Environmental Protection

Challenges Facing EPA's Efforts to Reinvent Environmental Regulation Gao ID: RCED-97-155 July 2, 1997

By most accounts, the United States has made substantial environmental improvements since the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, but at a growing cost. For example, the tab to abate and control pollution rose from $64 billion in 1973 to more than $121 billion in 1994. EPA believes that future environmental challenges will be more complicated than those of the past, requiring fundamentally different regulatory approaches. A March 1996 EPA report notes that the agency is undertaking several initiatives to ". . . apply common sense, flexibility, and creativity in the effort to move beyond the one-size-fits-all system of the past and achieve the very best protection of the public health and the environment at the least cost." This report provides a broad overview of EPA's reinvention efforts. GAO focuses on (1) what the initiatives are and how the agency is structured to carry them out and (2) what key issues need to be addressed for these initiatives to succeed.

GAO noted that: (1) EPA maintains that its reinvention initiatives seek to reduce paperwork and eliminate obsolete rules, make it easier for businesses to comply with environmental laws, use innovation and flexibility to achieve better environmental results, or engage states, tribes, communities, and citizens in partnerships to protect public health and the environment; (2) in February 1997, the Administrator announced her decision to create an Office of Reinvention, which will provide overall direction and support for EPA's reinvention initiatives; (3) in addition: (a) EPA's program offices participate in agencywide initiatives and have generated some of their own, more medium-specific initiatives; and (b) each of EPA's regional offices has established varied structures and strategies to implement both the EPA-wide and program-specific initiatives; (4) while many of EPA's reinvention efforts are consistent with both the Government Performance and Results Act's goal of focusing on achieving results and with past recommendations by GAO and other organizations to achieve a more integrated, cost-effective approach toward environmental protection, EPA faces significant challenges that must be addressed effectively if reinvention is to succeed: (a) key stakeholders in the reinvention process have expressed concern over the large number of complex and demanding initiatives now being undertaken, as well as confusion over the underlying purpose of some of EPA's major initiatives; (b) EPA has had difficulty achieving "buy-in" among the agency's rank and file, who have grown accustomed to prescriptive, medium-by-medium regulation during EPA's history; (c) EPA has had difficulty achieving agreement among external stakeholders particularly when they perceive that unanimous agreement is required before progress can be made; (d) EPA's process for resolving miscommunication and other problems involving EPA headquarters staff, regional staff, and other stakeholders does not distinguish between problems that require the attention of senior management and those that should be resolved at lower levels; and (e) EPA has an uneven record in evaluating the success of many of its initiatives; (5) in addition, the current prescriptive, medium-specific environmental laws impose requirements that have led to, and tend to reinforce, many of the existing regulatory and behavioral practices that EPA is seeking to change; and (6) as a consequence, EPA will be limited in its ability to reinvent environmental regulation within the existing legislative framework.


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