How industry beats back environmental regulations

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If you want to understand how industries are able beat back even modest regulations aimed at protecting the public — whether to limit greenhouse gases from power plants or eliminate cancerous chemicals from children’s products — please check out some of The Center for Public Integrity’s investigative work this week and next.

The pattern — extremely successful from industry’s point of view — is crystal clear. Among the tactics: gumming up the regulatory process; deploying hundreds of high-paid lobbyists (many of whom were former legislators themselves), and making use of well-targeted and generous campaign contributions to line up votes from sitting legislators. The result is often defeat of proposed new regulations or infinite delay, which amounts to the same thing.

All of this is perfectly legal under America’s quasi-corrupt political system. I believe the word corrupt is apt because if an outsider looked at country “A” and saw that money from industry flowed freely to both former and current elected officials, and those former and current elected officials did exactly what industry wanted, we would say that country “A” had a problem. We would have no trouble labeling country “A” as having a corrupt or at least quasi-corrupt political system, even if all of these moves were permissible under the laws enacted by those same legislators.

We are country “A”.

This week’s example of how the system “works” comes from the coal and utility industries, which are waging an all-out influence war over potential new carbon regulations for power plants. Kristen Lombardi, a senior Center for Public Integrity Investigative reporter, pulled back the curtain on this influence war in her latest report on the coal industry’s tactics.  

As Kristen describes in detail, President Obama gave a key speech at Georgetown University on June 25 outlining his climate plan. He unveiled a national blueprint for cutting carbon pollution, framing it as “a plan to protect our country from the impacts of climate change.”

The president directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants,” and laid out a schedule for the agency to issue rules for both new and existing facilities by June 2014.

For the coal industry, the stakes are high. EPA’s carbon regulations could halt construction of future coal plants, as Kristen reported, and potentially shutter many of the more than 500 plants operating today.

So the coal and utility industries and their allies will be pushing back in three fundamental ways, according to interviews with dozens coal lobbyists, utility executives, environmental advocates, scholars and former EPA officials:

  • Industry is sure to flex its muscles in the regulatory process, inundating the EPA with comments, analyses, legal opinions and technical documents, and picking apart its draft plans.
  • Plan critics will engage lobbyists to influence the rules’ language, enlisting support from other federal agencies, and offering alternatives to the White House.
  • And, the coal industry is sure to oppose strict rules in a scorched-earth strategy infused with aid from allies in Congress who will likely seek to tie the EPA’s hands.

This three-part approach is also likely to include industry spokesmen and their legislative collaborators condemning what are often labeled “job-killing regulations” and higher energy costs no matter how balanced or how necessary such regulation may be in practice. Some utility trade groups are already airing TV ads identifying the Obama plan as “a tax we can least afford.”

If past patterns are any indication, these groups will work to delay and weaken the Obama administration’s carbon rules at every turn, from the EPA, to the White House, to Congress and the courts. The coal industry has flexed its political muscle at record levels in recent years. Since January 2011, coal companies have funneled $14.2 million into federal campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics; another $41 million went toward lobbying the federal government. Again, all of this is perfectly legal.

But if the EPA is not able to regulate power plants, or is blocked from being able to curb carbon pollution, there will likely be little to show for the President’s new commitment to tackle the threat of climate change. Power plants in the United States produce almost 40 percent of domestic greenhouse gases.

Next week, as part of our Toxic Clout series, look for an in-depth investigation of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and its so-far successful efforts to prevent states and the federal government from doing anything significant about cancer-causing chemicals in products that are used by women and children every day. The ACC playbook looks a lot like that of the coal and utility companies.

If a legislator can be financially influenced, and new regulations can be quashed, the only question is how much does it take? So far, it is simply a cost of doing business that industries are only too happy to pay in our quasi-corrupt paid-for political system.

Until next week,
Bill