Measuring the Benefits of Environmental Enforcement: Moving From Dollars To Sense

I assume that environmental agencies’ focus on the annual dollar total of enforcement fines and penalties drives my clients as crazy as it does me. After all, the correlation between such figures and any environmental outcomes is pretty limited. Indeed, less enforcement may mean more compliance rather than more undetected violations.

It thus comes as at least limited good news from Inside EPA that EPA is looking at ways to measure the impact of enforcement efforts other than by measuring the amount of fines and penalties. Instead, as indicated by a presentation made last month by EPA’s Office of Compliance, EPA is going to try to measure the environmental benefits of its enforcement efforts.

(Of course, it’s more than a little depressing that the motivation for this change is the expected decrease in the dollar value of settlements in FY 2009 from the Bush administration’s FY 2008 numbers. God forbid that the Obama administration should recover fewer environmental enforcement dollars than the Bush EPA!)

While congratulations will be due to EPA for whatever strides they make in this area, it is only the tip of the iceberg. The problem of identifying the benefits of environmental programs extends far beyond the enforcement arena; it is endemic to the entire gamut of environmental regulatory programs, state and federal. 

EPA occasionally generates very gross overall numbers demonstrating that the benefits of some program outweigh the costs. However, such figures provide no real assistance in determining whether some other approach to regulating a particular air contaminant would have been more cost-effective or, more fundamentally, whether allocating resources to other contaminants or even other media would be a better place to spend environmental protection dollars. As I noted in one of my Superfund rants, a small town in New Hampshire can legitimately ask whether it could save more lives by devoting resources to public safety improvements than to cleaning up a Superfund site.  The fault is not that of EPA alone or that of state environmental agencies.  It’s very easy for Congress, under pressure from some apparent crisis, to create a regulatory program that explicitly or implicitly forbids considerations of cost-effectiveness or cost benefit analysis.

To hark back to a different rant of mine, on the subject of regulatory reform, is it too much to ask of the Obama administration that it make efforts to increase the cost-effectiveness of our regulatory programs?  If Obama is serious about bipartisanship, this might be one way to achieve it. 

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