New Expansive EPA Power Grab

The vague but encompassing concept of sustainability is the goal.

The environmental Protection Agency has plans to exert vastly expanded power over businesses, communities, and ecosystems.

The agency intends extensively to change the way it analyzes problems and arrives at decisions, as described in a Dec. 19 article. The new, enlarged decision-making process goes under the term “sustainable development.”

Sustainable Development, by no coincidence, is “the centerpiece of a global United Nations conference in Rio de Janeiro next June,” explains the new EPA article by George Russell, executive editor of Fox News.

Guiding EPA thinking is a huge study commissioned by the agency last year for $700,000. The study was conducted by the National Academies of Science. A variety of consultants from different fields took part in meetings to develop the broad but vague concept of sustainability.

In a recent meeting with members of the National Academy, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson talked of sustainability as a scientific concept that will “spread to other (federal) agencies." She called it a “new opportunity” and “the next stage forward” for the EPA. The agency has already cost industries billions of dollars in its often capricious decisions.

In an executive order as early as 2009, President Obama called for establishing an integrated strategy towards sustainability in the federal government and to make reduction of greenhouse gas emissions a priority for federal agencies. The phobia of global warming was even stronger then.

The study by the National Academy of Science said it will “provide guidance to EPA on how it might implement its existing statutory authority to contribute more fully to a more sustainable-development trajectory for the United States.” In other words, said Russell, “how to use existing laws to new ends,” or squeezing the most from laws that EPA wields.

The sustainability study was said to go beyond assessing and managing risks of pollutants, which has been largely the EPA’s job since the ‘80s. The agency’s approach to managing carcinogenic chemicals–its approach to environmental issues through the years-- is known in the agency as its “Red Book.”  This sustainability push is now being termed the “Green Book.”

Administrator Jackson, never under-confident, calls the Green Book “fundamental to the future of the EPA.” She compared it to the difference between treating disease and pursuing wellness.

The new sustainability instrument will broaden EPA’s powers to “include both social and economic as well as environmental ‘pillars’ and strengthen a leader in the nation’s progress toward a sustainable future,” the Fox News story said.

EPA is keeping a low profile about the study. An agency spokesman was quoted as saying EPA had “no current plans” for the Rio+20 environmental summit next summer. That doesn’t make sense, because the UN summit is mentioned in the Green Book as a case where sustainability is called “a useful framework for addressing otherwise intractable problems [which can be applied to] nearly any situation and anywhere in the world.”

If one wonders what “sustainability" really is, the National Academy advises how the EPA can—one could say--“own” it.

The European Union apparently has. The European strategy, the Fox News story said, “involves a virtually all encompassing regulatory vision.”

Its priorities include: “climate change and clean energy, sustainable transport, sustainable consumption and production, conservation and management of natural resources, public health, social inclusion, demography and migration; and global poverty and sustainable development challenges.” Why not throw in a partridge and pear tree, as well?

In an American context, says the study, sustainable development “raises questions that are not fully or directly addressed in U.S law or policy." Such as “how to define and control unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and how to encourage the development of sustainable communities, biodiversity protection, clean energy, environmentally sustainable economic development, and climate change controls."

The word "sustainability" is applied not only to human sustainability on Earth, but to many situations and contexts over many scales of space and time, from small local ones to the global balance of production and consumption. It is not necessarily a current situation but a goal for the future, a prediction.

For all these reasons sustainability is perceived, at one extreme, as nothing more than a feel-good buzzword with little meaning or substance. But at the other, as an important but unfocused concept like "liberty" or "justice." It has also been described as a "dialogue of values that defies consensual definition."

One root of sustainability is found in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. It says: “The policy of the Federal government is to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.”

The big study said the authority needs to be “made up and codified as the agency goes along." Vision, it said is a future state EPA is “trying to reach or trying to help the country and the world to reach.” Sustainability impact assessment examines “the probable impact of a particular project or proposal on the social, environmental and economic pillars of sustainability”...a much expanded approach.

Under the new approach, the EPA has to have its finger in the air more than ever trying to predict the future. “Forecasting,” the study said, “is unavoidable when dealing with sustainability.”

It is safe to say that EPA in its high-hat aim intends to become a hugely potent federal agency–the sustainable elephant in the room. so to speak.

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