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Roundtable: Steward Natural Resources and Address Climate Change

April 20, 2020

April 20, 2020

As the nation's industry and population grows, it is critical that the public, nonprofit, and private sectors effectively steward natural resources and protect the environment for ourselves and future generations. In order to maintain and restore these resources, the U.S. must develop a strategy that includes ensuring consideration of ecosystem impacts on human health in policymaking and administration, mitigation and adaptation to climate change and extreme weather events, and increasing clean energy development and utilization. Fellows, Stan Meiburg, Bob Perciasepe, and Barry Rabe, discuss past, current, and potential efforts to combat these challenges.

How can we ensure consideration of ecosystem impacts on human health in policymaking and administration?

Bob Perciasepe

Today, we have ample legal authority and requirements for these impacts to be considered. Most significantly, as we are in the 50th anniversary year, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) declared:

“The purposes of this Act are: To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources …”

The Federal Land Management Act, which Congress passed, and the President signed into law, in 1976 states as policy:

“ public lands be managed in a manner that will protect the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archeological values; that, where appropriate, will preserve and protect certain public lands in their natural condition; that will provide food and habitat for fish and wildlife and domestic animals; and that will provide for outdoor recreation and human occupancy and use.”

Many other important laws—the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act—provide the necessary legal authority and requirements. They further provided the legal frameworks for the Executive Branch of government to ensure (actually legally require) that ecosystems and their relationship to human health be carefully considered in all matters. We can ensure that ecosystems are taken into account by responsibly implementing these laws.

What can administrators and policymakers do to improve the management of public lands?

Bob Perciasepe

The three key statutes that govern the principle federal land management agencies are:

  • Federal Land Policy and Management Act for the Bureau of Land Management;
  • National Parks Organic Act, for the over-arching management of the many national parks; and
  • National Forest Management Act, for national forests.

All of these statutes require periodic land management plans for the units of land under the jurisdiction of each agency.

Using these authorities, administrators and policymakers should work to further enhance the land management planning process to increase transparency, build stronger public and stakeholder participation, and create ongoing public advisory and stewardship councils.

Barry Rabe

Methane emissions from oil and gas production on public lands represent missed opportunities for the United States to become a continental and global leader in this arena. By contrast, Norway has long provided rigorous, durable, and transparent policy oversight of all dimensions of methane mitigation related to energy production. For example, Norway maintains robust performance standards, regular monitoring through inspections and state-of-the-art surveillance, taxes on flared or vented methane, and careful review of capacity to capture escaping gas and use it as an energy source before approving drilling. This leads to gap capture rates that routinely exceed 99.5 percent and help make a climate case for natural gas as an alternative to coal until cleaner alternatives are more fully developed.

The United States has continued to struggle with methane oversight, both on federal lands but also through a patchwork quilt of state standards applied to private lands. A small set of states have begun to lead the way, offering models of excellence that are reflected in policy innovation and approximations of Norwegian performance. Colorado has developed some of the most constructive performance standards in the nation and states such as Wyoming and Pennsylvania have begun to follow its lead. Alaska actually studied the Norway model decades ago and has maintained a combination of tight regulatory restrictions on flaring with steep fines on methane releases.

Concern about methane forms unusually broad coalitions in production states, often including farmers and ranchers who are appalled by the permanent loss of a non-renewable natural resource that has social and market value if properly managed. States frequently struggle, as I have found in my research, to unilaterally develop rigorous policies for fear of losing development investment to neighboring states with softer standards. Public lands and federal stewardship have a unique opportunity to establish American excellence, at the very moment where methane release reports from the bounteous Permian (Texas and New Mexico) and Bakken (North Dakota and Montana) shale formations indicate that methane is being released to the atmosphere at disturbingly high rates on both public and private lands.

How can we mitigate and adapt to climate change and extreme weather events?

Bob Perciasepe

Here we have two essential elements of a U.S. climate change strategy. First, mitigate the emissions of greenhouse gases. The second is preparation and resilience for the impacts we are already experiencing and more to come in this century.

At the highest level, mitigating the emissions of greenhouse gasses means focusing on the highest emitting sectors. Electric power generation, transportation, and industry are three significant sources of greenhouse gasses.

Amazingly, we know how to mitigate the majority of emissions from these sectors but in many cases lack the policies to accelerate action. For the power sector, replacing coal with renewable wind and solar as well as cleaner natural gas while preserving existing nuclear plants can reduce emissions by more than 50% from 2005 levels.

The next step will be to capture the carbon from the natural gas turbines in the 2030s and 40s to get close to zero. As the power sector decarbonizes, we need to electrify as much as we can with transportation, buildings and industry.

We already know how to electrify transportation and electric cars can out-perform internal combustion engines and have lower maintenance costs. What is needed is federal and state policies that accelerate the deployment of charging infrastructure.

And in the industrial sector, the need for heat as in cement, chemical and refineries is a significant reason for their emissions, converting some of that to electric heat and the rest that might come from burning natural gas, will need to have those emissions captured.

There are many related strategies that will help sequester more carbon out of the air, including reforestation, soils from modified agricultural practices, and even mechanical capture. All of these need to be pursued aggressively.

For adaptation, we also have good ideas on what needs to be done. Some important elements of a national strategy to support state and local actions would include incentives to bring local governments and the private sector together for joint planning and implementation. Bot rely on each other for resilience. At the federal level, improved funding for structural measures such as flood protection and green infrastructure, as well as analysis, for economy of scale, that can assist local and private sector planning.

How can we protect marine life, animal health, and ecology while ensuring a thriving economy?

Bob Perciasepe

This has been a long-standing debate since the earliest days of the environmental movement, but environmental protection-economy debate is a false dichotomy. The simple reality is that it is impossible to have a sustainable economy without health ecosystems. Sustainable harvests, diets, and development recognize the relationships. Advances and innovation in technology actually create new jobs. Putting aside impacts from the great recession and current impacts from coronavirus restrictions, the U.S. GDP has consistently risen even while the modern environmental movement pushed forward significant pollution control measures. Overall, GDP has cumulatively risen 275% since 1970, for example. We need to recognize the rewards from innovation that has in the past and will in the future, evolve from building sustainability.

What steps can be taken to increase clean energy development and utilization?

Bob Perciasepe

There has been a clear and unambiguous relationship between public private partnerships to further both economic and wellbeing/sustainability goals. Incentives that have stimulated innovation from battery technology, directional drilling for oil and gas, and solar/wind advances are all examples where both economic and environmental objectives are being enhanced. More properly designed incentives—whether tax incentives or shared R&D risk taking—stimulate innovation.

Barry Rabe

A number of states have offered models through policies that have facilitated substantial development and utilization of clean energy within their boundaries. Eleven Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states have maintained a small but highly-functional carbon cap-and-trade system that has contributed to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector. Known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, RGGI steadily reduces total sectoral emissions and produces revenue to ease transition to clean energy alternatives through a market-based auctioning system for emission permits. Twenty-nine states have maintained renewable portfolio standards, which require a steady increase in the volume of energy produced from renewable sources. This includes a politically and regionally diverse set of states, a number of which have seen considerable growth in wind, solar and other renewable sources as a result.

These types of policies could indeed be modeled on a national scale, as they reflect many years of experimentation that could inform next steps, providing a classic state contribution of lessons from their laboratories. There has been long-standing interest in developing such a standard on a national scale, quite possibly one that would expand the definition of “clean” to include not only renewables but also other low-or-no carbon sources such as nuclear. Indeed, a diverse mixture of states are currently exploring next-generation versions of these policies as they move toward expanded pursuit of alternatives to fossil fuels as an energy source.

Ironically, such a standard might be designed in a way to take advantage of differences among states. Many states most likely to adopt rigorous portfolio standards experience considerable resistance to actually siting new energy within their borders. Many states with the lowest likelihood of setting such ambitious standards are actually experiencing easier paths to siting and have growing interest in exporting their surplus electricity. Some form of cross-border and bipartisan cooperation might be feasible in this area, particularly with enhanced infrastructure to store and transmit power in a more decentralized system of energy production.

What improvements to regulatory frameworks, policies, and implementation are needed to protect the environment and steward natural resources more effectively and efficiently?

Stan Meiburg

We need to improve our regulatory frameworks, policies, and implementation to protect the environment. We inherited from the 1969-90 era a set of environmental statutes that have by and large served us well. But it is asking too much of these statutes, designed for the challenges of their day, to meet challenges we have greater understanding of now than decades ago. In legislation, regulation and implementation, we need to combine clarity in targets and flexibility in execution, and adapt our work to changing circumstances, learning as we go. We need to harness the power of market instruments with the assurance that markets do not displace externalities on disempowered citizens. We need to recognize real risks, use the best science to assess them, and engage citizens at community, regional and national levels in decisions on how to best address them.

These are tall orders. There can be no illusions about what it will take for our system of government to successfully execute them. Whether we can succeed is an open question, but we owe it to ourselves and our children to try. After all, it is not humans vs. the ecosystem. We are part of the ecosystem, for better or worse. We have already changed it; we are in the Anthropocene. It is up to us whether this new era will be one of triumph, or tragedy.

Bob Perciasepe

The relationships between broad public needs has been recognized from the very beginning of the country and are expressed right up front in the U.S Constitution.

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Promoting the general welfare is a key purpose of the Union and the federal government. Environmental laws and executive branch implementation have greatly improved our environment from air pollution, natural resource and wildlife protections, to toxic chemicals to water quality.

But the challenges today are different that the challenges of 50 years ago. Recognizing the vast advances in technology and the very important recognition in the private sector of the relationship of their own sustainability to addressing climate change and resource management in more holistic and collaborative ways. These are important doors for administrators, policy makers to open, to build new approaches to the challenges of today.

Bottom line here is that our economy now wants to be more sustainable and recognizes the need to address these issues. This is the time to innovation with regulatory frameworks and implementation built on partnership of mutual interest—the nation’s general welfare.

Barry Rabe

One enormous challenge in this arena is the enduring inability of Congress, regardless of partisan control, to either adopt new environmental legislation or provide needed revisions of existing statutes. It has now been three decades since the last revision of the Clean Air Act and more than 30 years since the most recent revision of the Clean Water Act. These are powerful and durable statutes and yet they have struggled as they age to address emerging challenges such as climate change and new water quality threats. Indeed, recent presidencies have relied on “administrative presidency” methods involving unilateral executive actions with existing statutes, routinely facing grueling challenges from state attorneys general from the party opposite the president and leading to protracted litigation and policy uncertainty. Frank Thompson, Kenneth Wong and I examine this in a forthcoming Brookings Institution Press book, Trump, the Administrative Presidency, and Federalism.

The time is long overdue to revisit these landmark laws for a new century and new era of environmental and natural resource challenges. One fundamental issue in these policies will be revisiting federal and state responsibilities, looking toward more constructive ways to allocate duties across intergovernmental boundaries that take advantage of respective strengths and weaknesses across governmental levels. This should also include ways to deploy state-of-the-art technology in environmental monitoring, producing reliable and transparent metrics to guide future policy and assess performance. Academy Fellow Donald Kettl offers valuable insights on possible next steps on federalism, including considerations for environmental and natural resource protection, in his latest book, The Divided States of America (Princeton, 2020).

What impact does the Covid-19 pandemic have on this Grand Challenge?

Stan Meiburg

It can be difficult to focus beyond the immediate health and economic emergencies that are the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet in the context of this Grand Challenge, it is worth remembering that while we can hopefully develop an effective vaccine, and bolster our economy so that recovery can happen quickly, our ability to maintain the long-term livability of our planet will continue be at risk.

The epidemic itself is a perfect illustration of how our ecosystems affect public health and why considering them in our decision-making is so important. There is a kind of iron law of unintended consequences in interactions between humans and natural systems. In this case, any number of viruses and other diseases circulate among different species of animals. When one of these jumps the barrier and becomes capable of human-to-human transmission (zoonosis), disaster can result if society is unprepared. History has many examples, bubonic plague, smallpox, and the 1918 H1N1 influenza among them. The list of known contemporary pathogens is long: Ebola, SARS, MERS, and of course now COVID-19. The unknown list may be longer.

All of these epidemics stem from contacts between ecosystems and humans. Prior to the current crisis, few Americans had ever heard of a pangolin, an endangered species native to Asia and Africa and the only mammal covered with scales. Pangolins became front page news when researchers suggested they might have been the intermediate bridge between a coronavirus circulating in bats and the COVID-19 virus now circulating worldwide. This report has since been qualified, and it not at all certain that this link will be sustained by further research. But the larger point is that what goes on in ecosystems far away from us may nevertheless affect our daily lives.

The same is true for a changing climate. Climate change is more difficult to come to terms with than a pandemic; it happens more slowly and while its effects are universal, they are not felt in the same way. But it is no less inexorable if left unattended.

Whether for infectious diseases or a changing climate, how can we ensure consideration of ecosystem impacts? The first and obvious way is to acknowledge that they exist. A starting place is to reverse the misguided elimination of climate impacts as part of NEPA determinations. To be sure, climate will not be a driving factor in every NEPA determination. But where it is, we must take it into account.

A second point to remember in this season of self-quarantine is that as a nation, we cannot succeed by isolating ourselves. As humans, we on this planet are simply too many and too interconnected to believe that we can succeed as an island. Any one nation will only succeed if we all succeed.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS

Stan Meiburg. Director, Graduate Studies in Sustainability, Wake Forest University; Acting Deputy Administrator, United States Environmental Protection Agency; Deputy Regional Administrator, Region 4, United States Environmental Protection Agency; Deputy Regional Administrator, Region 6, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Director, Air, Pesticides and Toxics Division, Region 6, United States Environmental Protection Agency; Director, Planning and Management Staff, Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, United States Environmental Protection Agency; Executive Assistant, Office of the Deputy Administrator, United States Environmental Protection Agency; Program Analyst, Program Evaluation Division, United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Bob Perciasepe. President, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Former positions with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Deputy Administrator, Acting Administrator. Former positions with National Audubon Society: Chief Operating Officer; Vice President, Public Policy. Former positions with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Assistant Administrator, Office of Air & Radiation; Assistant Administrator, Office of Water. Former positions with Maryland Department of the Environment: Secretary; Deputy Secretary/Assistant Secretary. Former positions with Baltimore City Planning Department: Assistant Director; Chief of Capital Budgeting.

Barry Rabe. J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Professor of Public Policy and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Environmental Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan; Non-Resident Senior Fellow in Governance Studies, Brookings Institution; President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, University of Michigan. Former positions: Director, Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP); Co-chair, Assumable Waters Committee, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Public Policy Scholar, Canada Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Director, Program in the Environment, University of Michigan; Interim Dean, School of Natural Resources & Environment, University of Michigan; Editor, American Governance and Public Policy book series, Georgetown University Press.