Time For a Fresh Start on Environmental Policy

by Todd Myers
Director, WPC’s Center for the Environment

After years of failed top-down approaches, it is time for a fresh start for environmental policy in Washington.  Consider the record:

  • The state published more than 1,000 pages of recommendations for climate policy in 2007 and 2008. When legislators rejected them, the Governor issued an executive order, but later admitted the Order did not “create new legal obligations” – it was only voluntary. Still, the Department of Ecology cut funds from pollution-reduction programs to fund this Quixotic effort.
  • Seattle officials promoted car-free days and other high-profile efforts to cut greenhouse gases. By its own estimates, however, emissions are increasing.
  • State officials require biofuels to be mixed with gasoline, and Seattle even spent more to buy soy-based biofuel. But today, the state’s largest biofuel refinery runs at a fraction of capacity and Seattle stopped purchasing soy biofuel because it emits more pollution than traditional diesel.
  • State officials require that schools use “green” building standards, even though a cookie-cutter approach adds millions to school construction costs. Ironically, the new rules actually increased energy use, adding higher utility bills to higher construction costs.

The response to these failures has been a call for more of the same. Environmental activists asked voters to borrow another billion dollars for projects unlikely to make an impact on energy use. The voters turned this down 55%-45%.

It is time for a fresh start that places environmental sustainability over the fashionable-but-ineffective approach of the past decade.

First, we need to follow science and sound economics to ensure we spend resources wisely. By focusing on the latest eco-fad rather than good science, we waste opportunities to effectively help the environment.

Washington Policy Center (WPC) again recommends passage of an “Environmental Priorities Act,” which creates a panel of scientists, economists and innovators to ensure we get the most bang for our environmental dollars. Pioneered by Nobel-winning economists, the approach distinguishes the trendy from the truly sustainable.

Second, we need to hold the state accountable for results. The “Climate Change Accountability Act” would require companies who profit from state spending, to prove they delivered on their energy-reduction promises. If they fall short, they would be required to refund taxpayer money or provide environmental services.

Third, we need to replace our heavily-bureaucratic approach with one that is more innovative and nimble. Discussing “green” building regulations, Seattle City Councilwoman Sally Clark admitted earlier this year that “Most [regulatory] systems are not built for innovation.” Yet, those failed systems are where environmental activists turn for virtually every proposal.

This leads to humorous, but unacceptable, results. When asked to explain their “Low Carbon Fuel Standard” that would dictate what fuels we can buy, a Department of Ecology official could only tell the legislature “it’s complicated.” Murky and incomprehensible approaches lead us down false paths and restrict the creativity necessary to find innovative solutions.

While state “experts” claim to understand how these complex regulations will work, the real-world result shows the opposite. Research reveals that growth management laws have actually encouraged some sprawl, increasing the environmental impacts they are supposed to limit. We are again asking the state to do a complete assessment of these laws to determine where they are going wrong in order to place us on a better path.

We need to replace opaque, obscure and political rules with simple prices on pollution. The free market allows us the freedom to choose our lifestyle. With that freedom comes the responsibility to pay for impacts, if they occur. Simple and transparent prices on pollution are more effective, and far cheaper, than creating entrenched bureaucracies imposing rules only they understand.

We should also encourage innovation by reducing the cost of developing new technology by cutting taxes on innovation. That’s why we advocate a climate strategy that replaces the state’s anti-innovation patchwork of regulations and subsidies with tax cuts to encourage creativity, jobs and economic growth.

Setting priorities. Making sure we get what we pay for. Replacing regulation with innovation. That is a real strategy for the environment, one that is effective and recognizes the new economic and budget realities we face.

Todd Myers is the environmental director at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Washington state.  You can reach him at tmyers@washingtonpolicy.org.

Washington Policy Center is a non-partisan independent policy research organization that promotes sound public policy based on free-market solutions.  If you are so inclined, you can support WPC with a tax-deductible contribution.

Courtesy of Bainbridge Shoreline Homeowners

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