Will Off-Record White House Meetings with Coal Lobby Stifle Ash Regs?

January 13, 2010

Secret back-room meetings between White House officials and coal lobbyists may be stifling regulations on coal ash that are legally supposed to be arrived at out in the open.

The Administrative Procedure Act requires almost all federal regulatory agencies to gather evidence and make regulatory decisions on the record. In fact, off-the-record meetings between regulatory officials and those they regulate (called "ex parte" contacts) are illegal and can invalidate a rule.

But the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has strict control of agency rulemaking, offers a convenient back-channel for industry groups to use in quashing or weakening regs they don't like. OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is required to disclose the fact of those meetings, but not to disclose full details of what was discussed.

Several watchdogs say they see signs that the coal and electric industries may be trying to quash or weaken EPA's proposed regulation on coal-ash. Huge amounts of toxic coal-ash are stored or unsafely disposed of all over the country, with little or no government control. After EPA proposed such a reg in October 2009, coal industry officials started meeting with OIRA, and soon EPA announced it was postponing proposal of the coal-ash regulation.