Agency’s first chief urges White House to refocus message on rules

Source: Emily Yehle • E&E  • Posted: Wednesday, January 18, 2012

As Congress begins its second session — and Republicans continue to push their anti-regulatory agenda — the original director of U.S. EPA says the White House should reframe the debate as one of sensible rules rather than no rules at all.

“It’s not popular today to say you need rules, but you do, I’m sorry,” former EPA Administrator Bill Ruckelshaus — a moderate Republican — said in a recent interview. “Absent rules limiting human conduct, the tragedy of the commons will apply.”

Ruckelshaus became EPA’s first chief in 1970 and served again in the position under President Reagan in the mid-1980s.

Asked about President Obama’s upcoming State of the Union, Ruckelshaus said he could put the regulatory issue in a “different policy context,” emphasizing that rules are necessary in a world with more people than ever but acknowledging that they can also seem irrational in individual circumstances.

“In order to have a society that functions properly and protects public health and the environment, we need rules and sometimes those rules don’t look rational to some people,” he said. But if critics of regulations succeed in abolishing such rules, “we’re going to be right back where we were in the 1960s, except 10 times worse.”

Obama pushed back against Republican claims that some EPA regulations stunt the economy in a recent visit to the agency’s headquarters. Environmentalists are hopeful that he will continue to emphasize the importance of protecting the environment in his State of the Union address on Jan. 24 (E&E Daily, Jan. 17).

Ruckelshaus also said EPA’s tactics should change as regulations shift from point source pollution to nonpoint source pollution. The former largely targets big industry, but the latter affects a growing number of individuals.

Such regulations, he said, “are almost impossible to write” from an office in Washington, D.C. His solution: Give state and local governments more flexibility to adapt the rules to the reality on the ground. He pointed to efforts on the West Coast where citizens of watersheds determine how to best manage them.

“There’s a lot of instances like that around the country where it’s possible to develop self-confident, supportive regulators who are working with the public as a customer rather than as somebody to be regulated,” he said.