February 27, 2020

Environmental Policy Making and Regulation in 2020

In the first two months of 2020, three things have become very clear to me: policy processes and regulatory actions are taking place in an increasingly complex landscape; the integrity of science and the value of evidence-based research has never been more contested or more important; and we must persist in defense of our environment and health policy processes. 

As a long-time scholar in environmental policy at a proudly public institution, I join my colleagues in serving the public good by providing scholarly research and insights applicable to policy decisions being made at state and national levels. My position as a scholar has allowed me to work directly in the policy process and to impact its outcomes. 

Five years ago, I agreed to serve on the U.S. EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB), and this most recent year, I joined the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Climate Resilience Advisory Council. Despite the challenges the current political climate presents, both organizations have engaged in deeply interesting work. It is incredibly inspiring and gratifying when tangible progress is eked out. By contrast, it can be challenging, frustrating, and disheartening when science is disregarded in the development of policy. 

The charge of the SAB is to review the scientific underpinnings of proposed regulatory actions and give evidence-based advice to the EPA administrator and the agency regarding the best available science relevant to these actions. It is of course possible to agree about the best available body of science relevant to a policy or regulatory decision while disagreeing about the tradeoffs inherent in policy design and implementation. SAB review does not dictate a particular outcome; however, given the extremely public nature of the process, our findings make their way into related executive, legislative, and legal processes, and often media outlets. Thus, the impact of our efforts to ensure a sound scientific and technical underpinning for regulatory action can only be truly gauged over time. 

For example: the SAB recently reviewed the newly proposed definition of “Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS)” under the Clean Water Act, a key definition in determining which waters are jurisdictional. We assessed the scientific basis of this new definition and publicly presented our findings regarding a lack of consistency with established hydrologic science pertaining to the sub-surface connections between certain bodies of water, and the responsive nature of particular streams to precipitation events. In effect, the proposed WOTUS definition omitted some previously jurisdictional waters without a new body of supporting science. Though the EPA has not changed course based on our comments – citizens, state agencies and non-governmental bodies have already begun to integrate them into legal challenges of the proposed rule.  

This is a particularly arduous time for defending the value and integrity of science in decision-making. As noted in a recent Washington Post article on the Trump era EPA, “the government body [is] at the epicenter of complaints about improper political interference” by the administration. The article describes how, in the face of staffing cuts and the dissolution of climate change working groups, some employees have fled the institution while others have requested an EPA Workers’ Bill of Rights that embraces science and the investment and preservation of scientific advancement.  While national political pressures raise concern, there are bright spots for environmental health protection and preservation at the state level. 

Just last week I celebrated as the DNR released its “Plan for Climate Resilience,” a blueprint to ensure that Washington’s lands supporting forestry, agriculture, and aquatics continue to benefit education, citizens, businesses, and communities in the face of a changing climate.  The DNR’s call to action and acknowledgement of unprecedented threats associated with a changing climate are compelling: “Wildfire and smoke are threatening the health and welfare of people throughout the state. Orca and salmon runs are in decline. Communities are confronting coastal flooding, water shortages, and drought. As these impacts mount, already highly impacted communities and vulnerable populations will face increasing risks.” It has been inspiring to contribute to Washington State’s strategy to cope with these potential impacts, and I look forward to engaging in adaptation planning moving forward, as the legislature decides whether to invest $100M in climate resiliency as they have proposed. 

Now more than ever, developing sustainable, evidence-based environmental policy and regulatory actions requires an awareness of the full landscape and timeline of these processes. We must strive to shape current policies with a sound scientific basis and take the long view when necessary. This work can be profoundly challenging, but there is nothing that I find more meaningful than the protection of our air, water, and natural resources, which ultimately support the health and wellbeing of us all.