This post is based on an article I wrote with Anne Havemann entitled “Too Big to Obey: Why BP Should Be Debarred,” published in the William & Mary Environmental Law & Policy Review.
Attorney General Eric Holder and his lead prosecutor, Lanny Breuer, are deservedly running a victory lap in the immediate aftermath of their criminal settlement with BP. The amount of money paid to settle the charges, $4.5 billion—is considerably larger than anything paid by past bad actors, although it represents just a few months of profit for the company. In addition, the two top supervisors on duty at the rig when it exploded will be prosecuted for manslaughter, sending the message that line managers put their futures on the line when they worry more about sparing costs for the company than the safety of their workers. But even these tough remedies fall far short of the “nuclear option” that should be invoked in this case: the permanent debarment of BP from ever doing business with the U.S. government.
Despite a shocking history of chronic law violations stretching a couple decades in this country—including an explosion at its Texas City refinery in 2005 that killed 15 workers--BP remains the Pentagon’s largest supplier of jet and vehicle fuel, with government contracts valued at more than $2 billion. In theory, at least, the United States only does business with “responsible” companies and, as I’ll explain further in a moment, BP is the corporate embodiment of irresponsibility, even if we ignore the catastrophe that happened in the Gulf. Yet any suggestion that the company should be debarred by the Department of Defense (DOD)--the government’s biggest spender--is summarily dismissed by observers who seem convinced that debarring BP would leave the Pentagon with nobody to sell it fuel.
Some statutes, including the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, provide for immediate suspension for government contractors found guilty of violating their provisions. Unfortunately, however, the suspension is only applicable to the facility where the violation took place. The drilling rig that exploded is obviously no longer in existence.Full text
Judging from President Obama’s first term, the job of White House “regulatory czar” could prove of out-sized importance these next four years, with the head of an office few know exists ending up with the power to trump the authority of Cabinet members throughout the government. Cass Sunstein, the former occupant of the position, was perhaps the most influential overseer of the regulatory process ever, and it's not hard to imagine that his replacement will be equally powerful. But I'd propose that the next Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) have a very different job description.
Sunstein made himself a strong ally of business, doing his best to put the President in a position where he could withstand attacks by his Republican opponent for being tuned out to the needs of the “job creators.” This strategy did not work particularly well. President Obama was subject to withering attacks from big business and its political allies, and won reelection in the end by explaining himself as a populist concerned about the middle class. For this reason, and because the recent crisis over compounding pharmacies reminds us how badly regulatory agencies need to be strengthened, I'd urge the President to appoint a czar who will work to make sure that regulation and its enforcement are as effective as they are efficient from an economic perspective. I hope, in other words, that the President listens to his own campaign rhetoric and picks someone who can lead OIRA to develop a reoriented regulatory mission, one based on a positive vision for protecting the public.
For three decades, OIRA Administrators have described their task as one of number-crunching and economics, making it sound as if they're just adding up regulations' projected costs and benefits and seeing which side of the equation wins because it is objectively bigger. But their unwritten, self-defined mission is quite different. They have seen their task as standing guard on federal agencies to make sure they don’t upset industries too much, serving as a court of last resort for big business, and sparing the President from political damages. This role has not served anyone particularly well – except for industry.
But there's no law that says this is how OIRA should function; it's a habit that has grown up over the years. President Obama's next OIRA Administrator needs to see outside that shortsighted lens. In his 2008 acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, President Obama said that government should “protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe.” That's the mission that the next OIRA Administration needs to make his or her own.Full text
President Obama’s reelection holds the possibility of great progress for public health, safety, and the environment — if, and only if, he recognizes the importance of these issues and stops trying to placate his most implacable opponents.
The weeks leading up to the election brought powerful reminders of two of the challenges at hand: rising sea levels and more severe storms that scientists say we should expect as a result of unchecked climate change, and a meningitis outbreak that sickened hundreds, thanks to an obscure compounding pharmacy that escaped regulators’ reach. And let’s not forget that we are recovering from an economic downturn in which under-regulation of giant financial institutions played no small part. This is the context, the starting point.
Taking a progressive stance on health, safety, and environmental threats has never been easy politically because the industries most affected by these protections have powerful allies in Washington, a small army of lobbyists, and plenty of money to contribute to politicians who support their opposition to regulation. So if the President chooses to take the lead on air and water pollution, food and drug safety, and dangerous conditions in the workplace, for example, he will face extraordinary pressure to do the wrong thing. And, sadly, he did not cover himself with glory during his first term in this area. Particularly as the campaign drew closer, the President tried to burnish his business-friendly credentials at the expense of needed protections. Now he has four more years to leave a legacy of leadership on these vital, life-and-death issues.
The stark choices are perhaps best exemplified by climate change. One path is tragically easy, the other extremely hard. The easy path is to only poke at the edges of greenhouse gas emissions reduction. The hard path is to take aggressive action, using the full powers of the Clean Air Act, to put the country on the path to dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions. In not so many years, this choice will be looked back on as one of the key measures of the President’s legacy. Without any question, history will condemn inaction in no uncertain terms. But a strong legacy will not depend just on climate. If the President does not act to make government protections stronger and more effective, we will face more tragedies, from fatal foodborne illness to refinery explosions to oil spills that kill people and cost billions.Full text
President Obama travels to Keene, California, on Monday to designate the home of César E. Chávez as a national monument—a worthy honor for a key figure in the ongoing push for safe working conditions and fair pay. One thing the President is unlikely to raise in his remarks is that just a few months ago, his administration took the side of big agriculture against the safety of farmworkers.
In April, White House staff jettisoned a key Department of Labor (DOL) proposal establishing safety protections for young agricultural workers – teenagers working in very dangerous jobs.
That’s rather important context going into Monday’s event. The White House’s press release rightly notes that “Chávez played a central role in achieving basic worker protections for hundreds of thousands of farmworkers across the country, from provisions ensuring drinking water was provided to workers in the fields, to steps that helped limit workers’ exposure to dangerous pesticides, to helping to establish basic minimum wages and health care access for farm workers.”
The Administration has recognized the danger of this work before, and the DOL proposal would have updated 40-year-old “hazardous orders” designed to protect hired children. Last year, announcing the proposed changes, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said: "Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America.” And: “Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach."Full text
This post was written by CPR President Rena Steinzor and Policy Analyst Wayland Radin.
Today CPR releases Cozying Up: How the Manufacturers of Toxic Chemicals Seek to Co-opt Their Regulators, exposing the work of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) and Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA), two industry advocacy groups that have undue influence on the regulation of toxic chemicals. The two firms specialize in a particularly insidious brand of “dirty” science by recruiting EPA experts to co-author papers and participate in policy-making workshops that are heavily biased toward manufacturer interests.
Americans might reasonably assume that toxic chemicals undergo rigorous, independent testing before they enter the stream of commerce. Regular readers know that’s hardly the case. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) grandfathered in tens of thousands of chemicals already in use, and new chemicals undergo only a perfunctory, 90-day “pre-manufacture review” by the EPA, which under even the best circumstances must rely on a comparison of the chemical structure of the new chemical to the structures of existing chemicals and whatever information the manufacturer has chosen to submit regarding the chemical. Because research by a chemical’s producer is often the primary resource available to regulators who make crucial public health decisions, independent experts have examined whether industry-sponsored studies produce different results than comparable government-funded work. An empirical review of 1,140 biomedical studies determined that "industry-sponsored studies were significantly more likely to reach conclusions that were favorable to the sponsor than were non-industry studies." Concerned by these findings, but unwilling to reject industry-sponsored science out of hand, the world’s most prestigious scientific journals require authors to disclose the source of their work so that potential biases are evident to readers.Full text
If cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is really part of the furniture, you wouldn’t think recently departed OIRA Administrator Cass Sunstein would need to dedicate a column to convincing us it’s so. But there it is, and though Sunstein is now but a private citizen like the rest of us, the claims merit a response.
We’re told “cost-benefit analysis has become part of the informal constitution of the U.S. regulatory state,” but that’s some odd constitution – not approved by any legislative body (and often, in fact, at odds with the dictates of the U.S. Congress), followed very selectively, and adjusted quickly at the whims of pressure from powerful industries. Billed as a non-ideological analytical tool, CBA today is in fact the opposite: questionable value judgments masked as technical calculations, all used as window-dressing to block rules that benefit the public but upset powerful industries.
Big industries and conservative think tanks spent years pushing CBA. It never made sense for the public. Cost-benefit says, for example, that a polluter can’t foul a waterway and kill a couple people along the way, unless it makes a whole lot of money doing it. It pretended that the costs and benefits are being put on the same one actor (society). In reality, one party (the polluter) had already put costs on the other (the public). Regulations seek to address that, but CBA starts with the premise that the polluters have the right to inflict the costs – a convenient starting point for a bargain.Full text
The White House today announced the departure of Cass Sunstein, Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. CPR President Rena Steinzor issued the following statement:
Cass Sunstein brought impressive credentials and a personal relationship with the President to his job as Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. But in the final analysis, Sunstein has continued the Bush Administration’s tradition of using the office to block needed health and safety protections disliked by big business and political contributors. Worse, the narrative that Sunstein helped craft about the impact of regulations on American life — that regulatory safeguards are fundamentally suspect — was discordant with the rest of the President's agenda and the arguments he makes for his reelection.
Sunstein’s departure is an opportunity for the Administration to reset its regulatory policy and embrace public health and safety protections that have long been stalled in the White House. But the President first needs to rethink what he wants from OIRA and its administrator. The middle of a presidential campaign is a lousy time to do that. Sending a nominee into the mosh pit of a Senate confirmation hearing right now would do nothing to advance the cause of a progressive regulatory agenda. The President should take his time and find an Administrator dedicated to protecting the public. Allowing OIRA to serve on behalf of the White House as the last refuge for disgruntled polluters, Wall Street speculators, and producers of tainted food will not prevent the inevitable next wave of health and safety disasters, killing and injuring refinery workers, miners, children who labor in the fields, and the environment of the Gulf coast.Full text
Talk about trying to fix the wrong problem: Senators Mark Warner, Rob Portman, and Susan Collins have introduced a bill today that seeks to move the rulemaking process further away from agency experts and transparency and more toward hidden corners of the White House, where well-heeled industries can buy access and push political operatives to block rules.
The bill at hand is the Independent Agency Regulatory Analysis Act. In a press release and accompanying fact sheet today, the senatorial trio – one conservative Democrat, one potential Republican VP nominee, and a once-moderate Republican who has changed her stripes – boast how the bill seeks to bring the “independent agencies” under the purview of the White House. Those agencies include the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, both of which have great potential to exasperate the big bankers and security brokers who bankroll elections at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Congress created independent agencies exactly so that they’d have some room to resist presidential political meddling. Subjecting these agencies to Executive Order requirements – especially oversight by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which is without question the most potent conduit for presidential influence over new rules – defeats the whole point of making the agencies independent at the outset. Congress wanted these agencies to be able to use their unique expertise on policy matters to develop the best solutions to the social problems that Congress created them to address.Full text
CPR Member Scholar John Knox has been appointed the U.N. Human Rights Council’s first Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment.
The position was created in March with a mandate to study the relationship of human rights and the environment, and prepare a series of reports to the Human Rights Council over the next three years. The mission will be to “identify, promote and exchange views on best practices relating to the use of human rights obligations and commitments to inform, support and strengthen environmental policymaking, especially in the area of environmental protection.”
Knox has published extensively on the intersection of human rights and the environment, and co-authored the CPR white paper Reclaiming Global Environmental Leadership: Why the United States Should Ratify Ten Pending Environmental Treaties, published earlier this year. He is a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, and has been a Member Scholar with CPR since 2010.
My warmest congratulations!Full text
President Obama issued the latest salvo in the Administration's efforts to placate the business community this morning, in the form of a new Executive Order called “Identifying and Reducing Regulatory Burdens.” The Order would expand and enhance the unfunded mandate that would require agencies to scour through the rule books, finding “excessive” rules that would save regulated companies big money. As I have written elsewhere in this space, the latest example of such an effort would jeopardize food safety by allowing huge poultry processors to self-inspect for salmonella, not incidentally making the lot of the workers who are already overburdened by workplace safety hazards close to intolerable.
The new order sugarcoats its regressive mandate by instructing agencies to seek “public comment” on regulatory “look-backs,” which in practice does not mean comments from mom and pop, who are unlikely to spend their spare time on regulations.gov watching out for the manufacture of dangerous consumer products. While nice in theory, this window dressing cannot obscure the fact that the process announced here is explicitly tilted in a one-way direction toward deregulation. The public comments could include calls to strengthen existing protections, and such strengthening might very well be good for the economy—as regulations often are, industry's "job-killing" rhetoric notwithstanding. Yet the order explicitly says that agencies are to prioritize “those initiatives that will produce significant quantifiable monetary savings or significant quantifiable reductions in paperwork burdens.” The White House is saying agencies should take all the public comment – but prioritize the de-regulation ideas.
The Administration has sought no new funding for agencies to re-examine existing rules. OIRA Administrator Cass Sunstein has been questioned by reporters and concerned Members of Congress on how agencies can do this work without taking away from existing work to protect the public; he has repeatedly asserted that agencies will simply get the work done. This is nonsense. A check of the latest regulatory agendas shows agencies are behind on countless important rules to protect the public’s health and safety. The EPA, for example, recently delayed, again, a rule to limit mercury and other toxic pollutants from industrial boilers.
Going on a hunt for existing regulations to weaken cannot help these busy and under-resourced agencies in their efforts to adopt important new protections for the public as they become inundated in requests from regulated industries to scale back their efforts to protect public health and safety. Having the White House pile on at this moment, when it has already effectively shut down efforts to promulgate long overdue rules to protect workers from silica, asthmatics from smog, and children from heavy agricultural machinery, is a sign that Mr. Sunstein and his staff are less interested in making sure that regulatory agencies are fulfilling their statutory obligation to protect Americans and the environment from a variety of possible harms, than they are in placating industry critics of the President.Full text