U.S. EPA officials who have left the agency may have as much sway over its new power plant rule as those still employed there.
In a review of Office of Management and Budget meeting records, Greenwire found more than a half-dozen former EPA officials have worked to influence the regulation on behalf of outside interests. Ex-agency honchos are representing clients of all stripes -- environmental groups, energy companies and utilities -- as EPA works to finalize its rule designed to reduce carbon pollution.
The rule has attracted a fierce backlash from Republican lawmakers and business groups who say the limits on power plants will cost U.S. jobs and damage the economy. Environmentalists have backed the regulation, saying it will cut down on greenhouse gas emissions that are blamed for devastating climate change.
The rule will affect all types of energy producers with many seeing it as a blow to carbon-heavy coal while boosting the ailing nuclear industry in the United States (Greenwire, June 2). Consequentially, the country's biggest players in the energy sector have set out on a massive lobbying campaign to either block the rule outright or mold it more to their favor before EPA finalizes it by June 2015 (E&ENews PM, June 3).
What the meetings -- hosted by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a small yet powerful subcomponent of OMB -- show is that those interests were trying to shape the rule before its public unveiling Monday. Further, having former EPA officials on the payroll, who know their way around the agency, can help an entity promote its cause.
"Clients come looking for someone with environmental expertise who can provide an insider's knowledge of the agency," said Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, a liberal-leaning think tank that focuses on regulations.
"The powerful client is then on the arm of the former EPA official, which then gives the former official clout in Washington, especially with a White House that wants to triangulate the support of corporations."
'How to approach EPA without offending people'
One former EPA official said ex-agency staff know how to deal with their former colleagues.
"It's an understanding of how to approach EPA without offending people. There are so many channels and you have to go through the appropriate channels," said Claudia O'Brien, who left EPA in 1994 after six years and now leads Latham & Watkins LLP's air quality and climate change practice. "It's an understanding of how the agency works, how to message to the agency and what not to ask for."
From April right up to this week's unveiling of EPA's power plant rule, there have been at least 34 meetings hosted by OIRA to discuss it, according to an administration official. More meeting information is expected to be disclosed next week on the website Reginfo.gov that could show more former EPA officials were in the power plant rule meetings.
Some of the most prominent names in energy and environment -- such as the Sierra Club, Southern Co. and Waste Management Inc. -- came to the meetings. O'Brien was in two of those OIRA meetings with separate clients: battery manufacturer Alevo and renewable energy company RePower South.
"Don't preclude us from getting credit as a compliance tool for the rule," was O'Brien's message to government officials for both of her clients.
O'Brien was pleased with what EPA released Monday.
"I think they have given the states enough flexibility that as long as the states design their rules in such a way, we can be used as a compliance tool. That's a good thing because the rule should be designed to enable low-cost greenhouse gas reducing technologies," she said.
Other ex-EPA officials were also repping their clients at the OIRA meetings.
Patrick Quinn, a principal at the Accord Group, was with his client Southern Co. at a May 8 meeting. Quinn was at EPA from 1986 to 1993, rising to associate administrator for congressional affairs at the agency.
Ed Krenik, a senior principal at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP and a former senior EPA official, was in a May 13 meeting with his client, Geothermal Exchange Organization.
"The value I bring is I help the client understand the agency," Krenik said.
'Advice and insight' at EPA
Those who used to work at the agency pitch their EPA expertise to potential clients.
"From the outside, the regulatory process often seems confusing -- maybe even impenetrable. But it doesn't have to be that way. [Kruger Environmental Strategies LLC] can provide the advice and insight you need to dramatically improve your regulatory and advocacy strategies," says the firm on its website
Dina Kruger, the firm's founder and principal, was the director of EPA's Climate Change Division. She attended a May 1 meeting with her client, Waste Management, to discuss the power plant rule.
"I think our clients hire us because we understand the agency and what it takes to develop effective regulations," Kruger said in an email.
"As a former EPA official, I sat through many meetings in which the stakeholders ... were unable to effectively explain their positions and offer alternative approaches because they didn't understand how to present their information and experiences, what was possible within the context of the statute, or where EPA was in the process."
Steinzor said that despite EPA's lead on the power plant rule, she felt the regulation was dictated by the White House rather than the agency.
"It was a political exercise run out of command central at the White House," said Steinzor, also a law professor at the University of Maryland.
"The goal was to get some business people to say nice things about the rule. I don't think it helps a damn with the politics. [Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman] Mary Landrieu [D-La.] is still upset. The coal state senators are still upset."
Environmental groups bring in former EPA officials
The country's biggest environmental groups were also in the OIRA meetings on the power plant rule and had experienced former EPA officials on their side.
Bruce Buckheit, who worked in the Justice Department's Environmental Enforcement Section and later was director of EPA's Air Enforcement Division, has been working as a "technical expert" for the Sierra Club, according to John Coequyt, the group's climate policy director.
Buckheit was with Sierra Club representatives in a May 1 OIRA meeting on the power plant rule.
"When he accompanies us to meetings, he does so as a technical expert, not as a hired lobbyist," Coequyt said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council also had former senior EPA officials David Doniger and Dave Hawkins in its April 29 meeting on the power plant rule, according to government records. Both are longtime NRDC staffers.
'Problematic' process at OIRA
Critics of the regulatory office said the meetings on major regulations like EPA's power plant rule give an inside track to powerful interests before the public has a chance to weigh in.
"I think the process generally is problematic insofar as it encourages private parties to [privately] express their views on a proposal to OIRA even before the broader public sees the proposal," said Lisa Heinzerling, EPA's former head of policy, in an email.
Heinzerling, now a Georgetown University law professor, said she was curious as to "whether the meetings disclosed by OIRA are the only outside meetings the [White House] had on the proposal."
Steinzor also expressed skepticism regarding the transparency in the crafting of the rule.
"I'm sure there were negotiations taking place, but I'm sure that they weren't in the big rooms per se. I'm sure the real negotiations weren't transparent," Steinzor said.
Others involved in the regulatory process, however, praised EPA and its openness.
"EPA has been extraordinarily diligent in providing unprecedented access for all entities interested in this rulemaking. I don't think any interest group has found it challenging to get an audience with EPA or others in the government," said Bob Wyman, who leads Latham & Watkins' environment, land and resources department.
Wyman and his client, the National Climate Coalition -- which includes major corporations such as 3M Co., AES Corp. and Boeing Co. among its members -- were in an April 23 meeting to discuss the rule. Wyman said the coalition wants the EPA rule to work.
"We made a conscious decision to be that group. We wanted to make lemonade out of lemons. We wanted this to succeed," Wyman said.
Both environmental and energy industry representatives, however, held back on saying the rule will be a success.
"The rule is an interesting combination of all the pressures on the agency. It includes some of the elements that the environmental community pushed but also elements wanted by industry and some of the states," Coequyt said.
"The whole of the enchilada is still to be cooked and that's because it's a state-based program," Wyman said. "They have a lot of work to do."
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