Groups Recommend Measures for "Environmental Right-to-Know"

May 18, 2011

A coalition of open-government and environmental groups are pushing the Obama administration to tell the public more about a wide range of threats to health, safety, and the environment. Its report, released May 10, 2011, makes clear that despite the Obama administration's promises of greater openness, it still has a long way to go.

Organized by the nonprofit group OMB Watch with funding from the Bauman Foundation and others, the agenda has so far been endorsed by at least 114 open-government, environmental, health, and labor groups. The groups did a similar report before Obama took office.

Many of its recommendations would help environmental journalists, if carried out. For example, one of the biggest stories of the past year on the energy-environment beat was the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout. Coverage of that story (and perhaps dozens of related ones) was hindered by the limited public access to data about drilling activity on federal oil and gas leases, both offshore and onshore. The main federal database of federal offshore oil and gas leases is available to companies, but not the public. One of the OMB Watch coalition's top recommendations was more public access to lease records.

But the groups went beyond just oil and gas leasing to urge more access to records on government-issued permits and leases related to metal mining, grazing livestock on public lands, harvesting ocean fish, operating chemical plants, drilling for oil, logging, building roads or strip malls, coal mining, filling wetlands, and other activities.

They also took a stand on another issue critical to environmental journalists: reporters' access to scientists and agency staff. In recent years, EPA and other federal agencies have restricted access to government scientists by interposing Saddam-style "minders" when reporters try to interview scientists about their work. The groups urged the White House and federal agencies to replace their "message control" mission with far greater transparency — and transform press offices from gatekeepers to facilitators of open information.

A key mechanism for accomplishing this, the groups said, would be a directory of scientific, technical, and bureaucratic experts in each agency who could talk to press without minders and permission from the press office.