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With State of the Union Address, Obama Begins Sketching Out a Positive View of Government

There were many highlights in President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, but one passage in particular stuck out for us.  In this passage, Obama laid out his clear vision of the positive role that government can and must play in our society—and sharing this vision with the American public will be essential for successfully repelling the oncoming Republican onslaught against regulatory safeguards.  He cast his positive vision of government in the following terms:

But here’s the thing—those of us here tonight, we need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making.  We need to do more than just do no harm.  Tonight, together, let’s do more to restore the link between hard work and growing opportunity for every American.

In other words, we as a society benefit when everyone has the opportunity to achieve his or her full potential.  The government is uniquely positioned to ensure that everyone is afforded opportunity; and, when the government is permitted to function effectively, it can and will fulfill this task successfully.  Individuals win.  Society wins.  And the government has a critical role to play in achieving these results.

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Killer Coal

Black lung has been the underlying or contributing cause of death for more than 75,000 coal miners since 1968, according to NIOSH, the federal agency responsible for conducting research on work-related diseases and injuries. Since 1970, the Department of Labor has paid over $44 billion in benefits to miners totally disabled by respiratory diseases (or their survivors). The annual death rate from mining accidents is 20-25 per 100,000, about six times the average industry. If you do the math, that means comes out to about six deaths per thousand workers over the course of a thirty-year career as a miner. This is actually an underestimate because the government figures include office workers employed in the industry.

Miners aren’t the only victims. There’s also air pollution. Even with the pollution controls in place in developed countries, coal remains deadly. According to a 2011 report of the American lung association, particulate pollution from coal-fired power plants causes about thirteen thousand deaths per year. Indeed, according to the report: “Coal-fired power plants that sell electricity to the grid produce more hazardous air pollution in the U.S. than any other industrial pollution sources.”

Of course, things would be much worse if it weren’t for EPA. Just look at China, which has done very little to control pollution from power plants. According to a recent study:

Air pollution causes people in northern China to live an average of 5.5 years shorter than their southern counterparts. . . .

High levels of air pollution in northern China – much of it caused by an over-reliance on burning coal for heat – will cause 500 million people to lose an aggregate 2.5 billion years from their lives, the authors predict in the study, published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To put it in as few words as possible: coal kills.

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Maryland Governor Larry Hogan Should Reverse his Opposition to the PMT

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan was sworn in earlier today and legislators, farmers, environmentalists, state agency staff, and scientists are waiting with bated breath to see whether he will act on his post-election promise to fight the proposed Phosphorous Management Tool (PMT). The desperately needed regulation would limit the amount of phosphorus-laded chicken manure farmers can spread on their fields.  

Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for healthy waterways, provided it is present in the right quantity. Too much phosphorus, however, and algae growth explodes, devouring all the oxygen in the water and leading to “dead zones” that cannot support aquatic life. This past summer, the Chesapeake Bay dead zone was the eighth largest since record keeping began. Algae can also be toxic. Phosphorus fueled an outbreak of poisonous algae in Lake Erie last year that forced half a million people in Toledo and the surrounding Ohio communities to temporarily shut off their tap water.

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Winning Safer Workplaces with Simple Changes

Last week on The Pump Handle, Kim Krisberg highlighted an interesting pilot program in Rockaway Township, New Jersey that puts an extra set of eyes on the lookout for workplace safety concerns that might otherwise have gone unnoticed by government inspectors. As she explains here, restaurant inspectors in Rockaway are pilot testing a simple modification to their inspection responsibilities—while they check refrigerator temperatures and cleanliness for food safety concerns, they’re now also looking for good practices that ensure workers are safe. Inspectors have a checklist of basic worker safety issues and they’re keeping tabs on which restaurants are making the grade.

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Government Files Petition for Certiorari in FERC Demand Response Case

As expected, yesterday the Solicitor General filed a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court in FERC v. Electric Power Supply Association, asking the Supreme Court to review a May 23, 2014 decision from a divided panel of the D.C. Circuit that invalidated FERC’s Order 745.

Order 745 directs Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) and Independent System Operators (ISOs) to establish rules that compensate demand response resources at the wholesale market price—the same rate that electric power suppliers receive for selling electricity.  A group of organizations affiliated with generators of electricity sued FERC, alleging that Order 745 had overstepped the agency’s authority.  A majority of the D.C. Circuit panel (Brown, Silberman) agreed, holding that Order 745 exceeds FERC’s jurisdiction over wholesale electricity markets under the Federal Power Act, 16 U.S.C. § 824.  The panel majority reasoned that, because demand response involves decisions by end users regarding their energy use, it is inherently “part of the retail market.”  Judge Edwards dissented.

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Keystone XL Pipeline Route through Nebraska Upheld on Constitutional Technicality – for Now

In almost any other appellate court, winning over a simple majority of the justices means that you win the case.  Not so in Nebraska. 

Last Friday, in Thompson v. Heineman, a majority of the Nebraska Supreme Court found the Keystone XL Pipeline routing law, LB 1161, which granted the Governor the power to approve Keystone’s route through the state, unconstitutional.  The catch?  Nebraska’s rarely invoked Const. Art. V, § 2, or “supermajority clause.”  Under this clause, “no legislative act shall be held unconstitutional except by the concurrence of five judges.”  Therefore, five out of seven justices must agree in order to strike down a law as unconstitutional—and since only four justices found the Keystone law unconstitutional, the court was forced to vacate the lower court’s ruling.  (See my previous blog on the subject here.)

 

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GAO Debunks Republicans' "Sue and Settle" Myth

Today, Rep. Fred Upton and the rest of his anti-environmental allies on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are probably suffering from a stingingbout of buyers' remorse as the Government Accountability Office report they requested didn't deliver the answer they were seeking.   The Commerce Committee hoped to demonstrate that “In many instances, EPA has entered into settlements or consent decrees committing the agency to undertake significant new rule-makings subject to specific timelines or schedules, including rule-makings that may result in substantial new compliance costs.” Instead, what they got was the truth. Settlement agreements are rarely used.  When they are used, they are simply requiring the Agency to complete a rule it is already mandated to complete by Congress.

The timing of the report is impeccable as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue spent a great deal of time this morning railing against so-called "sue and settle" tactics and calling for Congress to undertake forms to address it.

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Irresponsible Reform: The House Favors Extreme Legislation That Would Delay Public Protections by Ten Years or More

Today, the House of Representatives voted to pass the Regulatory Accountability Act of 2015, which would amend the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) to add over 74 new procedural requirements to the rule-making process, including more than 29 new “documentation” requirements.  The goal of administrative procedure is to ensure that the government’s adoption of regulation is accountable and fair, but not at the expense of hamstringing the ability of agencies to fulfill the public interest.  The House obviously has no such concern.  Agencies already take four to eight years to promulgate any type of complex and controversial regulation, and the new requirements would add another two to three years or more to the process.  House Republicans voted today to delay clean air, clean water, safer workplaces, and less toxic products for their constituents. In addition, they have given Wall Street a green light to re-engage in behavior risky enough to collect enormous profits while taxpayers are left footing the bill for the inevitable devastating consequences.

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Corporate Violence as Crime

A year ago, about 300,000 people in and around Charleston, West Virginia, lost their drinking water source when thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical known as MCHM (4-methylcyclohexanemethanol) leaked into the nearby Elk River through a hole in a rusted-out storage tank. Last month, the wheels of justice began to catch up with the owners of the responsible company when they were indicted by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin.  Coincidentally, the West Virginia indictments came down on the same day that the Justice Department charged 14 people in Massachusetts for their role in producing and distributing meningitis-tainted steroid injections that killed 64 people.

The same-day indictments framed a question business leaders would do well to contemplate: When do corporations and their executives cross the line between unavoidable human error and preventable criminal misconduct? Prosecutors seem increasingly ready to push reckless management to the criminal side of the line as one corporate fiasco after another claims lives and causes hugely expensive damage to communities and local economies.

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Modernization? The Regulatory Accountability Act of 2015 Adds 74 New Steps to the Rule-Making Process

This week, House Republicans re-introduced the “Regulatory Accountability Act of 2015,” (H.R. 185).

Proponents of the bill are claiming that it would “modernize” the rule-making process and streamline government inefficiencies.

In fact, the RAA would bog down attempts by federal agencies to protect our health, safety and environment in red tape by adding over 74 new requirements to the rule-making process, including over 29 new “documentation” requirements. 

Center for Progressive Reform Senior Analyst James Goodwin compiled a list of all the potential requirements for agency rule-making included in the bill. Goodwin notes that, “most of the requirements are nonsensical that at best add nothing to the rulemaking process—and at worst distract agencies from those considerations that would lead to better quality rules.”

The full, damning list is copied below.  Adding extensive paperwork and bureaucratic burdens to the rule-making process would threaten the President’s initiative to move forward on his clean energy plan and could prevent agencies from issuing crucial safeguards to protect workers and the public health.

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