What's wrong with the EPA?

  • Saving our Environment from Washington


If you’re wondering why this nation’s environmental laws aren’t implemented coherently or consistently, grab David Schoenbrod’s latest, Saving Our Environment from Washington.

From a Natural Resources Defense attorney turned Yale law professor, the book is part memoir, part manifesto. And considering the potentially boring topic, Schoenbrod does an excellent job of explaining how laws such as the Clean Air Act came into being, what’s happened to them in the past 35 years, and how they could be more effective.

According to Schoenbrod, when Congress created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it gave the agency an extraordinary amount of responsibility, but very little power. He cites lead as an example: "Only by delegating their lawmaking responsibilities to the EPA could legislators take credit with voters for protecting health yet curry favor with the corporations that put lead in gasoline." The entire system would work better if those who set policy were accountable to the public, he says; that’s why lawmakers, rather than agency bureaucrats or political appointees, should be responsible for environmental policy.

Rather than delving into the Bush administration, Schoenbrod takes a long view of the agency — and his often-surprising perspectives prevent this book from becoming a Red versus Blue look at environmental protection. He explains why the agency relies more often on politics rather than science in its policy-making (because the science of describing risk is so uncertain, political decisions are easier to make than those based on science).

What keeps this book from becoming a rant is Schoenbrod’s basic optimism: In the end, it will be ordinary people, holding their lawmakers accountable, who protect the environment.

Saving Our Environment from Washington: How Congress Grabs Power, Shirks Responsibility and Shortchanges the People
David Schoenbrod
304 pages, hardcover: $28. Yale University Press, 2005.

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