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Oceana’s Eric Bilsky: Why Environmental Regulation Matters

By Erika Winston

October 4, 2017

Eric Bilsky

For attorney Eric Bilsky, the true cost of environmental regulation pales in comparison to the potential risks of deregulation. Bilsky serves as senior attorney and assistant general counsel for Oceana, an international organization focused on protecting and restoring the world’s oceans. Bilsky believes environmental regulation is essential to the continuation of our society.

“We band together and form governments because individuals cannot flourish going it alone. If my neighbor dumps his trash in my yard and his sewage in my drinking water, I am not going to make it,” he says. “From my specific work–oceans and fisheries–if people can go out and dynamite the lake or run electricity through the water and just collect all the dead fish, we will simply run out of fish. So environmental regulation is a central purpose of government.”

Bilsky does not subscribe to the assertion that the financial costs of environmental regulation outweigh the benefits. “If a business can dump mercury in the harbor without regulation, its environmental compliance cost will be low,” he explains. “If we add regulation and require it to properly dispose of the mercury as hazardous waste, the business’s compliance cost will go way up, but there will be a whole bunch of people who will not get ill from mercury poisoning, who won’t incur losses to their businesses by not going to work, who won’t incur medical costs, and so forth. When someone says regulations make it too expensive to conduct business, they are completely ignoring how very, very expensive unregulated businesses can be.”

While Bilsky does recognize that some environmental regulations fall short of perfection, he believes that the U.S. regulatory system is one that significantly adds to the protection of human health and safety.

“We probably have some of the cleanest air and water in the world because of that system. Countries around the world look to us as a leader and would like to emulate our success in providing clean air and water for our people. Not only that, there are many areas where we can see that additional regulation would be helpful and would be an investment that would add even more value to society. It is economically efficient to invest in regulation and reap the benefit of a clean environment with healthy people living in it,” he says.

According to Bilsky, environmental regulation and commercial interests do not have to be mutually exclusive. To exemplify this point, Bilsky cites regulations that assisted businesses in the fishing industry. “In 2000 the government identified 92 fish stocks as being overfished. The fishing enterprises that depended on these stocks were losing money because there were not enough fish to catch and there was a threat of things getting worse,” he says.

New regulations around that time prompted the government to develop plans to recover or rebuild those fish populations. By 2006, Bilsky says, three of those fish stocks had been rebuilt. “[Additional] legislation improved the regulation even more, [and] by 2016, 41 stocks had been rebuilt. So that regulation helped the environment, helped the industry, and helped consumers who want to eat seafood,” he says.

In the wake of such devastating natural disasters as Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, Bilsky says concerns about corporate environmental dangers are valid. “Economic theory makes clear that if enterprises don't bear the costs of the environmental harms that they can cause, they will go ahead and cause that harm, whether it be polluting the shared atmosphere and ocean, emitting global warming gases that change the climate, or threatening right whale populations with severe behavioral harms and even extinction while exploring offshore for natural gas and oil.”

Bilsky offers several examples to support his point: the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, the worldwide coral bleaching that may have killed 20 percent to 50 percent of the Great Barrier Reef's coral.

“Our failure to properly regulate fossil fuel emissions has caused losses of life and property from more intense storms and flooding, and threatens to cause even more losses in the future. We can see how important it is to effectively address, and address in time, important problems like climate change pollution,” Bilsky says.

Summarizing his thoughts on potential environmental deregulations, Bilsky employs a standard as old as the legal profession itself: reasonableness.

“Reasonable people can disagree in specific cases about whether there is a market failure that requires regulation. Reasonable people can disagree about what specific way of regulating is the wisest and most economically efficient. But anti-regulation sloganeering is no substitute for reasonable discussion and does nothing to advance the interests of the American people or the people of this planet,” Bilsky says. 

Steven Milloy, attorney, policy analyst, and author, offers his counterpoint.