Thursday, January 26, 2017
I’m starting to think that the years I have spent studying environmental agencies in Latin American countries might come in handy. I spent about a year in Brazil in the early 2000, where I got to know several governmental environmental agencies. I interned with two state environmental agencies: CETESB in the industrialized state of Sao Paulo, and SECTAM, in the Amazonian state of Para. Along with an environmental agency in each of Brazil’s 28 states, there is also IBAMA, the federal agency. As you can see, this sounds familiar.
CETESB gained institutional strength in the early 90s, when Brazil realized that its largest industrial area (located in the most industrialized state, of course) was a big polluted mess. CETESB staffed up to about three thousand employees and took a lot of lessons from the US EPA. It successfully established a pollution permitting systems backed up by inspections and enforcement, and by the early 2000s had become a pretty functional agency, looked to as a model by many developing countries. SECTAM was a much more typical state agency, vastly underresourced and understaffed - 117 employees to deal with environmental protection throughout Para, which is 2.5 times the size of California. The federal agency, IBAMA, had about 5,000 employees total, and was generally perceived as weak and riddled with corruption.
In other words, CESTEB had developed some “capacity,” whereas SECTAM and IBAMA had not. Not that CETESB was perfect, but it had a degree of competence in both the administrative and technical aspects of environmental protection. I could talk to its inspectors about how they did inspections – because they were equipped enough to do them. I could talk to its department chiefs about certain policies – because they were equipped enough to develop policies. In contrast, when I talked to people from SECTAM and even IBAMA, there seemed to be much less to talk about. Lacking resources, the agencies simply didn’t do as much. And, in addition to lacking capacity, the lacked independence or “autonomy.” Agencies with little autonomy are dominated and steamrolled by the executive power (governor or president) who almost invariably favors economic development interests.
I recently returned to Brazil. There have been some good changes in the 2000s. IBAMA hired a lot of people and it became a functional agency, with more capacity and autonomy. Para’s state agency, SECTAM, changed its name to SEMAS, and has experienced some increase in capacity. CETESB has continued being CETESB – not perfect, of course, but still made up of a critical mass of knowledgeable and competent people trying to do the work of environmental protection.
And now to bring it all home: I saw a headline this morning announcing that Trump’s advisors recommend steep cuts in the EPA's staffing levels – reducing the workforce from about 15,000 people to 5,000 people. It is easy to see that the Administration has it in for the EPA, what with the gag order that was imposed to prohibit employees from talking with the press or public and the nomination of Scott Pruitt for the top job of Administrator. Pruitt's most notable environmentally-related deeds as Oklahoma’s Attorney General include establishing a “federalism unit” to fight Obama regulations and suing the EPA multiple times.
It should be clear what can happen here, because it happens all over the world. Our environmental agencies can be made to lack capacity and autonomy – and then they won’t work. And let us not forget: they have been functional agencies that have worked well. This is not the place to recount the many achievements of EPA's work implementing our federal environmental laws over the past 4 decades, but the benefits to our health and welfare FAR outweigh the costs.