Environmental Protection Politics: an Interview with William Ruckelshaus on the Difficulty of Making Public Policy Changes

Western Sugar plant. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

U.S. Environmental Agency (EPA) founding administrator William D. Ruckelshaus died Nov. 27, 2019. EPA was created in 1970; Ruckelshaus served as its head until 1973. A decade later he returned briefly to head the agency during the Reagan administration. As part of a series of events celebrating EPA’s 35th anniversary in April 2006, Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs hosted Ruckelshaus in Bloomington for a lecture and panel discussion. Prior to those events he met with journalists to answer questions.

Healy: What is the greatest obstacle to implementing effective environmental policies?

Ruckelshaus: Public distrust of the federal government. Unless the people can place some minimal degree of trust in their governmental institutions, free societies don’t work very well. To me, this is the central ugly fact confronting the government of the United States. The more mistrust by the public, the less effective government becomes at delivering what people want and need.

What specifically do you think the U.S. should be doing in the area of environmental protection that it isn’t doing?

I think we should adopt a Policy #1 that global warming is a real problem, and we are a major contributor to carbon in the atmosphere and we need to take serious steps to reduce it.

We should have some kind of Manhattan-style Project to find out how to a generate energy using less carbon and every form of energy should be open, including nuclear. Nuclear power is not economical right now and it also scares people to death, even though we have generated 20 percent of our electrical energy in this country using nuclear power for a long time and are likely to be generating something like that over the next 15 to 20 years when these plants are scheduled to phase out. But other alternative forms of energy, including really getting serious about conservation, can all be done within economic good sense.

We haven’t reduced vehicle miles traveled very much. My own view is if you reduce the amount of gasoline you use, you do about eight good things and price doesn’t seem to have an awful lot of effect on it. At $3 a gallon, if that doesn’t get people upset, I don’t know what will.

Are politicians preventing science from having an impact on policy decisions?

Oh, that’s true. Following what they believe to be the national interests or the interests, broadly speaking, of constituents, I think the President and his advisers believe that Kyoto, for instance, is way too expensive. It’s going to cost us too much money versus the benefits that we would receive for it. That’s a nice way of putting it. The other way of putting it is, it’s just politics. But then politics usually is related to some economic or other benefit that your constituents are going to receive that outweighs — at least in their minds — the impact of some regulatory regime or other kind of approach that would have a different result.

One of your more controversial actions in your first stint as EPA administrator was the banning of DDT. Do you regret that decision, given that malaria is again emerging as a global health threat?

The statute that controlled the use of things like DDT — pesticides or herbicides — required the EPA administrator to balance the risk of the continued use of that pesticide against the benefits. About 70 percent of DDT use in this country was for the control of insects on cotton. There were some uses in the forest in the Pacific Northwest and some controls of other insects around the country but primarily it was used on cotton. Cotton insects targeted by DDT were evolving into a much more resistant species, so you had to use more and more of the material in order to have the desired effect. The impact on man was if anything minimal — there was no proof that it was having any adverse impact on man.

There was proof it was having effect on raptors — an egg-thinning phenomenon on peregrine falcons and bald eagles. It was also having an effect on shellfish and freshwater shrimp in particular. It wasn’t an easy decision but the balance seemed to me to be that the risk outweighed the benefits to society. We had substitutes for DDT that could be used but didn’t have the same kind of long-term risk to the environment that DDT was having.

The DDT ban just affected this country, not other countries. The objection to the decision since has been that because we banned it here, it became discredited in much of the rest of the world, and the World Health Organization among others put pressure against its use in places like Africa where malaria was quite high.

If the facts as I stated them to you are the same today as they were when the decision was made, then I wouldn’t change my mind. But if they’re different, if there are more benefits to DDT than I realized, I might change my mind. At the time it was made, I think the decision was right.

A hypothetical question: Say your president asked you to serve, and once again you agree and are confirmed by Congress to head the EPA. What would you do with the agency now?

Well, it would be something I’d have to confront before I took the job, assuming this offer were made. I think one problem that any EPA administrator has now is that it’s very hard to get change. Because this administration has been in power now for six years, the public’s minds — and therefore a lot of people in Congress’ minds — have been formed about what this administration thinks about the environment. And so in order to get constructive change in either our environmental laws or the way they’re administered, you have to have a fairly high degree of public trust. But if the public didn’t believe you and thought your decisions were favoring some constituency that the president had, it’s very hard to make any progress.

The same thing was true when I went back to the EPA in the Reagan administration in 1983. The Congress had been affected by public attitudes about what the Regan administration was going to do about the environment and they weren’t about to make any changes. I was there about two years and left in his second term. You can perform administrative functions but you can’t really get any change because the Congress won’t entertain it. It’s too risky for them politically. It’s not that they don’t realize that change is needed, but they won’t make the statutes better or more realistic or function better. They won’t do it.

And so I think the reason your hypothetical strikes me as unreasonable is that I don’t think I would accept the job. [Laughs] I’m too old to be an administrator.