06/09/2015 08:49 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

Regulation Nation

There is a simple solution to California's water crisis -- the same solution that has worked well for Israel and many other nations -- desalination. Recapturing sea water is more expensive than water from natural sources but the cost has dropped considerably in recent years and in any case California doesn't have much choice.

A new $1 billion desalination plant in Carlsbad, north of San Diego, will produce 54 million gallons of water each day but its construction was a nightmare. The permitting process began in 2003. The company building the plant -- Poseidon Water -- spent millions fending off 14 environmental lawsuits. The plant will begin operation this fall -- 12 years later.

We have somehow created a red tape monster in which virtually any interest group can block construction of needed projects indefinitely. For example, raising the roadway part of the Bayonne Bridge near the Port of Newark, New Jersey, which uses previously existing foundations and rights of way, required 47 permits from 19 agencies and a 5,000-page environmental assessment.
Part of the motivation for all this red tape is concern about environmental issues, some of it is the usual NIMBY (not in my back yard) mentality, and other times it is simply the sclerotic nature of regulatory bureaucracies that take perverse pride in stifling action. Regulations accumulate over the years; rarely is one revoked.

Normal people encounter the regulatory morass when they attempt to do simple things like build an addition to their house or install a pool or driveway. Finding and paying a qualified contractor is the easy part. Getting the requisite local government officials to sign off on everything is the real hassle. There are hundreds of thousands of rules out there you have never heard of before, but you must wade your way through them one at a time.

Congress passes vaguely-worded, well-intended laws and leaves it to bureaucrats to flesh out the laws with regulations. The states, counties and municipalities take their cue from Congress enacting rules and regulations of their own that often duplicate and sometimes contradict those of the Federal Government. It always takes a long time and lots of legal fees to resolve these kinds of conflicts.

But the most frequent culprits in the red tape brigade are environmental activists. Many seem to have a knee-jerk reaction against any development -- even when their action does environmental damage. For example, our antiquated electric power grid wastes 7 percent of the juice it transmits -- $30 billion worth annually. That's the same as the output of 200 coal-burning power plants, or 280 million tons of carbon. But every effort to modernize the system encounters protracted opposition by environmental activists manipulating the regulatory and legal maze.

Here surely is a challenge that can elicit bi-partisan support. President Obama should take the lead proposing a comprehensive strategy for red tape reduction that would include legislation to supersede existing laws as necessary to expedite regulatory decisions.

Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. You can quote from this with attribution. Let me know if you would like to speak with Jerry. June 2015