Clearing the Air: In fight over greenhouse-gas regulation, Institute for Policy Integrity puts ideas into action

Richard Revesz's sunlit office on Washington Square may seem an unlikely command center for one of the biggest legal and policy wars raging in Washington D.C. But Revesz is the director of the Law School's Institute for Policy Integrity, which is deeply engaged in the high-stakes face-off over the government’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

Two cases on the Supreme Court docket this term address the scope of that authority, and Policy Integrity has submitted amicus briefs in both, supporting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations against industry challenges. Additionally, in a filing with the Office of Management and Budget, Policy Integrity has teamed up with major environmental groups to defend the government’s use of an increased dollar figure for the social cost of carbon--the economic harm caused by one metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions—which is an important component of the cost-benefit analysis of environmental regulations.

Arrayed against Policy Integrity on the various greenhouse-gas fronts are the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Cato Institute, the American Petroleum Institute, and Koch Industries. As concerns about global climate change mount, a lot rides on the outcome. “The social cost of ignoring this problem over a long period of time is enormous,” says Revesz, who is the Lawrence King Professor of Law and dean emeritus.

Revesz and Livermore founded Policy Integrity after publishing this book.
Policy Integrity’s path to battle—indeed, its very formation—stems directly from Revesz’s scholarship. It also exemplifies the way the Law School’s many centers and institutes serve as platforms for putting faculty ideas into action. In 2008, Revesz and co-author Michael Livermore ’06 (now a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law), published Retaking Rationality: How Cost Benefit Analysis Can Better Protect the Environment and Our Health. The book argues that, by rejecting economic analysis of regulation, environmentalists and other progressive groups allowed industry and conservative academics to convince the public that strong environmental, public health, and safety regulation is bad policy.

To address what Revesz calls this “pathology,” he and Livermore founded Policy Integrity the year their book was published. “We think that well conducted economic analysis can be a powerful tool in favor of rational regulation,” Revesz says. “We’ve put a lot of effort into capacity building with organizations on the progressive side of these issues.”

The social cost of carbon debate offers one example of that, as Policy Integrity partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Resources Defense Council, and the Union of Concerned Scientists to support the Obama administration’s use of increased dollar estimates for carbon damage when conducting cost-benefit analysis of regulations. In fact, the organizations argued in a report, the $37 a ton figure that federal officials plan to use for 2015 “should be viewed as a lower bound.”

Richard Revesz
Another focus of Revesz’s scholarship has been on what he sees as excessive grandfathering of old power plants to protect them from stricter pollution regulations that apply to new facilities, a practice he describes as “a central failure of U.S environmental policy.” In an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court in January in Unility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency, Policy Integrity argued for limits on grandfathering. Another amicus filing by Policy Integriy last September in Environmental Protection Agency v. EME Homer City Generation, supports the EPA’s authority to use market mechanisms to achieve cost-effective reductions in cross-state pollution generated by many of these older plants.

While Policy Integrity has a staff, including legal director Jason Schwartz ’06, students in the Regulatory Policy Clinic taught by Revesz and Schwartz help prepare many of the institute’s filings. For his academic publications, Revesz also routinely collaborates with students, who become named co-authors. The interaction of all these elements produces a kind of virtuous cycle. For example, Revesz says that a recent matter taken on by the clinic has spurred him to focus some of his future academic work on energy policy, which of course has a close nexus to greenhouse gas regulation.

“We’re a think tank/advocacy organization embedded in a leading academic institution, and that’s our comparative advantage,” Revesz says. “Our scholarship can feed into our advocacy work, or our advocacy work can feed into our scholarship.”

Posted on March 18, 2014