Tuesday’s Sun Journal headline about Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed regulatory overhaul of environmental laws –“Regulation overhaul a long road” — is both an accurate prediction of what will be and an appropriate description of what should be.

The headline referred to a joint select legislative committee hearing on the governor’s bill to review and reform the state’s regulatory process “to eliminate duplicate or unnecessary regulations and to ensure transparency, fairness, effectiveness and efficiency in the development, adoption, implementation and enforcement of regulatory efforts.”

It’s hard to argue with the stated general principle of the bill, but details of proposed changes to environmental laws that emerged from the legislative hearing will require careful scrutiny.

These include replacing the Board of Environmental Protection with an administrative law judge system to hear appeals, substituting for state air and water pollution standards less stringent federal standards, rezoning at least 30 percent of the Unorganized Territory for development, rewriting Land Use Regulation Commission rules for development projects and repealing a required phase-out of the chemical BPA in children’s reusable food and beverage containers sold in Maine.

Many politicians in both Washington, D.C. and Augusta would have us believe, if we just “cut bureaucratic red tape” and reduce “unnecessary regulation,” the economy will rebound, business will prosper, the unemployed will find work, and governmental budgets will go from red to black. They may as well add, “And sugar-plum fairies will dance in our heads.”

The words “unnecessary” and “regulation” are not joined at the hip.

There are beneficial regulatory laws, the kind that protect the environment, safeguard public health and safety, and deter commercial fraud and overreaching. Then there are counterproductive regulatory laws, which, however well meaning, have become obsolete, are unduly burdensome, or cause more problems than they solve.

The trick is to sort out the wheat from the chaff. It’s an exacting task, requiring careful policy and cost-benefit analysis, a task far less sexy than delivering crowd-pleasing stump speeches about how government regulation is stifling the economy.

The business world, of course, rarely likes regulations, which can increase compliance costs and limit the scope of certain commercial activities, shrinking the bottom line.

On the other hand, economists have long recognized that, in the absence of regulation, businesses tend to create “externalities” – private expenses which are imposed involuntarily upon members of the public.

Consider, as a (not so) hypothetical example, a power plant, the kind common in the Midwest. The plant can produce electricity more cheaply by burning coal without using costly scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from its smoke stack, but the unfiltered emissions will impair the respiratory health of neighboring residents. .

If, say, these residents save $200 a year in lower electric bills but have to spend $2,000 extra a year for doctor’s visits and asthma medications (not to mention enduring the miseries and risks of compromised lungs), the trade-off is far from equal.

Worse, these emissions may be carried by air currents to other regions of the country like the Northeast, whose residents can’t even take advantage of the lower energy prices the plant produces.

Maine has taken a robust approach to environmental protection since the 1970s. It has been a national and regional leader in such initiatives as beverage-container redemption, solid-waste recycling, growth management, shore land zoning, water quality improvement and reduction in the use of toxic chemicals.

Every measure that seeks to scale back these initiatives in the name of improving the economy will have to be measured not just against its benefits to business but its costs to the public, both present and future.

Will less stringent air and water quality standards increase human health problems or adversely affect wildlife and, if so, to what extent?

What are the long-term health risks of allowing children to eat and drink from containers made with BPA?

What impact will increased development in the Unorganized Territory have on Maine’s forests, which total 17.7 million acres and cover 90 percent of the state, making it the most heavily forested state in the country? Will it development significantly reduce forest acreage, hurt the state’s wood-products industry or compromise recreational tourism? Will it strain already overstretched public finances by extending the need for roads, schools and public safety in rural areas?

Without satisfactory answers to these and many other questions, undertaking regulatory reform is like to trying to hit a piñata while blindfolded, standing on a cliff’s edge.

In short, it isn’t wholesale cutting of regulatory laws that’s called for. It’s careful pruning.

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