federal meddling.

Even when companies comply with the strict rules that EPA has put in place over the last forty years, environmentalists push for more. Recently, a federal judge ordered the Sierra Club to pay $6 million in attorney fees for filing a “frivolous” suit against Luminant Energy. The Sierra Club claimed the company’s Big Brown coal plant in Fairfield, Texas was emitting more pollution than its permit allowed, allegedly in violation of the Clean Air Act. The judge ruled, however, that not only was the company in compliance with its permit, but Sierra Club knew Luminant wasn’t breaking any laws and sued anyway.

The BP oil spill offers another lesson. After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, BP accepted most of the blame. The company voluntarily paid billions of dollars in damages and devoted millions of man hours to restoring the Gulf’s ecosystems. And while there is still work to do, it appears the Gulf is faring much better than most expected in the immediate aftermath of the spill.

Instead of celebrating this progress, the Sierra Club is arguing for banning offshore energy exploration. NRDC is still calling BP a “bad actor” despite the billions spent by the company on clean-up efforts.

Such rhetoric reveals an environmental movement that has lost its way, caring more about gaudy, ineffective lawsuits that gin up fundraising than actual results.

Our environment deserves to be preserved and protected for future generations to enjoy. But we already have safeguards in place. We should be more focused on enforcing existing laws than piling on new ones, especially ones that impose enormous costs to chase vanishingly small pollution gains. Environmentalists who say otherwise risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Anastasia Swearingen is a senior research analyst at the Environmental Policy Alliance, a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education. CORE is supported by a wide variety of businesses and foundations, including those in the hospitality, agriculture, and energy industries.