"The EPA is a weak agency"

Armin Rosencranz , the founder and president emeritus of the Pacific Environment and Resources Centre in California, US, spoke to Madhumita Dutta about environmental conservation in his country. He also aired his views on India's approach to the protection of the environment and natural resources

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

On the agencies in the US responsible for environment protection and their modes of operation:
There are two agencies in the us that deal with all environmental issues. One of them, the department of interior, is a strong agency and is 150 years old. The department has control over all public land and the resources present therein. The other agency is the environmental protection agency (epa), which is only 25 years old. The epa is a weak agency and has under its control the enforcement of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Toxic Substances Control Act, among others.

On why the EPA is a weak agency, despite having many acts under its jurisdiction:
Though this one agency has about 10 different environmental programmes to administer, it finds no support in the Congress. There are only a handful of progressive Congressional members who might work with the epa. The epa has been regularly targeted for reduction in budget and personnel. During President Clinton's first year in office (1993), the agency's budget was cut by about 30 per cent.

On whether there are any special environmental acts or laws that are not controlled by the EPA:
There are two rather extraordinary statutes that are not controlled by the epa, the National Environmental Policy (nep) Act (1969) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). The nep orders an environment impact assessment (eia) for every public project that might substantially affect the environment. But in the us, though the eia is conducted, it is hardly binding on the party concerned. The other law, the Endangered Species Act, does not involve the calculation of costs and benefits. It is totally uncompromising for it deems that any species that is endangered must be protected and every public works project creating an impact on endangered species must be withdrawn.

On whether there are any penalties levied for violating the recommendations of EIAs:
There are penalties for those who go ahead with projects violating eia s and there could be a lot of public outcry. Some political repercussions could follow too, but one can still do what one likes. This is because of shortcomings in the law.

On whether the Endangered Species Act protects both the species and its habitat:
In a rare case heard by the Supreme Court ( sc ) last year, 63 votes were passed in favour of the protection of the habitat. This is a great victory because there were a number of pressures and court cases that seemed to challenge endangered species.

On the positive developments towards environmental protection taking place in the US:
On the positive side, if one can say so, market approaches to environmental protection like the concept of tradeable pollution rights are growing very fast. This system has been working. The only kink in it is that trade in pollution rights have lower economic value than was originally thought.

On other factors which are having a negative environmental impact in the US:
The other things happening in the us include the Salvage Timber Rider, a terrible law introduced by Clinton. It enables weather-beaten and damaged trees to be logged but needless to say, opportunistic timber companies have managed to get permits to cut healthy, ancient trees in otherwise protected areas. Clinton is now asking members of the Congress to try and figure out a way to repeal the law.

In recent years, the permission granted for the operation of toxic waste incineraters, typically located in low-income districts, is also a problem. There have been no grazing and mining reforms too.

On what he thinks of India's approach to environmental protection:
A lot has been happening in India in the field of environmental protection. The pollution control boards are gaining the power to shut down offending industries under the Environment Protection Act (1986). But the question is whether they are going to use it. Pollution control boards, as you undoubtedly know, are quite amenable to special influences and payments.

His opinion of environmental activism in India:
It is inspiring to the rest of the world to see the proliferation of grassroots environmental activism in India as exemplified by the movements against the Narmada and Tehri dam projects. Another aggressive movement that one has to take notice of is the environmental activism of the sc of India. But there is nothing in the law that entitles the sc to act this way. India is right now going through a period of extraordinary judicial activism which cannot be sustained at the current level. There fore, it is a plus because it is happening and a minus because there is no prospect of it continuing.

Another minus about the sc -- notwithstanding its activism against polluters -- is that it is notoriously reluctant to intrude into the affairs of large public sector projects. Investments are heavy and it does not want to interfere with something that could revolutionise the Indian economy. In this context, I would like to say something Anil Agarwal told me 13 years ago, when we first met: "India is too poor a nation to squander away its precious resources of land, air, soil, water and forests."

On how an effective agreement on global warming could be negotiated:
The main problem with negotiating an effective agreement on global warming is that it will involve massive transfers of money and technology from the North to the South. And as far as global warming is concerned, the major contributors happen to be the industrialised countries of the North.

On whether it is fair to ask developing countries to exercise all the checks and controls when it is the Northern countries which are responsible for the problem:
No, it is not fair. Developing countries would obviously be reluctant to cure a problem largely caused by the consumptive lifestyle of the developed countries. They will wait for the latter to come up with some plan and such a plan is not likely to come up unless a disaster is imminent. By then it will be too late. It seems we have to wait for some even greater scientific consensus than we have now, to reach a negotiation on the issue.

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