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Tamminen: Beware Of The Law of Unintended Consequences

The House of Representatives has proposed legislation to cut Environmental Protection Agency funding by almost 20 percent and curtail its ability to tackle a wide range of pollution issues.

The regulated industries and their allies in Congress may be hopeful of reduced cost and a less intrusive government, but they should be very careful of the Law of Unintended Consequences. In this case, it is likely to lead to more cost and steep increases in complex paper pushing.

Seth Joel | Getty Images

In my years as a regulator in California, the No. 1 thing that industry told me they wanted was certainty. Part of that demand included avoiding a patchwork of regulations, when a federal solution would be easier and cheaper to comply with. By pushing Congress to emasculate the USEPA, they will get the exact opposite of what they claim to prefer.

When the federal government abrogates its duties under the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act, does that mean that impacted communities just go along with it? For more than a decade, the feds ignored the global consensus that we all need to address carbon pollution, so California passed its own landmark Global Warming Solutions Act in 2006 and has been regulating ever since.

Seven other states passed similar laws; ten started their own cap-and-trade system; and fourteen states copied California’s tailpipe emissions standards, ultimately forcing the feds to act (which led to the grudging agreement reached this past week between car makers and the Obama administration on fuel economy and emissions limits).

In another more recent example, USEPA has tried to examine the impacts of hydraulic fracturing of natural gas formations, called “fracking.” The oil and gas industry has lobbied Congress to keep federal regulators on the sidelines on the issue, so at least a dozen communities have passed or are considering everything from laws that force drillers to reveal the composition of chemicals injected in the process (Texas) to outright bans of the procedure (the City of Buffalo and at least eleven other municipalities in New York). That sure looks like a patchwork of regulations to me.

Why are communities so intent on doing what the feds won’t — or can’t, because Congress won’t let them?

As the "Los Angeles Times" recently reported, 1 million adults and 300,000 children suffer from asthma in Los Angeles alone and according to a 2007 study by the Cal State Fullerton, "41 people die every year in the south coast area and the San Joaquin Valley because of air pollution...more than double the motor vehicle-related deaths…[and] that failure to meet clean air standards for ozone and particulates results in a cost of $1,250 per person per year in health costs in the Los Angeles region, or a total of $22 billion dollars in annual costs.”

In other words, it’s public health, but there’s another compelling reason for communities to take matters into their own hands — to paraphrase a famous observation from an earlier political era — it’s the economy, stupid.

USEPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was the environmental regulator in New Jersey for many years under a Democratic Governor. Her Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, Gina McCarthy, served in a similar capacity in Connecticut under a Republican governor.

These smart women with experience on both sides of the aisle are giving the Obama administration, Congress, and the American people good advice based on careful consideration of public health, practicality, and economic concerns. We should embrace the federal approach and let them do their jobs, not wait for the Law of Unintended Consequences to take over and make our country dirtier, sicker, and less competitive.

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Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is president of Seventh Generation Advisors and an operating partner at Pegasus Capital Advisors, and author of "Cracking The Carbon Code: The Key To Sustainable Profits In The New Economy").