Don’t Tread on the States

If we’re going to solve global warming, we need all the good ideas we can get. And there is no better place to try those ideas out than in the “laboratories of democracy”: the states.

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about “states’ rights.” The apoplectic reaction to health care reform by some on the right has even led to discussion of secession and the nullification of federal laws by state governments – ideas that haven’t seen the light of day in polite society since the Civil War.

In the Senate, however, conservatives (and a few Democrats) are now talking about taking away states’ rights to go above and beyond federal requirements in addressing the problem of global warming – a concept known as “preemption.” Some of these same people argue, simultaneously, that the federal government should stay out of the business of regulating water pollution on all but the largest rivers, streams and lakes, or those that cross state lines, under the Clean Water Act.

So what gives? When it comes to taking action on the environment, should the federal government call the shots, or should the states?

The debate on the role of the federal and state governments in environmental protection shows that federalism is a tricky business. America’s environmental laws have historically sought to strike a fine balance between federal and state prerogatives.

The Clean Water Act, for example, leaves many important decisions about water pollution standards and enforcement to the states, but gives the EPA the authority to make sure the states do their jobs and follow the law. The Clean Air Act empowers the EPA to set air quality standards and to set pollution standards for cars and industrial facilities, but gives states most of the latitude for figuring out how to meet air quality targets.

When it works well, this system of shared federal-state responsibility is the best of both worlds. It gives states the freedom to innovate and to address local environmental problems in ways that work for local people, while creating a federal backstop to ensure that water and air quality goals are met for every American.

As our report, America on the Move, demonstrated, state action on energy and global warming is making a big difference in reducing emissions and is generating new policy ideas that can be adopted by other states, or the nation as a whole.

Of course, there are times when states’ authority has to be limited. States cannot allow their environmental standards – or enforcement of those standards – to create hazards that endanger their people, or that “tilt the playing field” so far as to give businesses in their state a competitive advantage against those in states that are properly implementing the law. Similarly, in a global marketplace, it would be crazy to allow each of the 50 states to develop their own automobile emission standards – which is why Congress allowed states to choose from two and only two sets of standards, the federal standards and those in California, when it passed the Clean Air Act.

But those limitations should be the exception, not the rule, particularly when states seek to develop and implement innovative policies that deliver better air and water quality for their people … and reduce emissions of pollutants that threaten the global climate. If we’re going to solve global warming, we need all the good ideas we can get. And there is no better place to try those ideas out than in the “laboratories of democracy”: the states.


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.