Like many federal agencies, EPA does a lot of its work through the federal rulemaking process — which is notoriously tough to cover. If you already know a specific rule is in the works, then it's not quite so hard. But most of the time, journalists and others aren't sure which proposed EPA rules might affect a particular issue.
Help may be on the way. On Feb 18, EPA debuted its own new rulemaking gateway site.
The site seeks to push rulemaking transparency a step beyond the federal state-of-the-art — exemplified at the fed-wide Web site regulations.gov (which EPA pioneered and still manages).
According to EPA, this gateway "serves as a portal to EPA's priority rules under development, providing citizens with earlier and more concise information about agency regulations. It also allows users to search for EPA rules that relate to specific interests, including impacts on small business; children's health; environmental justice; and state, local and tribal government. [The] Gateway provides information as soon as work begins and provides updates on a monthly basis as new information becomes available. Time-sensitive information, such as notice of public meetings, is updated on a daily basis."
This gateway is the result of the Obama administration's increasing pressure for transparency from cabinet-level agencies. (See Previous Story: "100s of New Federal Datasets Released, Many Environmental," TipSheet of Feb. 3, 2010.
Site visitors can comment on in-process regulations, get alerts about specific regulations, and attend online public meetings. You can sort in-process regs by topic, effects, and phase: 1 = pre-proposal, 2 = proposal (public comment period), 3 = final rule published. Withdrawn rulemakings are also available through the gateway. Each priority rulemaking now gets its own web page, offering basic info including an abstract and timeline with projected milestones.
LIMITATIONS, PROBLEMS: While this gateway offers some improvements over poring through the Federal Register, it's got problems, too.
First, the gateway's selection of six broad "topics" (air, pesticides, toxics, waste, water, and "general") could benefit from further refinement through subcategories and/or user-created tags.
The same goes for the equally broad and more confusing list of "rulemaking effects," which mixes topics and constituencies with poor differentiation:
- Children's health
- Energy supply, distribution, or use
- Environmental justice
- Other federal agencies
- Local governments
- Small business
- "Small entities" (businesses, governments, nonprofits)
- Small nonprofits
- State governments
- Tribal governments
Also, EPA's gateway is not comprehensive. It addresses only EPA's "priority rulemakings" — and that priority level is decided by regulatory managers according to several criteria. So if you're tracking a less famous or urgent topic, you'll still have to plow through the Federal Register or Regulations.gov.
TELL EPA WHAT YOU THINK OF THE GATEWAY: EPA has a "discussion forum" (really, a blog where you can leave comments) about the rulemaking gateway. This would be a good place for journos to raise their concerns and suggestions about how well this site serves our needs.
CONTEXT: OMB Watch, Feb. 23: "Patchwork Improvements Continue for E-Rulemaking."