The Washington Post

EPA e-mails on anti-pollution rules reveal agency’s frustration with White House

Sometimes the Obama administration operates like a well-oiled machine when it issues pronouncements on how its proposed regulations will affect the nation.

Other times, it doesn’t.

An Aug. 30, 2011, e-mail exchange among Environmental Protection Agency officials, obtained by the Center for Progressive Reform under the Freedom of Information Act, provides a glimpse into how agency officials thought the White House failed to adequately capture their work on anti-pollution rules opposed by Republicans and industry officials.

In responding to an inquiry from House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) about which regulations proposed by his administration would cost more than $1 billion, President Obama sent a letter that — in EPA officials’ view — not only caught them by surprise but also misstated the cost of one of their rules and failed to highlight the potential benefits of others.

Obama’s Aug. 30 letter identified seven rules — four under EPA’s jurisdiction — and included an appendix citing costs ranging from $1 billion to $90 billion.

The appendix put the price tag of a controversial EPA proposal to cut pollution from industrial boilers at $3 billion. That was the initial estimate in August 2010, but the EPA had finalized a rule in February 2011 that it estimated would cost less than half that — $1.4 billion.

That discrepancy prompted Dan Kanninen, EPA’s White House liaison, to call and complain to White House Cabinet secretary Christopher Lu, according to the e-mails.

Kanninen wrote his colleagues that he emphasized two points in his conversation with Lu: “First, that we’ve spent a great deal of time and energy framing these rules with the public health and environmental benefits, and when and how they are driven by statutory, scientific and legal obligations, which this letter and appendix do not. And second, that in the interest of both accuracy and situational awareness tighter coordination would [have] been appreciated and in this case would have avoided a fairly significant error.”

“Did anyone get any heads up on this letter?” asked then-EPA press secretary Betsaida Alcantara in one e-mail.

“We did not get contacted,” replied the agency’s deputy administrator, Bob Perciasepe.

The boiler rule, which the EPA is now reconsidering and could issue within a matter of weeks, has inspired serious resistance on Capitol Hill.

“A handful of e-mails from eight months ago say very little about how we work with the White House as we take commonsense steps to protect Americans from harmful pollution,” EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said in an e-mailed response. “Under this president’s leadership, we have put in place some of the most important public health measures in the history of the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Rena Steinzor, the center’s president, said the exchange is both “illuminating” and “frustrating” because in responding to Congress, the White House didn’t emphasize the health and economic benefits that come from these types of regulations.

“The White House’s persistent efforts to placate industry critics undermine the EPA’s effort to communicate the benefits to the public of regulation and are factually quite dishonest,” Steinzor said. “EPA may not complain publicly. And the vital information about the positive benefits of public policies — an essential part of the story about those policies — goes missing.”

Asked about the exchanges, White House spokesman Clark Stevens wrote in an e-mail Wednesday that the Aug. 30 letter “included an appendix which responded to the Speaker’s request for rules that met specific criteria.”

“As a result, the rules in the appendix were from several agencies, and [the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] had worked closely with those agencies during the important interagency review process every draft rule undergoes,” he added. “It goes without saying that the White House coordinates with departments and agencies across the federal government every day.”

Critics of the administration said the e-mails raised questions about how it measures the economic effect of its actions.

“More than anything, these e-mails are another reminder of the enormous and expensive authority that little-known EPA bureaucrats have over broad segments of our economy,” said Brendan Buck, spokesman for Boehner.

Diane Katz, a Heritage Foundation research fellow in regulatory policy, said just because a rule may produce benefits outweighing its costs doesn’t mean that regulation is justified.

“The costs aren’t any less to those entities because of the benefits,” Katz said, adding that the exchange “suggests the White House is not really focused on the costs of regulation.”

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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