02/14/2011 10:34 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Environmental Tale of Two Governments: New York City and the United States of America

The stark contrast between environmental policy in New York's City Hall and in the U.S. Congress was sharply displayed in two public events this month. In Congress EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was subjected to a verbal assault by Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee during a hearing on climate and the Clean Air Act. Here in New York, Commissioner Cas Hollaway, with the strong support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, introduced the Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) path-breaking strategic plan. Commissioner Hollaway led a celebration while Administrator Jackson endured a hazing. According to New York Times reporter John Broder:

"Lisa P. Jackson, the E.P.A. administrator, was subjected to more than two hours of questioning, some of it hostile, about proposed limits on emissions from factories, refineries, power plants and vehicles."

In Washington our environmental leaders are subject to hostility and an outmoded understanding of the connection between environmental quality and economic growth. In New York, it is clear that both the Mayor and the DEP Commissioner understand that economic growth requires environmental quality. In his letter endorsing the plan, the Mayor observed that:

"This plan lays out the distinct strategies and initiatives needed to carry out DEP's vital mission, and we'll hold ourselves accountable for implementing each one of them. We'll complete some within the next three years, and some will extend many years past that--to 2030 and beyond, ensuring that New York continues to be one of the largest, greenest, and most sustainable cities in the world."

In addition to articulating 100 goals and initiatives, The DEP plan includes sections on:
  • Customer Service
  • Worker Safety, Public Health and Environmental Protection
  • Operations and Capital
  • Sustainability

In PlaNYC 2030 and now in DEP's strategic plan, the Bloomberg administration explicitly connects the goals of environmental protection with the goals of job creation and economic development. In the sustainability section of the DEP plan, one finds a succinct summary of the sustainability perspective and its connection to DEP's strategy:

"Sustainability unites environmental protection and economic development to create a more livable city. Rather than conceiving of environmental protection coming at the expense of economic growth, or vice versa, sustainable initiatives maximize synergies and minimize tradeoffs among energy, air, water, land, and climate policies.... A consensus is emerging about the need to make sustainability part of the calculus that drives decisions by utilities like DEP and future regulatory mandates by the state and federal governments. In 2010, we appointed a Deputy Commissioner for Sustainability to implement PlaNYC and make sustainability a core consideration for our operational, compliance, and capital investment decisions."

In contrast, the U.S. EPA is facing billions of dollars of possible budget cuts and a campaign of overheated rhetoric that includes proposals to disband the forty year old environmental agency. I have to confess that I really don't understand the political calculus of the Republicans in the House of Representatives. A recent poll commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council found "that more than two out of three Americans (67 percent) -- including 61 percent of Republicans -- oppose any such move to abolish the EPA." This finding is in line with the results in a recent Gallup poll that found that over 80% of the American public would like to see a law providing incentives for solar and alternative energy.

Some of the opposition to EPA can be attributed to the intense ideology of the new representatives. Some of the problem probably can be traced to the different functions of the federal versus the city agency. The federal EPA must set national environmental standards and provide federal funds to help us meet those standards. New York City's DEP is primarily involved in supplying water and dealing with sewage. While the city agency also has broader regulatory functions, there is little local debate about the importance of water or its connection to the city's economic viability. The local agency is directly and immediately accountable for results. If the water stops flowing or the sewage backs up, everyone knows who's to blame.

Still, both agencies are in the same business. In fact the legendary cleanliness of New York City's water is both regulated and in essence certified by the federal EPA. Federal law sets national standards for clean water, as well as for clean air and land. Both agencies have articulated sustainability themes, but EPA's attorneys and scientists are at times trapped by some of the concepts and legal restrictions of the traditional command and control approach imbedded in federal law.

National standards are essential as is strict accountability for environmental results. However, it is no longer necessary that EPA's traditional flexibility and willingness to negotiate be hidden from view. Accommodation with short term economic interests has always a part of EPA's approach to regulation. The agency has accepted compromise as long as it has been accompanied by slow and steady progress. This has always been one of the keys to its success. However, it has never based these moves on sustainability criteria. For the most part, accommodation has been a response to corporate political clout.

EPA Administrator Jackson should borrow a page from DEP Commissioner Hollaway's playbook. Before he came to DEP, Hollaway was a key member of the Mayor's staff. While at City Hall, he was immersed in the sustainability thinking that is at the heart of Mayor Bloomberg's economic development strategy. To New York's Mayor, a clean, healthy, pleasant and dynamic city is essential to attracting and retaining people and business. A clean environment is not a luxury, but an economic asset. Hollaway has brought that mindset into DEP and we see it in the agency's new strategy.

What can EPA do? Let's remember the NRDC-commissioned poll that says over 80% of the country wants the federal government to promote renewable energy. Climate regulation is one way to do that. It encourages the development of alternative fuels. Even if you refuse to accept the facts of climate science as facts, most people understand that the era of fossil fuels needs to end. Deep sea oil drilling, mountain top removal and hydrofracking for gas are not indicators of a plentiful and easily accessible supply of fossil fuel. Moreover the economic and environmental cost of extraction is growing. The average American senses that. They also experience it every time they fill their gas tank. EPA should connect its goals of environmental protection to economic well-being at every turn. Moreover, it should explicitly communicate a willingness to defer implementation of standards in order to provide business with the time needed to continue operations while moving toward compliance. They do this anyway, so all I am asking for is a change in tone and public philosophy.

To be fair, New York City does not have anything in our political process that resembles the tea party inspired U.S. House of Representatives. Commissioner Hollaway does not face the condescending and confrontational examination that Administrator Jackson is forced to endure. Nevertheless, the attack on EPA can be addressed, in part, by articulating the same sustainability themes promoted in DEP's new strategic plan.