While people generally understand the considerable collection of laws that govern us as a society, the ever larger web of regulations intended to enforce these laws remain a mystery. But since regulations are essentially the muscle behind America’s laws, they’re central to supporting and protecting our economy, environment and overall welfare.
In light of the horrifying pandemic that’s ravaged America’s people and spirit, it’s more important than ever to take time now to advance and support steps to improve the federal regulatory system for the better.
A great example is that recently taken by Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Last year, Wheeler issued a guidance asking the EPA to ensure that its regulatory decisions are rooted in sound, transparent and consistent approaches to evaluating costs and benefits. Known as a cost-benefit analysis, this process allows an agency — in this case the EPA — to evaluate the negative and positive effects of a regulation on the public.
The agency is now following up on this important guidance by announcing and soliciting public comment on a rule to ensure a consistent, transparent analysis is applied to significant regulations disseminated under the Clean Air Act.
As it stands, the specifics on how the EPA implements a cost-benefit analysis is inconsistent and largely dependent on the ideological leanings of the sitting administration. As a result, what’s supposed to be a straightforward, objective analysis becomes little more than a political tool. That’s why Wheeler’s quest to codify specific guidelines — thereby creating consistency in their interpretation and generating greater transparency around this process — is so important.
This effort will improve the regulatory process for the better, especially for Colorado. That’s because the EPA is one of the most onerous regulators in the nation. EPA regulations make up almost 70 percent of the costs of federal rules, most of which originate from the enforcement of the Clean Air Act. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates these regulations cost the American economy nearly $2 trillion a year in direct expenditures, lost productivity and higher prices.
While my district in Western Colorado has a vibrant tourism sector, natural resource industry and small business community, an enormous percentage of its land base is federally owned. Therefore, virtually all economic development projects — whether they’re for energy development, community expansion, agricultural use or forestry management — are subject to review and subsequent analysis by an EPA office.
It stands to reason when the analyses of the regulations that govern these projects aren’t consistent, transparent and objective, then investment, economic growth and regional competitiveness is put in jeopardy. For example, the economy of the Western Slope depends on Interstate Highway 70. But needed expansions of key parts of the I-70 corridor have been delayed and rendered unreasonably expensive by regulations that weren’t subject to a systematic review. As a result, traffic backlogs drive up the costs of goods as transportation costs grow higher.
Wheeler’s proposal serves the public interest by increasing transparency and ensuring the EPA doesn’t impose greatly inflated costs in exchange for negligible environmental benefits. At present,
there are no rules to ensure the public is provided an analysis of the benefits and costs in a consistent manner across field offices. Through a systematic and consistent approach to how the EPA estimates these benefits and costs, economic and environmental considerations could progress in tandem under a set process everyone understands.
Notably, this is the type of progress that’s already been adopted in other countries. In the United Kingdom, government entities follow the economic and finance ministry “Green Book,” which outlines specific guidance for assessments that evaluate whether the benefits of a project are expected to exceed the costs. Additionally, the UK has tactics to streamline the approach to
cost-benefit analysis by developing “sharable values” that can be used across agencies in any project analysis.
When it comes to EPA regulations, many automatically see this as the environment versus the economy. But this is not a zero-sum game. Improving the regulatory process is in everyone’s best interest. Regardless of one’s political affiliation or ideology, Wheeler’s proposal deserves fair consideration. Coloradans should support it in the name of accountability and good governance.
State Rep. Matt Soper, a Republican from Delta, represents District 54 in the Colorado House of Representatives.