Many environmentally concerned citizens in the US and around the world have been puzzled, if not to say outright disappointed by some of the rulings coming out of the Obama administration, which, in many cases stand in stark contrast to the promises made in the campaign. Examples are almost too numerous to mention. A brief selection includes:
- Caving in to coal companies and other polluters on air quality and ground level ozone standards
- Backing off on labeling toxic coal ash as “hazardous”
- Trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama have been stripped of most of the provisions intended to protect labor and the environment.
- A campaign promise to restore the Great Lakes died in committee back in March.
- Support for organic and sustainable agriculture did get a boost in the new farm bill, though important risk management provisions have not been implemented.
- Proposals to help fish and wildlife to survive climate change. Funding for these measures have stalled along with the Cap and Trade Bill, which passed the house, but died in the Senate.
Of course, Obama’s green record has had its bright spots as well, including water conservation efforts in the West, increased funding for National Parks and for land and water conservation. Laws have also been passed protecting against wildfires, encouraging farmers to be more energy efficient, and promoting conservation of private lands.
But there is enough inconsistency here to make you wonder who is pulling the strings in DC and translating so many of Obama’s campaign promises into choruses that are much more soothing to the ears of industrial power brokers.
It turns out there is is an obscure, but highly influential group of economists, buried deep in the bowels of the Old Executive Office Building that weigh in regularly on rulings aimed at the protection of public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment.
The group is known officially as the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) and it reports to the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. According to the Executive Order that created the agency during the Reagan era, “Our regulatory system must provide public health, welfare, safety and our environment while promoting economic growth, innovation, competitiveness, and job creation…It must take into account benefits and costs both quantitative and qualitative…”
The group, which consists of a number of political appointees as well as long term civil servants operates in a free-ranging manner, pulling a large number regulatory actions (more than 6,000 over the past ten years) out for review as they see fit.
According to a report on OIRA, published by the Center for Progressive Reform, entitled “Behind Closed Doors at the White House,” more than 80 percent of the rules proposed by the EPA have been changed by OIRA, none of them in the direction of stronger protection.
The report goes on to say, “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.”
I know this sounds like something out of a Dan Brown novel, but it does help to explain some of the administration’s inconsistencies. The report continues, “A steady stream of industry lobbyists — appearing some 3,760 times over the ten-year period we studied — uses OIRA as a court of last resort when they fail to convince experts at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to weaken pending regulations.”
Indeed, a quick perusal of the dashboard on OIRA’s website (See photo), shows that the EPA is the agency with the most regulations under review.
This has become a new tactic for industry lobbyists. If they are not able to defeat a law, they go to OIRA after its passage to weaken it. Some 3,760 meetings were held between lobbyists and OIRA, to discuss, and ultimately weaken regulations from EPA, FDA and OSHA.
While it should be no surprise to learn that these meetings were common during the Bush administration years, sadly, the traffic is even greater these days under Obama. In both cases, more than 80% of the regulations were changed after the meetings with lobbyists, which are not a matter of public record.
I would propose that if we are to have transparency in government, the minutes of these meetings must be made public. Otherwise, the future of our democracy will continue to be determined by slimy creatures operating underneath a rock, making deals that would probably not stand up to the light of day.
[Image Credit: OIRA:White House OMB)]
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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