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Over the past decade, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and states have developed environmental leadership programs (ELPs), a type of voluntary environmental program designed to recognize facilities with strong environmental performance records and encourage facilities to perform better. Proponents argue that ELPs overcome some of the limitations of traditional environmental regulation by encouraging managers to address the full gamut of environmental problems posed by their facilities, reducing the costs of environmental regulation, easing adversarialism, and fostering positive culture change. Although ELPs have been in place for at least five years at the federal level and in seventeen states, these programs have been subject to little empirical evaluation. In this paper, we chart a course for assessing whether ELPs achieve their goals. Drawing on archival research and interviews with government officials who manage these programs, we provide the first comprehensive analysis of the characteristics of these programs, describing program goals, activities, communication strategies, and data collection practices. We find that EPA and many states have established ELPs to improve the environment and to achieve various social goals such as improving relationships between business and government. When it comes to collecting data that could be used to assess these programs' successes, however, government efforts fall short. Even when agencies collect reliable data, these data usually cannot be aggregated sensibly and are insufficient to draw inferences about the true impact of these programs. They also cannot help answer the question of whether ELPs are actually prompting pollution reductions or improving regulatory relationships. These general data weaknesses are significant, even surprising, given the aspirations for ELPs to facilitate policy learning and advocates' claims that these programs are delivering important environmental benefits.


Administrative law, regulatory agencies, state and federal regulation, regulatory policy making, voluntary environmental leadership programs, business responses to regulation, innovative models of regulation, self-regulation, evaluation of social effects of voluntary environmental initiatives, empirical research

Publication Title

Ecology Law Quarterly

Publication Citation

35 Ecology L. Q. 771 (2008)