CPR Eye on OIRA: Transparency and Scrutiny for OIRA

Matthew Freeman

Feb. 23, 2010

The Obama Administration struck a blow for transparency last week with the launch of an online dashboard allowing users to keep track of what the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is working on. Good for OIRA for making such information so readily available. CPR plans to put it to good use. 

This month we began an initiative of our own, CPR’s Eye on OIRA project. As the name suggests, we plan to keep careful tabs on what OIRA’s doing, what regs it has before it, how long they’ve been there, which lobbyists are meeting with which OIRA staff, whether OIRA is sticking to its deadlines, and what the end result of OIRA’s involvement turns out to be. The hard truth is that, even in the Obama Administration, OIRA is where industry focuses its efforts to weaken needed regulations. OIRA seems to think that’s appropriate, which is why CPR intends to apply heightened scrutiny.

One example of the value of such efforts is the recent and ongoing dust-up over EPA’s effort to regulate coal ash. We’ve written a lot about it on CPRBlog, but the essential facts are that the coal power plant industry and coal ash reuse industries have been lobbying OIRA night and day for the last few months, trying to head off an EPA regulation on how to deal with coal ash that is not safely recycled. Right now the toxic stuff is stored in large outdoor “containment areas,” which sounds a lot better than “holes in the ground,” which is what they basically are. EPA sent a draft of a proposal to OIRA in October, and OIRA was supposed to spend no more than 90 days working it over. But OIRA extended its review period by 30 days – something the controlling Executive Order allows it to do. Then OIRA appears to have missed that deadline, too, something the Executive Order does not allow it to do, at least not without EPA asking it to hold the proposal hostage for a while longer.

During the Bush Administration, OIRA got in the habit of sitting on regulations just as long as it pleased, regardless of deadlines. That muscle memory persists, now 13 months into the Obama Administration. The coal ash deadline long gone, OIRA and EPA appear to be locked in negotiation over the proposal – a proposal that has not yet seen the light of day, by the way, an indication of why the push for transparency and scrutiny is both important and incomplete. 

We know as much as we do about the coal ash saga because we’ve been keeping track, piecing together tidbits of information. OIRA doesn’t send out a lot of press releases announcing that it’s delaying action, watering down regs, meeting with industry lobbyists and so on. It usually does that sort of thing in the dark. CPR’s Eye on OIRA project is intended to focus a little more light on the agency.

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