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EPA Sustainability Chief Details Broad Transitional Challenges

Interview with Alan Hecht
Inside Green Business
August 07, 2006

As the Environmental Protection Agency moves toward making sustainability a central decision-making concept throughout the agency, its leading policy point person on sustainable development says EPA faces significant challenges in both its research role and in coordinating with diverse federal agencies, businesses and other groups.

According to EPA’s first-ever director for sustainable development, Alan Hecht, the agency must pursue at least three major tasks in promoting its sustainability agenda. EPA must develop and implement a research strategy to show what’s effective in promoting sustainability, a task well under way. It must coordinate internally among its programs and regions as well as externally with the departments of Defense, Energy, Transportation and other government agencies. And it must expand its collaborative partnerships with businesses, universities, and other parties to advance the agency’s leadership role in promoting sustainability.

Having EPA take a leadership role in environmental sustainability was urged by a recent Science Advisory Board (SAB) peer review of the agency’s sustainability research plan.  Their report says the board “strongly endorses the agency’s decision to establish environmental sustainability as the overarching framework through which present and future environmental decisions will be made,” as first reported in Inside Green Business.

In a wide-ranging interview with Inside Green Business, Hecht discusses his role in these three areas and his hope that Congress will become engaged in a dialogue on EPA’s future direction as it evolves, in the words of EPA Administrator Steve Johnson, “from pollution control, to pollution prevention, to sustainability.”

Hecht is the Office of Research & Development’s primary contact point on sustainability, a position that was created in 2003 by then-ORD Assistant Administrator Paul Gilman, who had a very strong interest in sustainability; he had participated in National Academy of Sciences committees that had discussed the subject at length. Gilman wanted to make the concept operational, or practical, at EPA, and selected Hecht to fill the new slot following Hecht’s 2001-2003 White House detail as coordinator for U.S. participation in the 2002 United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development. Before that Hecht spent 12 years in EPA’s international program. 

The challenges EPA faces in advancing its sustainability agenda come at a time of growing federal interest in the issue. In fact, interest is widespread enough that a federal working group on stewardship and sustainability was formed and met for the first time in late 2005, drawing 40 federal agency participants. 

Business interest is growing, too, and EPA is in the early stages of discussing possible collaboration with Dow Chemical Company in which the agency would work with the global chemical manufacturer as an independent partner in the life-cycle assessments Dow will need to conduct as it implements the major new sustainability goals the company’s CEO announced in May. Those goals include a call for sustainable products, going beyond the usual business focus on cleaner production facilities. 

The increasing activity reflects “a new era coming,” Hecht says, one that demands new solutions -- built around the concept of sustainability -- to deal with system-wide ecological, energy, urban growth, and other complex problems.

Sustainability Research
A major part of Hecht’s job is to spearhead the development of the agency’s sustainability research agenda. Sustainability research “is system-oriented so it tends to look across the multi-media,” says Hecht. Further, “It is forward-looking” in trying to assess environmental impacts as the population grows and new products are developed. It involves tools such as life-cycle analysis and building scenarios of what the future will look like as the economy expands and resources are increasingly under pressure from an expanding number of users, says Hecht.

As an example, Hecht notes that in the Washington, Idaho, and Oregon region, EPA’s Corvalis, OR, laboratory is already exploring various scenarios that will help decision-makers today as the region’s population -- now in the 15-20 million range -- grows to a projected 50 million, putting huge stresses on water quantity and quality. Despite significant rain, “It’s a dry area,” he says, adding that the region’s environmental issues are moving beyond salmon protection to broader water and future economic growth concerns.

As exemplified by the Corvalis lab’s work on future scenarios, “Part of the research strategy is to help decision-makers make better decisions,” Hecht says, citing a 1998 House Science Committee report, “Unlocking the Future,” that calls for science to help society make good decisions. The report has been highly influential among various agency research programs. The theme of using science to make decisions has also come up with EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, which provides advice on science management issues; and in the agency’s climate change program.

Hecht expresses satisfaction that the SAB peer review of the strategy was “very positive,” even though significant suggestions for changes will be incorporated into the strategy. SAB supported EPA’s use of sustainability as a core concept and supported a multi-faceted systems approach rather than a stovepipe approach throughout the agency. SAB also said EPA should “sharpen definitions” so people know what the agency is talking about when it refers to sustainability research, Hecht says.

“Sustainability covers a lot,” he adds.

“For any single agency like EPA to achieve sustainable development is somewhat difficult because we can’t control the natural resource agencies, the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation. It’s a much broader context,” Hecht explains. “The idea embodied in our strategy is that by leading on the research and demonstrating the success in achieving environmental outcomes that are cost-effective, socially acceptable, you lead toward a greater opportunity of achieving sustainability across government.”

Part of the difficulty of operationalizing sustainability, or making it practical, is “managerial,” Hecht says. Currently, few nations have a department of sustainability. The French have one, and the Dutch have an ambassador of sustainability. “But it’s still functioning globally in the department of environment, energy, transportation, and so on. Achieving policy coherence across these domains is a governance issue, it’s a management issue; it’s very difficult,” Hecht says. Even with the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, under President Bill Clinton, “no new laws were passed, though a lot of good work was done that advance environmental management, recycling, and other issues.  The thoughts were there, but they never got operationalized,” he says. “We hope our strategy will help by showing it in operation,” thereby showing decision makers the various options for the future of sustainability.

Through the strategy, “We’ll define a few areas that we believe are in the national interest where the systems approach, life-cycle analysis, and technology diffusion can be most effectively used,” Hecht says. While reluctant to say which areas will receive the most emphasis, Hecht says biomass is a national priority and an issue he is “very big on.”

The U.S. has a goal of 25 percent renewable energy by the year 2025, Hecht says, noting that the 25X25 goal is a presidential and federal goal. EPA is in a good position to assess the broader environmental issues associated with biomass using life-cycle analysis, he asserts.

Once SAB completes its review of the sustainability research strategy, the review will be given to senior management and Johnson to make decisions on how to implement the strategy, “hopefully by the end of summer,” Hecht says.

Coordinating On Sustainability
Internal and inter-agency coordination on sustainability is vital, Hecht says. Toward that end, EPA recently launched a yearlong dialogue with all programs and regions on sustainability activities as a key part of the agency’s effort to advance its understanding and activities around sustainability (see related story).

Hecht also stresses the importance of a report, “Everyday Choices: Opportunities for Environmental Stewardship,” that grew out of a request by EPA Administrator Johnson in May 2005 for the agency’s senior-level Innovation Action Council (IAC) to “develop an environmental stewardship strategy for EPA.” That report is the first document in which EPA has broadly defined senior management level sustainability outcomes for energy, water, air, materials, land, and ecosystems.

The IAC and agency staff are preparing an implementation plan for the “Everyday Choices” report, and that plan includes the ORD research strategy as well as a focus on “stewardship of products, which brings in the whole life-cycle analysis area,” Hecht says. He adds that “stewardship is the governance part” of sustainability -- with everyone taking responsibility for their part of the problem -- and “sustainable outcomes is the goal.”

Sustainability efforts also are moving ahead elsewhere in the agency. The “Resource Conservation & Recovery Act 2020” plan calls for managing materials, not waste, because “waste is endless.” Under this initiative, the waste program is promoting the use of biodegradable materials and recycling -- “everything Wal-Mart is now committed to doing,” Hecht says. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has committed to get 100 percent of its energy from renewable resources, cut energy use in its stores by 30 percent, and cut its truck fleet fuel consumption by 25 percent over the next three years.

Other EPA efforts are under way in the pesticides program. Also, EPA is pushing smart growth and green buildings programs, as well as facilities management – and these efforts, Hecht says, are all part of sustainability “without putting a bunch of names on it.”

“We’re getting calls from everybody -- they all want to do something, so it helps build the culture” at EPA,” he adds.

“Certainly, facilities management and executive orders have become key,” Hecht says. He was involved in an advisory group with the White House’s Federal Environmental Executive Ed Pinero, which reviewed all executive orders pertaining to environmental reporting and sustainability. “There are so many, CEQ is quietly thinking whether they can consolidate some of this stuff,” Hecht says. When it is added up, in terms of procurement, federal facilities, environmental management systems, targets for non-renewables, “there’s been very substantial progress” in the federal greening process, Hecht says. 

No Federal Sustainability Definition
At the same time, “There’s no federal definition of sustainability,” Hecht says. But there have been talks with the White House on the issue. Last year, when the federal working group on stewardship and sustainability was created with Hecht and Pinero as co-chairs, representatives from participating federal agencies felt at the first meeting that “they had a lead role in sustainability.” As a case in point, the Army is focusing heavily in sustainability in the area of base management, and EPA is looking to collaborate with the military in this area.

“They’ve taken a view that wetlands are a positive for water filtration and ecosystem management,” Hecht says of the Army. That perspective is important because if all military bases were linked across the Eastern United States, they collectively would make up the East coast’s largest ecosystem, he notes.

When the working group met “It was clear everyone recognized there’s no clear definition of sustainability,” he continued. In part, that’s why EPA is developing its research strategy and focusing on sustainable environmental outcomes, with a goal of seeing how agency efforts fit with broader sustainable development goals that include social and economic issues.

“You don’t ignore economic and social factors when you pass a rule, but the broader idea of sustainability requires integration of policy across large sectors of society and no single agency can do that,” says Hecht. “If we can get a more common definition, then it leads to the possibility that you can have executive orders, policy guidance, even with targets.”

“We hope the working group will come up with enough background information to continue this sharpening of the focus, and get consensus so that all the agencies can cooperate in a more direct way,” Hecht says.

Business And Other Outreach Efforts
As for the business community’s role in sustainability, Hecht says, “They’ve been in the lead on many of these things.” So far, “We’ve not had a clearly defined definition of what business wants from EPA or what EPA can offer business and how we can partner. That dialogue is missing,” he adds, at least in part. “It’s there in bits and pieces. We’re hoping to elevate it to a broader dialogue” beyond working with Performance Track, which is “clearly a step in the right direction” but “does even more if you add sustainability to it.” Performance Track is an agency partnership program that recognizes companies for high performance in environmental management and provides incentives to reward such performance.

EPA has programs for certain industries, such as metal finishers and pulp and paper. “But when GE, Dow, DuPont, Pfizer all ask what can we do to create more incentives for partnerships, or joint research -- the whole suite of things -- that’s an area we want to develop,” Hecht says. “When I talk to business, I look for opportunities, maybe in research, maybe for other parts of the agency, that can be brought back.”

Overall, “Business expects government will catch up with them; some want labeling programs; some want incentive programs; some want carbon dioxide controls and guidance on CO2 markets; lawyers for companies expect that sooner or later CO2 controls will be imposed,” Hecht says. While regulation has some role to play in sustainability, “the tools for sustainability will be multiple,” he adds. One form is supplementary environmental projects that are being used in enforcement to promote energy efficiency and renewables. Within the range of tools will be environmental management systems, incentives, partnerships, and some regulations.

Hecht is also actively engaged with universities. Last year he began visiting major universities with sustainability programs to learn about cutting-edge issues and to “see if we can partner.” EPA doesn’t have a lot of grant money, but people respect and want EPA’s involvement, “so we have leverage,” Hecht says. So far, he has met with officials at the Michigan State University, Carnegie Mellon Unversity, and Ohio State University, which has created a new “center for resilience.” Resilience is considered a key concept for sustainability research that involves how decision-makers will know when critical thresholds in natural and human systems have been reached.

As a result of Hecht’s visit to Ohio State, the school is putting $750 million into renovating its medical center along a green design, using the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification system. EPA’s Cincinnati, OH, lab is now a partner, providing life-cycle analysis and other help to Ohio State. In Michigan, EPA has a half-dozen centers for systems research that Hecht is working with. 

A Role For Congress?
Congress “absolutely” can play a role in advancing EPA’s sustainability agenda, Hecht says. To make that happen, EPA has to sit down with its appropriating committees and others in Congress to see “if we have a common view of where the future is” for EPA. The key question: whether it is to be a narrowly defined role -- EPA as pollution regulator -- or a broader vision.

Either way, “You have to have a dialogue” on this issue, says Hecht. For instance, EPA could have had a larger role in promoting clean-energy choices through the Energy Policy Act of 2005, enacted last August. And there are a number of other pending bills that could reshape the agency’s future role on green chemistry, high-performance buildings, green education, solar energy, and other sustainability-related issues, Hecht says.

“There’s clearly a lot of interest up there. But I’m not sure everyone on the Hill sees the same evolution and vision of what EPA should be or could be,” says Hecht. He hopes that as a result of policy papers and discussions now circulating about sustainability that some kind of dialogue on the subject of what EPA will be like in 2020 will occur in the relevant congressional committees, including the Senate Environment and Public Works and House Science committees. “That would be enormously helpful,” he says.