AnalysisAnalysis: Environmental regulations cause risky concentration of critical infrastructure

Published 19 January 2006

It used to be the case that environmental concerns appeared to clash with economic growth and job creation; now an argument is being made that environmental concerns leading to the concentration of critical infrastructure facilities may clash with security

More than thirty years ago, E. F. Schumacher published his Small is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered. It soon enjoyed a cult-like following in what historians call “the Movement” (and with statements such as, We need a gentle approach, a non-violent spirit, and small is beautiful. We must concern ourselves with justice and see right prevail. …” it would, too, would it not?). Those were the days when environmental concerns were pitted against growth and jobs. Last month the Congressional Research Service (CRS) published an intriguing study titled “Vulnerability of Concentrated Critical Infrastructure: Background and Policy Options,” which says that we may have entered an age in which conflict will be between environmental concerns and security.

The report examines risks to crucial U.S. infrastructure such as power, water, transportation, and other systems, risks which stem from too much geographic concentration of critical infrastructure. Such concentration not only increases local risks in the event of natural or man-made disasters, but concentration also can cause serious ripple effects in other regions, since regions’ critical systems tend to be interdependent. The report outlines a number of factors contributing to geographic concentration of critical infrastructure, including some environmental regulation — most notably the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) and the Clean Air Act (CAA). “Without such government influence, market forces may drive developers to less geographically concentrated locations for future infrastructure projects. The challenge to this approach of alleviating geographic concentration is that it may conflict with other objectives of federal legislation. Concentration is often viewed as a desirable means of preserving undisturbed natural areas from destructive development,” the report says. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which disrupted a large portion of U.S. refining capacity, demonstrated what can go wrong when infrastructure is concentrated (whether or not that concentration, in the cases of Louisiana and Texas, was the direct result of environmental concerns).

The CRS report looks at other, non-environmental reasons for the growing concentration of critical infrastructure facilities and sites. The question, though, remains: Does critical infrastructure concentration multiply and exacerbate the consequences of a natural or man-made disaster?

-read the report at Federation of American Scientists’ Web site