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Moving Forward: Future Directions for EPA and Environmental Protection Executive Summary

Full Report

The nation’s environmental progress since the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nearly 50 years ago is remarkable by many measures, and the agency can point to a strong record of accomplishments.1 Environmental and public health gains are increasingly difficult to achieve, however, and EPA’s current “business model,” in isolation, may be insufficient for tackling important present and emerging challenges and preserving historical gains. Past environmental improvements have been achieved largely through regulatory actions to set standards, issue permits, and hold dischargers responsible for compliance, as mandated by existing laws. New challenges, including climate change, are different from earlier challenges, and call for augmenting traditional programs with new approaches that engage states/tribes, industry, non-governmental organizations, communities and other stakeholders more actively than at present.

This conclusion emerges from a unique partnership formed in 2018 between American University’s Center for Environmental Policy (CEP) and the EPA Alumni Association (EPA AA) to identify our greatest environmental challenges and to suggest “future directions” for EPA. The partnership recognized that pressures on the environment will continue as worldwide population and economic growth drive greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and related impacts, intensive agricultural production, competition for water, reliance on chemicals, unsustainable land use and ecosystem destruction, urban concentration, and resource extraction. Informed by the partnership with EPA AA, CEP identified 6 key “future directions” to help EPA prepare for the challenges ahead:

  1. Pursue State-of-Art Science Capability. EPA’s ability to lead in a future landscape involving many entities pursuing the goals of sustainability and environmental protection (in many different ways) starts with its own credibility and demands a solid foundation in state-of-the-art science.
  2. Renew the U.S. “Environmental Protection Enterprise.” The integrated system of state/tribal and EPA programs -- the foundation for 50 years of environmental progress -- must be renewed with fresh energy and shared governance, and be broadened to include a role for nongovernmental organizations, industry, local government, and others who can bring resources, expertise, and ideas.
  3. Strengthen International Cooperation. EPA and its partners (old and new) should embrace international cooperation as part of the future environmental protection enterprise because climate change and other complex challenges call for a worldwide response, and the benefits of exchanging technical expertise accrue globally.
  4. Harness Markets and Consumer Choice in Concert with Regulations. EPA should accelerate the use of market approaches that are already proven, such as regional cap-and-trade systems, and give the public/consumers information on the sustainability of products and processes. In many cases market approaches can achieve more than regulations alone.
  5. Advance a Forward-Looking Regulatory System. Regulations will remain critical for meeting future challenges, but should be designed to embrace technological innovation and the best new models for achieving outcomes and rewarding sustainability.
  6. Engage the Public to Raise Awareness About the Environment. Public confidence in EPA and support for its mission are critical. EPA and partners need to redouble efforts to engage the public -- both to listen and to educate -- about critical public health and environmental threats and clearly communicate necessary actions.

Project Background

American University's Center for Environmental Policy (CEP) in 2018 formed a partnership with the EPA Alumni Association (EPA AA) to identify the greatest challenges facing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and to suggest "future directions" to help EPA prepare to meet those challenges.

The project encompassed these five components:

  1. EPA and the Future of Environmental Protection (conference), held April 23-24, 2019 at American University (co-sponsored by the Environmental Law Institute and the Hanley Family Foundation).
  2. Five Focus Group Reports, written by members of EPA AA in Summer 2018.
  3. EPA Alumni Association Members Survey Report, prepared by CEP based on a survey of EPA AA members in November 2018.
  4. Modernizing Environmental Protection: A Brief History of Lessons Learned, written by several EPA alumni and EPA staff in cooperation with CEP.
  5. "A Future Inspired by the Past" (video) featuring William Ruckelshaus, EPA's first and fifth administrator, shown at AU’s conference, "EPA and the Future of Environmental Protection," on April 23, 2019.

Progress in protecting the environment and public health for many years has been slowed by polarized debate. The future directions identified in this report should help strengthen public confidence in EPA, and offer a path forward that emphasizes EPA’s role in bringing together and leading the work of many actors to protect the environment and public health.

While this project provides suggestions for building the EPA of the future, it is only a beginning, and it focuses primarily on EPA’s institutional capacity, not specific policy proposals. This focus is based on the belief that a strong and vibrant EPA will be needed in the future as society grapples with critical issues such as community resiliency and environmental justice, and seeks solutions for national and worldwide threats to public health and the environment (led by climate change and its impacts, loss of biological diversity, water quality/supply, widespread presence of toxins, and others). An active dialogue is needed around those and other issues to build consensus for policy responses. In the end, however, sound policies are only as effective as the institutions responsible for implementation. This report is intended to help guide the work of building EPA’s capacity to lead a 21st century model of environmental protection, and to build the public support EPA needs to continue to perform its historical leadership role.