State and federal responsibilities for environmental protection

July 11

This morning I will be testifying at a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environment and the economy on how constitutional considerations should influence the division or responsibilities between the federal and state governments. This is a subject that has occupied a substantial portion of my research agenda.  Here is an overview of my testimony:

Both the federal and state governments play a role in environmental protection. Each has a comparative advantage in addressing particular types of environmental concerns. Apart from such policy considerations, however, the U.S. Constitution also constrains the sorts of environmental policies that may be adopted by each level of government. It is a fundamental principle of our constitutional order that the federal government is one of limited and enumerated powers, and that those powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states and the people. All federal laws, no matter their value or purpose, must be enacted pursuant to the federal government’s enumerated powers and may not transgress other constitutional constraints. This is as true for environmental protection as it is for national security or health care.

The constitutional system of “dual sovereignty” limits federal power and recognizes the “separate and independent autonomy” of the states. At the same time, our federalist system constrains what states may do, through both express and implied structural limits on state authority. As a consequence, not every level of government may enact every potentially desirable for environmental protection. Rather, our constitutional structure leaves both the federal and state governments with realms in which they may operate to advance environmental goals while simultaneously providing for some degree of interjurisdictional competition among and between the several states.

Constitutional limits on federal power need not come at the expense of environmental protection. The division of authority between the federal and state governments counsels that Congress think carefully about the nature and scope of federal environmental regulation. Fiscal constraints and the inherent limits of centralized regulatory structures reinforce the wisdom of focusing federal efforts in those areas where the federal government may do the most good. Specifically, the federal government should concentrate its efforts in those areas where the federal government has a comparative advantage or where the separate states are unlikely to be able to address environmental concerns adequately. For instance, there is a compelling case to made that the federal government should take the lead in addressing interstate spillovers. Downstream and downwind jurisdictions should not be at the mercy of their upstream and upwind neighbors. Further, there is a powerful case to be made that the federal government should exercise leadership in scientific research on the nature and scope of environmental concerns and, in some areas, provide incentives for the development of environmentally friendly technologies. When it comes to developing and enforcing environmental standards for localized environmental concerns, however, the case for federal intervention is comparatively weak. Not coincidentally, the constitution constrains federal efforts to reach some localized environmental concerns. Again, however, such constraints need not compromise environmental protection. To the contrary, insofar as the constitution encourages policy makers to think carefully about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of federal intervention, it may actually enhance this nation’s system of environmental protection.

The full statement is available here.  Others testifying at the hearing are former New York University dean Richard Revesz, Robert Meltz of the Congressional Research Service and Rena Steinzor of the University of Maryland.  The hearing webcast and video should be available here.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation. He clerked for Judge David B. Sentelle on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and is a Senior Fellow at the Property & Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. Follow: @jadler1969
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