THE environment has more staying power as a political issue than House of Representatives regulatory-reform proponents may have anticipated. Their efforts to roll back federal laws and rules that force industry to control pollutants, protect natural resources, and pay for clean-ups have stalled.
For one thing, it's been clear since early last summer that strong environmental protection had champions even on the Republican side of the House aisle. Sherwood Boehlert (R) of New York led a group of GOP environmental moderates who felt the roll-back was getting out of hand.
Also, the environmental lobby showed that it still can rally its troops. Polls confirm that the American public - while leery of overregulation - still puts a premium on clean air, water, and soil.
Finally, the Clinton administration has recovered its voice on environmental matters. Vice President Al Gore, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and Environmental Protection Agency head Carol Browner have been articulate defenders of continued muscular regulation. The president has vetoed sharp cuts in EPA and Interior funding and opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.
Those intent on freeing business of environmental rules haven't given up. And, indeed, some of their efforts merit approval. The concept of cost-benefit analysis, as applied to new regulation, has a logical place in government. Critics can make a case that some environmental regulation has imposed costs - to individuals as well as companies - out of proportion to its assumed public benefit.
The door should be open for honest discussion of this balance as laws are passed and rules promulgated. But the door shouldn't be open to using cost-benefit provisions as a means of blocking all future regulation by piling up red tape and litigation. And it shouldn't be forgotten that long-term environmental gains are always going to be harder to quantify than short-term business losses. Technical discussions using experts from each side could help to define a better approach in such cases.
When it comes to such issues as wetlands protection and preserving endangered species, the balance has to favor regulatory vigilance. There may be cases where it makes little sense to halt a private or public project to save the habitat of an obscure species. In such matters, dogmatism should not prevail. But the fact remains that species, once gone, are irreplaceable, and habitats are usually the same.
Through hard experience, late 20th-century humans have concluded that the natural environment demands careful monitoring and protection. It won't simply always be there, especially as population expansion presses upon all the other animate and inanimate components of the planet. That realization, more than anything else, is what will keep the push to deregulate within reasonable bounds.