A new proposal to overhaul how to weigh the costs and benefits of federal environmental regulations is especially timely and valuable to the forestry industry here in Ohio. There is probably no sector of the American economy where conservation is more intertwined with long-term economic success, or which better illustrates the need for regulatory improvement.
After a multi-year review of regulatory procedures, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler on June 4 laid out specific steps to impose more discipline on cost-benefit analyses. The guidelines represent a common-sense approach to incorporate more consistency and transparency on how metrics are developed, communicated and applied when imposing EPA regulations. If we can finally get this right it will be an important step for ensuring environmental laws work as intended, instead of merely perpetuating legal battles that often delay activities and projects that would benefit the economy as a whole as well as individual workers and consumers in Ohio and across the nation.
It is easy for many folks to overlook how integral forest products are in daily life and economic health. Even in a digital world or so-called paperless office, we need tissues when we sneeze, printed materials for learning, furniture for homes and workplaces, and of course, cardboard boxes for all those on-line purchases. On top of that, the forest products industry has long been at the forefront of conservation, recycling, and even alternative energy with the use of biomass. It is simply good business to make sure there are healthy forests for as long as there are people that need products and ecosystem services from them..
Here in Ohio, we have been attentive to how increased energy production and climate change could affect the nearly 8 million acres of forestland, the vast majority of which are privately owned. Earlier this year, the Ohio Division of Forestry initiated the creation of a 10-year plan for managing this important resource on both State and private lands.
Because sustainability is intrinsic to the industry’s very existence, forestry interests have long supported market-based laws and regulations that promote environmental protection. Coming up with a way of balancing the costs and benefits of regulations, however, has not been easy. The result is an opaque and cumbersome regulatory process that too often impedes construction, road and infrastructure development, and manufacturing operations that would support local jobs and supply chains.
However much we need and value clean air, water and soil, we cannot overlook the fact that regulations to achieve those goals cost the economy close to $2 trillion a year, according to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce study. The federal Clean Air Act accounts for fully three quarters of the EPA’s regulations, so Wheeler’s initiative could lead to other regulatory policy refinements.
Going back to Ronald Reagan, presidents of both parties have affirmed that environmental regulation must ensure economic growth and clean air and water. It is not, and never has been, one or the other. Even President Barack Obama, hardly ambivalent about the environment, issued an executive order requiring that benefits of regulations must exceed the costs.
Regulatory sprawl even ties the hands of other government agencies, namely the U.S. Forest Service. Complicated rules under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) often makes it impossible for the agency to fulfill its forest management mission. It is logical to require the Forest Service to report the potential environmental effects of its harvesting, management and fire threat abatement activities. However, to illustrate the shortcoming in the regulatory framework, current NEPA guidelines go back more than 25 years, when timber harvests were in decline. Circumstances have changed a lot since then, but anti-forestry groups continue to use outdated guidelines to block even basic forestry industry activities, including reducing fuel loads that cause harmful fires.
These realities underpin worthwhile steps Wheeler has taken to bring clarity and transparency to a portion of his agency’s regulatory process. It is not that radical to require the EPA to balance benefits and costs in regulatory decision-making, increase consistency in the interpretation of statutory terminology, or to provide transparency in the weight assigned to various factors and promote adherence to best practices in conducting the technical analysis used to inform decisions. Yet, this is long overdue.
It has been too easy for too long to exploit the chaos in our regulatory policy to make dubious claims about safeguarding the environment. With the EPA’s recommendations, a better approach is within reach.
Perkins is executive director of the Ohio Forestry Association.