Ben Somberg on CPRBlog {Bio}
[ Prev ] [ Next ]

Key EPA Air Pollution Rule Runs Past 120 Day Deadline at White House

The Administration has just missed another deadline on issuing the final revised “boiler MACT” rule. The revised version of the rule will provide less pollution reduction than the original version, but is still expected to prevent thousands of deaths each year.

The EPA had pledged for many months that the rule would be finalized in April. It later said the rule would be finalized in the “spring.” On May 17, the agency sent the rule to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).

Executive Order 12,866 says OIRA has 90 days to review a rule, with a possible 30 day extension. OIRA’s website doesn’t list the two related Boiler MACT rules as having an “extended” review, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Friday, however, was 120 days after May 17, and the rules remain in OIRA’s grasp.

Full text

Bill Clinton: After Oklahoma City Bombing, I Promised Myself I Would Never Bash Government Bureaucrats

Former President Bill Clinton, campaigning for President Obama in Florida on Tuesday, the 9/11 anniversary, offered a passionate defense of government employees, the AP noted. I was curious about the whole quote, so I watched and wrote it out (via C-SPAN, at 34:55):

On this day, of all days, we should know that there are good and noble people who work for the government. I remember when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred – which, before 9/11, was the biggest terrorist incident in the United States' history – and a man who had been on my Secret Service detail, had transferred there because he thought it'd be a great place to raise his children, and he was killed that day, along with other people.

And I had, like every politician, on occasion, gotten upset by some example of government waste or something the way we all do, and referred derisively to government bureaucrats. And I promised myself that I would never use those two words together for the rest of my life. I would treat those people who serve our country with respect, whether they're in uniform, in law enforcement, firefighter, nurses, any other things.

Security is one of several good arguments against bureaucracy bashing; there’s also, for example, the case that it harms the agencies, makes it harder for an administration to get funding for those agencies, and the impressive frequency with which specific bureaucracy-bashing claims turn out to be not exactly true.

May President Clinton’s words get the attention they deserve.

Full text

Romney Falsely Claims Health Benefits of Utility MACT Are Due to Bankrupting Coal Companies -- Not Pollution Reduction Equipment

Mitt Romney added a new twist Tuesday to false right-wing claims about the EPA’s regulation limiting mercury and other pollutants from coal power plants. 

EPA estimated that the “utility MACT” will have annual monetized benefits of $37-90 billion and costs of $9.6 billion. A critique we’ve heard over and over again from the industry and its supporters goes something like this: “But only $6 million of those benefits come from reducing mercury pollution, the top target of the rule!” It’s sort of an odd critique, but it’s misleading anyway: the mercury numbers are so low because EPA simply didn’t monetize most of the mercury reduction benefits. Putting a dollar value on not poisoning kids with a neurotoxin is difficult or impossible, and the benefits of the rule far outweigh the costs already anyway.

Now here’s the twist. On Tuesday, the website, a consortium of concerned groups, published responses from Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to a questionnaire on science issues. Romney repeated the common right-wing Utility MACT argument (see question 11), and added a different argument:

Unfortunately, President Obama has repeatedly manipulated technical data to support a regulatory agenda guided by politics rather than science. For example, his “Utility MACT” rule is purportedly aimed at reducing mercury pollution, yet the EPA estimates that the rule will cost $10 billion to reduce mercury pollution by only $6 million (with an “m”). This has not stopped the President from trumpeting the rule as “cost-effective” and “common sense,” while claiming it will “prevent thousands of premature deaths.” The trick? Making the rule so expensive that it will bankrupt the coal industry, and then claiming that the elimination of that industry (and its hundreds of thousands of jobs) would have significant benefits.

Full text

Draft Republican Platform Cites Debunked Regulatory Costs Study, Suggests Rules be Only a 'Helpful Guide'

A draft of the Republican party platform, posted by Politico on Friday afternoon, reveals that the party has incorporated some of the more absurd claims and proposals on regulations pushed by House Republicans and some more radical trade organizations. 

The draft claims regulations cost $1.75 trillion each year – that’s from a discredited study sponsored by the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy. It turned out that 70 percent of that figure came from a regression analysis based on opinion polling on perceived regulatory climate in different countries (and much of the rest of the number came from cherry-picking the highest available estimates). The SBA study was debunked by a CPR white paper, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, and the Economic Policy Institute (twice).

The draft platform says: “Constructive regulation should be a helpful guide, not a punitive threat.” In other words, we suggest that you don’t poison your neighbors, but won’t do anything if you do – not quite a get-tough-on-crime message. And in reality, the punitive threats of even our existing rules are often simply too meager: if an employee’s death is caused by the willful violation of an OSHA requirement, for example, the maximum civil fine for the employer is $70,000. We have learned the hard way that that is not enough to deter many employers from breaking the rules.

The regulations section ends with this: “We call for a moratorium on the development of any new major and costly regulations until a Republican Administration reviews existing rules to ensure that they have a sound basis in science and will be cost-effective.” Now, telling the Obama administration – particularly if the President is reelected – that it can’t regulate until a Republican president approves – that’s quite a platform plank!

Full text

Obama Campaign Inches Closer to Asserting that Coal Does Not Kill People

Last week, President Obama’s campaign earned green criticism for airing a radio ad in Ohio that portrayed the President as pro-coal, and Mitt Romney as anti-coal. The ad asserted that Obama has been good for the coal industry, and then said:

And Mitt Romney? He’s attacking the president’s record on coal. But here’s what Romney said in 2003, at a press conference in front of a coal plant: “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant, that plant kills people.” So when it comes to coal, ask yourself, who’s been honest and who’s playing politics?

The ad was certainly saying Romney’s 2003 quote was a bad thing, which understandably infuriated environmental groups. But the way the contrast is set up in the last sentence, there's sufficient wiggle room to argue that the ad didn’t quite say that Romney’s statement had been incorrect.

On Tuesday, the Obama campaign inched a bit further down that path with a slightly more declarative statement. From Politico this morning, on the back-and-forth between the campaigns Tuesday:

Full text

White House Now Not Sure it is Interested at All in Public's Ideas for Strengthening Existing Rules

The White House’s message on its program for retrospectively reviewing existing regulations just shifted a little further away from recognizing the need for protective regulations for health, safety, and the environment. First the White House said it was interested in "expanding" certain existing regulations, if appropriate. Then it said it was interested in hearing ideas from the public on expanding regulations, but officially considers those ideas to be a lower priority than ideas that would weaken regulations. Now today, a new website launched by the White House pushes the notion of any balance in regulatory review further off the table.

Let me step back. Executive Order 13,563, issued by President Obama in January of 2011, announced the regulatory look-back program we’ve discussed a lot here:

To facilitate the periodic review of existing significant regulations, agencies shall consider how best to promote retrospective analysis of rules that may be outmoded, ineffective, insufficient, or excessively burdensome, and to modify, streamline, expand, or repeal them in accordance with what has been learned.

A key word there was expand. If agencies were to divert some of their current staff from working on needed new public protections to re-evaluate existing ones (the White House has never sought, let alone received, any new funding for the look-back programs at the agencies), at least it might, in theory, be a somewhat balanced exercise that could identify needed expansions to existing rules. Cass Sunstein, the Administrator of OIRA, has himself publicly noted the importance of the word “expand.” The process, we hoped, might not be simply weakening existing rules.

Full text

Safe Drinking Water Act Provides EPA Key Opportunity to Regulate BPA

Member Scholar Noah Sachs and Policy Analyst Aimee Simpson have sent a letter to the EPA nominating the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) to be included on the “Fourth Contaminant Candidate List” for possible regulation. They write:

Pursuant to the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996 (SDWA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must compile a list of unregulated contaminants that are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems and may require regulation under the SDWA.  EPA then must make a decision about whether or not to regulate a least five of the contaminants on the list.  EPA recently issued a notice and request for nomination of chemical and microbial contaminants for possible inclusion in the fourth drinking water Contaminant Candidate List (CCL 4).  Under existing guidelines, EPA selects contaminants for a CCL based on a scoring system that addresses two primary factors:  health effects and occurrence in water supplies.  BPA received a low score on this scale during deliberations on the CCL3 and was not included on that list.  We believe that new information published since the CCL3 deliberations will change BPA’s score.  It deserves your close attention, and BPA should be added to the CCL 4.

Sachs and Simpson explain that the scientific research on BPA has advanced significantly, particularly with regard to low-dose impacts. They write: “these low-dose health effects are not properly accounted for in current risk assessments of BPA and CCL evaluations.” The full letter is here.

Full text

Summer is Here, and With it Another Missed Deadline for a Key Regulation

The EPA has quietly missed another deadline on issuing the final revised “boiler MACT” rule. The agency had pledged for many months that the rule would be finalized in April. Then, in an April 30th “status report” filing with the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, the agency said: “EPA intends to take final action on this proposed rule in the Spring of 2012.” Wednesday was the first official day of summer.

The revised version of the rule will provide less pollution reduction than the original version, but is still expected to prevent thousands of deaths each year. James Pew, of Earthjustice, told E&E News last week that the rule has been made “illegally weak.”

The rule has been under review at OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) since May 17. OIRA Administrator Cass Sunstein wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed in March that this administration believes in “maximizing net benefits.”

Michael Livermore, of the Institute for Policy Integrity, has argued that “in order to maximize net benefits and get the most bang for taxpayers’ buck, standards from [the 2010 proposal] would have to be more stringent, not less.”

Full text

EPA Chemical Assessment Advisory Committee Nominees and Conflict of Interest Concerns

CPR President Rena Steinzor and Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson this morning concerning the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). From the letter:

We are concerned that the recent establishment of the SAB Chemical Assessment Advisory Committee (CAAC) institutionalizes yet another opportunity for potentially regulated parties to disrupt the smooth development of new IRIS profiles. We are writing to encourage you to pay special attention to the nominees’ actual and perceived conflicts of interest as you sign off on the final membership list for the subcommittee. Of the 116 nominees, we count only four individuals who work for environmental NGOs. By contrast, five individuals from the Dow Chemical Company alone have been nominated, as have five other people employed by potentially regulated parties and 21 individuals whose consultancy firms stand to gain or lose significant business depending on the outcome of CAAC deliberations. … Individuals whose employers (or employers’ direct competitors) are potentially regulated parties should not be invited to be committee members.

The letter makes a broader point about the role of further review of IRIS profiles, which undergo at least seven reviews by people or entities outside the IRIS office:

For years, we have argued that the draft toxicological profiles produced by IRIS staff are subject to an excessive number of external reviews. … Given the Federal Advisory Committee Act’s requirements about transparency and public participation, we believe that the CAAC review of draft IRIS profiles should replace the independent expert peer review and be melded with the listening session and public review and comment period.

The letter is here.

Full text

Conservatives Blast Obama Administration for Its Environmental Actions in 2007

Rep. Joe Barton, speaking at a hearing last week, stuck it to President Obama’s EPA (at 39:00):

In Idaho, just recently, the Obama Administration went against a family called the Sacketts on a wetlands issue. Again, Mr. Chairman, the Congress sets the rules, and the Administration enforces them. This Obama Administration, in the case of the EPA, doesn’t want to play by the rules, they want to set their own rules.

At issue is the case of Mike and Chantell Sackett, decided this year by the Supreme Court. The Sacketts planned to build a house on land they had purchased in Idaho. The EPA said they could not because the land was a wetlands area; it issued the Sacketts an administrative compliance order, which they challenged in court. (See our coverage of the case, by Nina MendelsonHolly Doremus, and Joel Mintz, and analyses post-decision by Mendelson and Mintz; see also the documents NRDC obtained via FOIA shedding light on the plaintiffs’ story.)

Let's lay aside for the moment whether EPA was right to issue the order. (See some of the posts above if you want more on that.) What's striking about Barton's statement is his tenuous grip on the facts. Barton says it was President Obama's EPA that challenged the Sacketts. But the EPA issued the compliance order in 2007. Of course, in 2007, Barack Obama was the junior senator from Illinois. George W. Bush was in the White House.

Full text