Agencies in charge of implementing environmental laws, like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Services are meant to represent the public interest — not corporations and moneyed interests.
But environmental law expert Mary Christina Wood, author of Nature’s Trust, says that’s not at all what is happening. As industries work to manipulate the regulatory process to serve their own objectives, “environmental law has become dangerous in the hands of politicized agencies,” she says.
Wood adds: “In the big picture, if we think about it, we wouldn’t have polluted rivers, persistent toxins in our blood streams, species going extinct, and we certainly wouldn’t be facing climate disruption and a climate emergency if environmental laws had worked.”
Watch a clip:
Be sure and watch Bill’s full interview with Wood on this week’s episode of Moyers & Company.
BILL MOYERS: In your book, you perform a fascinating regulatory autopsy. So describe briefly what you found when you opened up those veins.
MARY CHRISTINA WOOD: Yes, well environmental laws are different. They all say different things. But they all have the same structure, basically. Agencies implement environmental laws, they’re given a lot of discretion to make decisions that are technical. They are supposed to represent the public interest and not corporations or moneyed interests in making those decisions. And we the public assume that the agencies are doing the right thing when they’re implementing environmental laws.
BILL MOYERS: And you make the point in here that one agency after another now serves private interests, corporate interests and profit interests more than it does the public interest. Is that right?
MARY CHRISTINA WOOD: That’s right. And it’s really not surprising, because industry has every incentive to manipulate the regulatory process to serve its ends. Because regulation costs industry. So industry is constantly knocking at the door, and more often inside the door of the agencies, trying to pressure the agencies in a variety of ways, to issue permits.
And then what happens is, permits get issued and there’s simply no control over most permits at that stage. They are not challenged in court for the most part, judicial challenges are very exceptional. And when judges do look at permits being issued under statutory law, they often give deference to the agencies. And the reason they do this is because courts assume that the agencies are carrying out the public interest, and that they’re objective players.
And that is the mismatch now that we find between the promise of environmental law and the reality of environmental law. Environmental law has become dangerous in the hands of politicized agencies.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
MARY CHRISTINA WOOD: Because these agencies have pushed natural systems to their limits. We’re seeing massive extinctions, dried up rivers, and climate careening out of control. So we are at a very dangerous situation in this country where the very life systems that support us are now imperiled and in jeopardy.
BILL MOYERS: What makes you think that the cumbersome court system that we have can save us?
MARY CHRISTINA WOOD: Well, I’ve never thought the courts would actually save the day as Superman would. However, we have the government we have. One branch, Congress, has become so purchased by the fossil fuel industry, that it is, it has become dangerous to the citizens.
Another branch, the executive branch, which oversees all the agencies, they’re the ones giving out all the permits. Well, we’ve only got one other branch of government. And that is the courts. And the courts were set up by the founders of this nation to provide a key check in the system of checks and balances. The idea was that not one branch should turn into a tyranny.
Which is essentially what we are facing in environmental law. The administrative branch is controlling our resources to the extent, and allowing so much damage, with so little check by the other branches, that it has become close to tyrannical.
BILL MOYERS: But there’s so much noise, not only from the corporate world about the heavy hand of EPA and bureaucracy and there’s so much, from the states, there’s so much protests about the federal government is running our public lands and keeping us from using them. I mean, it’s a surprise to hear you, to read, you describe, and then here you explain, what is a massive dysfunction of environmental regulatory agencies.
MARY CHRISTINA WOOD: There have been times when environmental groups have engaged environmental law and have stopped damaging projects. And so to that extent, we do hear a lot of noise from industry. But in the big picture, if we think about it, we wouldn’t have polluted rivers, persistent toxins in our blood streams, species going extinct, and we certainly wouldn’t be facing climate disruption and a climate emergency if environmental laws had worked.
Producer: Robert Booth. Editor: Rob Kuhns.