Will Environmental Regulations Become More Common as Wildfires Worsen?

Photo courtesy of Bill Dass

California experienced two of its worst wildfire seasons in 2017 and 2018. Deadly fires shook several communities, while also marring watersheds, destroying wildlife habitat, and polluting the air. With those memories still fresh, California Governor Gavin Newsom has declared a wildfire emergency for 2019 and begun exempting management projects from environmental regulations.

This is one of the major downsides of relying on burdensome environmental regulations to achieve environmental ends. When they run into more pressing political concerns, the government may simply waive them entirely rather than pursuing a compromise solution. For instance, Congress has authorized the Attorney General to waive essentially any law that might get in the way of border wall construction.

California shows that this risk exists even in states that are politically favorable for environmentalists.

Newsom said moving through the normal process would drastically slow down the state’s ability to act. “Some of these projects quite literally, not figuratively, could take two years to get done, or we could get them done in the next two months,” he told an audience in Lake County, the site of several massive wildfires in recent years.

Costly and burdensome permitting regimes can be thought of as a game of brinksmanship, a game similar to “chicken” in which two players both hope the other yields but lose mightily if neither do. As urgent situations arise, they create chances to extract concessions. Excessive permitting and litigation, for instance, give political environmentalism substantial leverage, which can be used to push outcomes towards the political environmentalists’ preferred ends.

In California, this model has been so successful that the signature environmental permitting law—the California Environmental Quality Act—is now abused by all sorts of activists to create leverage to achieve ends unrelated to the environment. NIMBYs use it to block construction of dense housing, contributing to the state’s housing crisis. Businesses use it to block competition or extort contract concessions.

But as the California case shows, this approach comes with a significant downside: as pressure mounts, politicians may simply exempt their preferred projects from regulations. Thus, environmentalists have something to gain from reducing unnecessary permit burdens. By finding acceptable middle ground, they can avoid the risk of an extremely negative outcome.

If wildfires continue to get worse—as they have dramatically in recent decades—this risk will only increase. Therefore, environmentalists should look for environmentally friendly ways to address this risk in the short term, while avoiding unnecessary environmental harms. Key to such innovation will be bringing private enterprise and free markets to bear on the problem.

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