Regulatory capture

Setting up fake scientific institutes and paying the salaries of numerous lobbyists is expensive. A less costly and more effective strategy is to get your people elected to, or otherwise inserted into, the government agencies that control the messaging and promulgate or enforce the regulations that the fossil-fuel and petroleum industries vehemently dislike. If at the same time these inhouse fossil fuel colleagues are also climate change deniers so much the better. It all helps to weaken any pressure to take stronger government action to curb the emissions of greenhouse gases from the fossil fuel and petroleum industries, and to limit the support for renewable energy technologies that compete with coal, oil, and natural gas.  

Regulatory capture is defined as a situation where “regulation is…directed away from the public interest and toward the interest of the regulated industry by intent and action of industries and their allies.[1]

It’s not uncommon of course for governments to employ advisors and appoint administrators whose thinking aligns closely with government policy. The problem arises when government policy is squarely at odds with evidence-based science, and when these senior staff have umbilical ties to the industries that they are supposed to be regulating.

Clear skies

Under the 2001 Bush Administration, the Clear Skies Initiatives, despite the appealing name, significantly  relaxed the regulations concerning the emissions of mercury from coal fired power plants. Asked about these changes to mercury emission limits, Bush officials reportedly answered, “The EPA, in its expert judgment, concludes that utility emissions do not pose hazards to public health.

A couple of weeks later, the Washington Post reported that the ‘expert judgment’ had in fact come directly from industry: “At least a dozen passages in the EPA’s proposal were lifted, sometimes verbatim, from memos prepared by West Associates, an industry organisation representing western coal burners and…a powerful Washington law firm that often represents corporations on environmental issues.” It seemed that the EPA was taking directions from precisely the people it was supposed to be regulating. [2]

Drafting soft government legislation that is supposed to regulate the fossil fuel industries is still a favourite pastime of many of the organisations set up with funding from ExxonMobil.  But a man on the inside is always useful—particularly if he is in a senior policymaking position.  

Philip A. Cooney joined George Bush’s administration in 2002 and was appointed to head up the Council on Environmental Quality.  Before taking up this position, Cooney had been a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute. He is most famously known for systematically altering government reports in order to downplay the adverse effects of man-made emissions on the Earth’s climate. His interference led to the resignation of Rick Piltz, a senior associate in the US Climate Change Science Program, who charged that Cooney had been auditing government climate reports to emphasize doubts about global warming. According to Piltz’s resignation letter, Cooney edited documents to “create an enhanced sense of scientific uncertainty about climate change and its limitations.[3] This was right out of the climate change denial playbook.

In a report in the New York Times on June 8, 2005, entitled:  Bush Aide Softened Greenhouse Gas Links to Global Warming, it was asserted that Cooney repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that downplayed the links between emissions and global warming, and exaggerated the importance of any uncertainties in the science.

The dozens of changes attributed to Cooney include inserting a phrase like “significant and fundamental” before the word “uncertainties”. He would change ‘difficult’ to ‘extremely difficult’ if the phrase related to the attribution of observed ecosystem changes to global warming. In one well documented case, he crossed out a paragraph describing the projected reduction of mountain glaciers and snowpack. His note in the margin explained that the text was “straying from research strategy into speculative findings/musings.”   Factual statements like : “The Earth is undergoing a period of relatively rapid change”  were changed to read : “The Earth may be undergoing a period of relatively rapid change”.[4]  Small revisions perhaps—but always in the direction of emphasizing uncertainty and casting doubt on the science.

Trumping the EPA

More recently, under the Trump administration, it appears that regulatory capture has become the predominant strategy of the fossil fuel and petroleum industry—a strategy facilitated by the President himself.

Scott Pruitt, a former Attorney General of Oklahoma and self-described “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” has close links to the fossil fuel industry. As the state’s Attorney General, Pruitt famously sued the Environmental Protection Agency at least 14 times.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was Trump’s first choice to head up the EPA.

Pruitt has explicitly sought to reorient the EPA towards industrial and industry-friendly interests, often with little or no acknowledgement of the agency’s health and environmental missions, for example:

  • Political appointments—appointees have deep ties with industries, including the leader of the EPAs transition team, Myron Bell from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and of course Pruitt himself.
  • Rhetoric—Pruitt has regularly championed the interests of regulated industries, while rarely affirming environmental and health protections.  His first speech as Administrator did not include the words “pollution”, “health”, ecology” or “climate change”. In contrast, Pritt asserted that “regulation exists to give certainty to the regulated” and emphasized an EPA commitment to “enhance economic growth”.
  • Executive orders—Several of Pruitt’s executive orders explicitly undermine environmental regulations without mentioning health effects on people and environments. For example, Executive Order 13783 Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth, targets “regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production…and prevent job creation”
  • Restructured science advisory boards—Pruitt dismissed many members of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board and its Board of Scientific Counsellors, created a new rule preventing EPA-funded scientists from serving on those boards, and–for the first time in the agency’s history—allowed lobbyists on scientific advisory boards.
  • Pruitt’s own meetings and schedule, now posted after many Freedom of Information Act requests, are almost exclusively with company and trade organisations and rarely with environmental, public health, or citizen groups.[5]

By July 14, 2018, Scott Pruitt was under several separate federal investigations by the Government Accountability Office, the EPA inspector general, the White House Office of Management and Budget, the US Office of Special Counsel, and two House committees, scrutinizing his spending habits, alleged conflicts of interest, extreme secrecy, and his management practices. Pruitt resigned from the EPA in July 2018 and was replaced by Andrew Wheeler.[6]

Wheeler is reckoned to be a safer pair of hands than Pruitt, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, at the time of Wheeler’s confirmation hearing, referred to him as  ”a former industry lobbyist who has worked on behalf of big polluters and climate change deniers. He has spent years working to undermine or lobby against the environmental protections he may soon oversee,“.[7]

It wasn’t long before Wheeler helped out his former employers. In July 2018, the EPA extended by 18 months the time power companies can use unlined pits for dumping coal ash waste. According to Wheeler, the move would “provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash” and save utility companies as much as $31 million a year. In early 2019, it was reported that almost every coal-fired power plant in the US is contaminating groundwater with unsafe levels of toxic pollution caused by the unsafe disposal of coal ash waste.[8]

Taking over a regulatory agency and controlling its legislative authority is clearly the most effective (and the least costly) way that fossil fuel and petrochemical companies can ensure an economic and fiscal environment that allows them to operate unimpeded by rules and regulations intended to reduce their pollution and environmental impact. If you don’t want the polluter to pay, then take over the agencies that set the rules.


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For more information check out these sources:

[1] Quoted in the American Journal of Public Health article. The Environmental Protection Agency in the early Trump Administration: Prelude to Regulatory Capture. Accessed at //ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304360
[2] Quoted in the excellent book by James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore: Climate Cover-up: The crusade to deny global warming. Greystone Books. 2009.
[3] Quoted in the Wikipedia entry Phillip Cooney.
[4] New York Times, 8 June 2005, Bush Aide Softened Greenhouse Gas Links to Global Warming, //www.nytimes.com/2005/06/08/politics/bush-aide-softened-greenhouse-gas-links-to-global-warming.html
[5] This bulleted text is taken from the article in the American Journal of Public Health. Op. cit.
[6] See the Wikipedia entry for Scott Pruitt at //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Pruitt
[7] CNN Politics. A former coal lobbyist is the new leader of the EPA.
//www.cnn.com/2018/07/05/politics/andrew-wheeler-epa/index.html
[8] See the Guardian article: Most US coal plants are contaminating groundwater with toxins, anlysis finds. Accessed at: //www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/04/us-coal-plants-contaminating-groundwater-toxins-analysis