08/05/2013 09:02 am ET | Updated Oct 05, 2013

Gina McCarthy: The New EPA Administrator Works to Protect the EPA

After the now-expected period of delay, Congress in its belated wisdom finally confirmed Gina McCarthy as EPA Administrator. The new Administrator went right to work, selling the Obama Climate Action Plan and taking on the opponents of air quality regulation. In a speech given at Harvard Law School, reported by Richard Valdmanis and Valerie Volcovici, McCarthy:

...pre-empted a frequent mantra of critics of the Environmental Protection Agency - that the agency's regulations disrupt the economy and cost jobs. The benefits derived from rules to address climate change and protect the environment far outweigh their costs...Embracing the need to cut carbon emissions should be seen not as a threat but as a "way to spark business innovation," she said. The federal Clean Air Act, the basis of the EPA's powers to set rules, has produced $30 in benefits for every dollar spent in its name, she added.

I am not an unbiased observer of EPA. I worked for the agency's water program in 1977 and 1978 and for its Superfund Program in 1980 and 1981. I've been an occasional consultant and advisor to EPA for most of my career. While EPA can be as maddening as any federal bureaucracy, it remains a mission-driven, science-based organization that has done enormous good since its creation by Richard Nixon in 1970. If you don't think U.S. environmental rules have benefited Americans, I invite you to travel to China and try to breathe. Or perhaps you'd rather take a swim in one of the toxic rivers beginning to become common in the developing world. Anyone who doubts EPA's importance and accomplishments should read Edward Wong's horrific account of "Life in a Toxic Country" and think about economic production with no real environmental rules. Fortunately for China, the same massive energy and brainpower that has been devoted to rapid economic development is starting to be devoted to sustainability management. Dismantling EPA is an idiotic idea that should not be part of anyone's political agenda.

McCarthy made a point that I agree with completely -- regulations that are applied with firmness and care provide incentives for organizations to innovate and develop new ways of operating. Energy efficiency standards have created incentives for innovative engineers to build appliances that deliver higher levels of performance while using less energy. Start-up companies have been created to meet these new requirements and old companies like General Electric have been forced to reinvent themselves to compete under new rules.

In addition to stimulating economic innovation, environmental rules make our environment less toxic and reduce the cost of health care attributed to environmentally induced illness. Climate change mitigation would have an enormous positive economic benefit in the United States. This past spring, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $20 billion plan to make the city more resilient and better able to adapt to the impact of climate change. Imagine if we had ended the threat of climate change and instead were able to invest those funds into education, homeless and economic development programs. Also imagine how much more we are going to spend if climate change continues. That $20 billion will seem like a down payment.

Administrator McCarthy is not an environmental advocate, but a sustainability professional. She has served as a state government official for much of her career, often serving in Republican administrations. She is typical of the tradition of nonpartisan environmental leadership represented by leaders such as EPA's first Administrator, William Ruckelshaus, and most of the Administrators who have followed him. New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia once famously observed that there is no Republican or Democratic way of picking up the garbage. The same could be said about protecting our air or drinking water. There has long been an American consensus about the importance of environmental protection and a deep understanding of its requirements. No one has the right to poison his or her neighbor's land, water or air. EPA's job is to make sure that our right to breathe is enforced.

The Tea-Party influenced federal budget for EPA recently reported out of The House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee calls for a 19 percent reduction in EPA's budget. While this budget has little chance of enactment, it is additional evidence of the reckless and ideologically driven political dynamic that could endanger the progress we have made in protecting the quality of our natural environment.

The idea that we regulate environmental quality without concern for protecting business and jobs is a fantasy. While corporations and communities do incur costs for protecting the environment, and there is some short-term pain, this is typically followed by long-term gains. American governments at all levels are very careful and quite flexible when imposing new rules on private parties. When we design environmental programs we provide long adjustment periods that allow regulated parties the time to gradually modify their practices. Auto fleets are given many years to meet fuel economy standards. Local governments are given long compliance schedules to meet water quality standards.

Perhaps the best example of our government's regulatory flexibility is the "brownfields" programs in toxic waste clean up. When setting standards for toxic waste clean up, the requirements are adjusted depending on the final use of the once poisoned land. If an old inner city toxic site is to be used for a factory or a big box store, the requirements for clean-up are different than if it is to be used for residential housing. The goal of the program is to redevelop inner city "brownfields" and make use of existing land and infrastructure, instead of going further out to develop the "green fields" of the countryside, thus preserving ecosystems and natural areas. This type of creativity and flexibility has long been the hallmark of environmental protection in the United States. While it is possible to find examples of arrogant bureaucrats throwing their weight around and playing power games with the private sector; this is the exception and far from the norm.

The result of our sophisticated and flexible system of environmental regulation is that we have learned how to grow the economy while protecting the environment. While some say this progress was due to the export of highly polluting industrial plants and jobs, the global economy with its advanced communications and transport technology were the real motors behind the export of manufacturing. Eventually, the standards we've applied here will come to be applied in the developing world as well. People will come to learn that no matter how rich you are, you can't build a walled community around environmental toxicity.

Administrator McCarthy understands the nature of the attack on her agency, and is clearly not going to allow EPA to go down without a fight. The mindless forces of reaction in Washington must be fought aggressively and McCarthy seems to understand that. At the same time, as an experienced sustainability professional she recognized how far we have to go and how much more work we need to do to make the transition to a sustainable economy. As she observed during her talk at Harvard:

Our future depends on an economy that moves beyond ... [the economy-environment] dichotomy and recognizes the limitations of the world's resources are real, the fragility of world's ecosystems are real, the threats posed by pollution and a changing climate are real. To turn those challenges around, we need a strong, sustainable economy that embraces these issues and behaves in accordance with what we know of science, the environment, technology and public health.

Administrator McCarthy recognizes that this transition will not come overnight. The drive for a sustainable economy that preserves the planet's health and productivity is one that enjoys broad political support in this country. EPA and the Obama Administration should take advantage of that support and not allow a small minority of ideological zealots to turn the clock back and endanger the progress we have already made.