Eye on OIRA: Regulation Goes Opaque

by Rena Steinzor | June 22, 2010

Across the full spectrum of outside cognoscenti who are focused on the reality that a small office at the White House has final authority over the agencies charged with preventing catastrophes like the BP oil spill and the Big Branch mine disaster, one threshold assumption is sacrosanct. This tiny Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, now headed by former Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein, ought to operate in bright sunshine, disclosing fully its communications with the agencies so the public can see its impact on rules and other administrative activities.  We have insisted on this point, our loyal opposition at the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness agrees with it, and no less a bipartisan body than the Government Accountability Office has found that such transparency is too often lacking. As a matter of fact, the goal is not at all abstract: the Executive Order authorizing OIRA, 12866 contains specific directives requiring such disclosure. The EO, issued by the Clinton Administration and continued under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, requires those transparency measures in order to deflect the perception that OIRA is a court of last resort for aggrieved industry groups and a killing ground for strong regulation. Indeed, Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget and Sunstein’s boss, issued a memorandum in December 2009 assigning OIRA the task of enforcing transparency throughout the government.

So how has transparency fared during OIRA’s Sunstein era? Not so ...

Wall Street Journal Editorial Revives the Sport of Precaution Bashing

by Amy Sinden | June 21, 2010
With characteristic audacity, the Wall Street Journal editorial page today is arguing against the precautionary approach to environmental policy that undergirds our system of environmental laws, even as the oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, they want to shift the burden of proof and only allow regulators to restrain corporate greed when the government can first quantify and monetize the environmental harm that will result and demonstrate that it outweighs the money to be made by taking ...

Report: Several Companies Were Aware of Drywall Problems in 2006

by Ben Somberg | June 18, 2010
The latest from ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune: At least a half-dozen homebuilders, installers and environmental consultants knew as early as 2006 that foul smells were coming from drywall imported from China – but they didn’t share their early concerns with the public, even when homeowners began complaining about the drywall in 2008.   ...

The People's Agents: Steinzor Op-Ed on Regulatory Reform in Baltimore Sun

by Matthew Freeman | June 18, 2010
CPR President Rena Steinzor has an op-ed in this morning's Baltimore Sun on the various regulatory failures at work in the BP oil spill. She writes that important questions need to be answered "about how the federal regulatory system allowed BP and other oil companies to drill in waters so deep without effective fail-safes," and continues: In truth, this is just the last in a string of profit-driven tragedies that have horrified us recently. Consider the 29 workers smothered in a West ...

In Stop the Beach Renourishment Ruling, Conservatives Come up One Vote Short in Quest to Remake Property Rights Law

by John Echeverria | June 17, 2010
If further proof were needed that appointments to the Supreme Court matter, it was provided today by the Court’s decision in Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The so-called conservative wing of the Court came one vote short of issuing a decision that would have revolutionized the law of property rights in the United States. The case involved the facially implausible claim by several coastal property owners along Florida’s panhandle that they suffered a “taking” ...

Farber on NewsHour: BP Liability

by Matthew Freeman | June 16, 2010
CPR Member Scholar Dan Farber was on the PBS NewsHour on June 14 discussing the Obama Administration's plan to force BP to establish an escrow fund to compensate victims of its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  You can see the entire interview with Ray Suarez, on the NewsHour site.  Here's a snip of the transcript: RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Farber, you're familiar with what's in that federal oil protection act. Is there a mechanism in there for the government to ...

BP Oil Spill: The Media, the President, and the Blame Game

by Matthew Freeman | June 15, 2010
It’s fascinating to listen to the media, with lots of encouragement from the right wing, inch its way toward blaming the BP Oil Spill on President Obama. Apparently the President’s job description includes a previously unknown provision about deep-sea plumbing expertise.  Let’s follow the media’s path for a moment here. First we heard media whining that the President was insufficiently engaged in the crisis, on the strength of no evidence whatsoever. Then the press went through a "false equivalency" phase, with a wave ...

EPA proposes general Clean Water Act permit for pesticides

by Holly Doremus | June 14, 2010
(Cross-posted from Legal Planet.) In January 2009, the Sixth Circuit in National Cotton Council v. EPA struck down a Bush-era rule declaring that pesticide application to or over waters was exempt from the Clean Water Act’s NPDES permit program, under which a permit is required for any discharge of pollutants to waters of the U.S. from a point source. The effect of that decision was later stayed until June 2011 to allow EPA time to respond. The agency has now ...

Voting Down a 'Murky' Resolution

by Daniel Farber | June 11, 2010
  Cross-posted from Legal Planet. On Thursday, the Senate voted down a resolution from Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) to halt EPA regulation of greenhouse gases. The vote was 53 to 47.  What are we to make of the vote? The resolution was offered under the Congressional Review Act, which provides a fast-track mechanism for Congress to override agency regulations.  (The CRA, which was part of the Contract with America in the 1990s,  is a substitute for the kinds of “legislative ...

Verchick’s ‘Facing Catastrophe’: A Roadmap to a Safer Future

by Daniel Farber | June 11, 2010
Rob Verchick’s new book, “Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World,” might help avoid future disasters like the Deepsea Horizon blowout.  Verchick views wetlands, lakes, forests, and rivers as a kind of infrastructure, providing ecosystem services that are just as important as the services provided by other infrastructure, such as roads and dams. For instance, Gulf Coast wetlands provide a buffer against storm surges (protecting not only people but key oil facilities), and nurtures vast numbers of birds and sea ...

Bidding for Pollution Control Dollars in the Chesapeake: A Modest Proposal for the Amish Farmer

by Shana Campbell Jones | June 10, 2010
If I remember my Sunday School lessons correctly, “clean living” should result in a lot of good things in addition to a heavenly reward: a strong character, an orderly home, and a healthy body and environment.   Ironically for the Amish, a clean living group if there ever was one, clean living also produces dirty waters. As yesterday’s New York Times article reminds us, Amish farms in Lancaster county generate more than 61 million pounds of manure a year – much of ...

CPR Scholarship Round-up: Innovation for nonpoint source pollution and animal migrations on the one hand, and obfuscation at OIRA on the other

by Shana Campbell Jones | June 09, 2010
We’ve all seen the dramatic headlines recently concerning large-scale environmental disruptions, including a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf and mining disasters killing workers from West Virginia to China. Meanwhile, in Congress, climate change bills are proposed, altered, weakened, and eventually shelved, and the United States still fails to take action on climate change. CPR’s Member Scholars march forward, however, proposing reforms that range from creating transparency in agency decisions to protecting animal migrations. Below is a quick overview of some of their ...

International Law Implications of the BP Oil Spill

by Yee Huang | June 08, 2010
Hundreds of offshore extraction platforms dot the world’s oceans, funneling millions of gallons each day of oil, natural gas, and other extracted resources to the surface. While these operations are regulated by the country where they’re located, they have the potential to cause international environmental disasters when located near boundary waters or near large currents. The New York Times looked at the international law implications of the ongoing BP Oil Spill and came to one conclusion: the international law governing oil pollution ...

Deepwater Horizon: Day 48

by Rebecca Bratspies | June 07, 2010
Cross-posted from IntLawGrrls Ever since the Deepwater Horizon began gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP has been dazzling the American people with a series of colorfully named “solutions:” the dome; top hat, junk shot, top kill. However, as the days turned into week, and the weeks turned into months, one thing has become crystal clear. None of these fanciful solutions had ever been tried in deep water, and BP was making things up as it went along. It ...

Texas' Clean Air Act Alamo May Win the Environmental War for us All

by Victor Flatt | June 04, 2010
In the little-followed but hugely important “joint federalism” system through which our environmental laws are implemented, a seismic change may be afoot that could vastly improve environmental compliance and environmental quality in the future. Last week, Al Armendariz, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region VI, indicated that unless significant changes are made by July 1, 2010, the EPA will take over Texas’s Clean Air Act program because of failures to follow the requirements of the Clean Air Act. The ...

Spotlight on CAFOs: EPA Settlement Requires More Info on CAFOs

by Yee Huang | June 03, 2010
EPA and a coalition of environmental groups recently settled ongoing litigation related to the regulation of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The litigation dates back to 2003, when EPA finally proposed comprehensive regulation of CAFOs, and it centers on what actually constitutes a CAFO. The original Clean Water Act labeled CAFOs as point sources that require a permit to discharge pollution into water, but EPA dragged its feet not just on regulating CAFOs, but on deciding what was and wasn’t a CAFO. In ...

New Drywall Revelations, Courtesy of the Tort System

by Ben Somberg | June 03, 2010
ProPublica teamed with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to put out an important investigative piece on drywall a few days ago -- "Tainted Chinese Drywall Concerns Went Unreported for Two Years." The article, by Joaquin Sapien and Aaron Kessler, reports that: A leading East Coast homebuilder learned four years ago that the Chinese-manufactured drywall it had installed in several Florida homes was emitting foul odors, according to documents obtained by ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The company, WCI Communities, was so concerned ...

Looking Beyond Deepwater to the Horizon: Government-on-Demand Doesn't Work (Surprise!)

by Alyson Flournoy | June 02, 2010
In following the oil spill disaster, it can be hard to think beyond the control effort du jour to the bigger picture. I was riveted by the latest of BP’s seven failed efforts to stop the flow of oil, hoping it would succeed and that the underwater tornado of oil devastating the Gulf, the coast, and the people whose livelihoods depend on these natural resources, would be contained, at least. And now that the top kill has failed, we’re all ...

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