If it was surprising when President Obama blocked stronger ground-level ozone standards a couple months ago, or when news broke last year that the EPA had changed its original proposal for new coal ash regulations to include two rules—one that would tighten the rules and one that would not change very much—instead of just the stricter rule, there is now some evidence about what drove these and other decisions.
The Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) has released a report [PDF] illustrating some behind-the-scenes procedures for rule-making that have interfered with public protections, including for ozone, coal ash and so much more, since Obama has been in office. A Guardian story sums up the implications of the report: "the White House in the age of Obama has been just as receptive to the pleadings of industry lobbyists as it was in the Bush era."
The report does not mince words about how the process works:
Tucked in a corner of the Old Executive Office Building, an obscure group of some three dozen economists exerts extraordinary power over federal rules intended to protect public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment. Known officially as the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA, pronounced oh-EYE-ra), this unit reports to the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but operates as a free-ranging squad that pulls an astounding number of draft regulatory actions—some 6,194 over the ten-year period covered in this report—into a dragnet that operates behind closed doors. No policy that might distress influential industries, from oil production to coal mining to petrochemical manufacturing, goes into effect without OIRA’s approval.
In other words, OIRA is a last resort for interest groups to get what they want, if their efforts to pressure the agencies that propose and implement the rules didn't get them far enough.
The report later says, "Because OIRA’s meeting policy places no limits on outside parties’ opportunities to participate, the number and frequency of meetings is limited only by the resources and interests of the outside parties."
More from the report:
OIRA keeps secret the substance of the changes it makes to 84 percent of EPA and 65 percent of other agencies’ submissions. Despite this effort to obscure the impact of its work, every single study of its performance, including this one, shows that OIRA serves as a one-way ratchet, eroding the protections that agency specialists have decided are necessary under detailed statutory mandates, following years—even decades—of work.
The Guardian quotes Rena Steinzor, law professor and author of the report, saying she thinks there's no chance that Obama is unaware of what happens at OIRA. She said, "this is sharp departure from what we were promised when this president was elected."
And added: "what we really want is for the experts to be making decisions at government agencies – the toxicologists, the pediatricians, the geologists. That's what modern government is supposed to be about, not having the decisions made by an office that is not accountable for what it does."
More on politics and the environment:
Amendments to GOP Budget Bill Seek to Prevent Coal Ash Regulation as Hazardous Waste, PCB Cleanup, and More
Will Obama's Recent Breaches of Trust On The Environment Really Cost Him Dollars and Votes?