Despite President Obama’s campaign pledges of government transparency and limiting the influence of K Street lobbyists on policymaking, coal industry lobbyists got their stockings stuffed with wishes this year in Washington. Climate and energy legislation is dead, the Environmental Protection Agency is entering its 21st year of failing to regulate mercury emissions from coal plants, coal ash regulations are delayed indefinitely, mountaintop removal mining continues, and the myth of “clean coal” is alive and well thanks to continuing praise by President Obama and Vice President Biden.
Happy Holidays! Here’s a lump of coal, no two, and some coal ash slurry to wash it down with. Don’t worry, it’s “clean coal!”
The Coal Grinches aren’t here to steal Christmas gifts from Whoville residents. They’re here to steal a safe climate, clean water and breathable air from every American man, woman and child. And we won’t know when they’ve come and gone, thanks to the White House’s apparent neglect (or shutdown?) of the “open government” records of its meetings with lobbyists.
Arianna Huffington recently pointed out statements that Barack Obama made about government transparency as a candidate and early on in his presidency, noting that he hasn’t followed through on his rhetoric, and in fact seems headed down the well-worn path laid by the transparency-trampling Bush administration.
Back in the year 2007, B.W. (Before WikiLeaks), Barack Obama waxed lyrical about government and the internet: "We have to use technology to open up our democracy. It's no coincidence that one of the most secretive administrations in our history has favored special interest and pursued policy that could not stand up to the sunlight." …
Not long after the election, in announcing his "Transparency and Open Government" policy, the president proclaimed: "Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset."
Yet here we are closing the books on 2010 and the public is witnessing shockingly little openness and accountability from this, the “transparency” administration.
The Obama White House has opened its doors wide for coal lobbyists, and his regulatory agencies are struggling to stand up to the onslaught of coal industry lobbying dollars. Witness the recent and repeated delays and setbacks on critical regulations for dangerous coal industry practices that threaten public health and the environment.
Let’s take a look at coal industry lobbying efforts targeting the White House, or more specifically, at what little we know about just how extensive the reach of coal power players is under Obama’s watch.
OMB “Open Government” Records Scant To Begin With, Increasingly Barren
According to the Office of Management and Budget’s “open” meeting records database, the last publicly recorded meeting between the White House, EPA staff and coal industry lobbyists took place on April 2, 2010.
Since then, we’ve seen zero OMB disclosure of further meetings with coal lobbyists. (Who thinks there haven’t been any?) In fact, there are no records of meetings with outside lobbyists on any solid waste issue since September 22, 2010. Worse, there are few or zero records of any 2010 meeting activity for other White House offices as well. (We know they are holding meetings, after all, that’s what they do.)
OMB records of meetings involving EPA staff and outside lobbyists trail off in May 2010.
And the OMB’s disclosure page for the EPA administrator office’s meetings with outside lobbyists contains a sole archival entry from June 2006. (While the EPA is still reporting the daily schedules of its senior managers on its own, that cumbersome presentation does not distinguish between events, failing to parse actual meetings with outside lobbyists and White House staff, or to disclose the materials distributed to attendees as the OMB’s WhiteHouse.gov records are designed to do.)
Beyond what isn’t included in OMB’s meeting records, it is worth noting what is there is more than a bit outdated. For example, the scandal-ridden Minerals Management Service is still listed as part of the Department of Interior, even though it was torn apart and renamed in May by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in the wake of multiple embarrassing revelations about MMS’s close relationship with industry lobbyists.
Cass Sunstein, the administrator of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), has repeatedly extolled the virtues of government transparency and the public’s right to know.
But it seems that a potentially useful tool designed by Sunstein’s office to allow the public access to basic information about meetings between White House and agency staff and outside lobbyists has either been neglected or abandoned entirely.
This lack of disclosure appears to defy the “Open Government Directive” launched a year ago this month by the Obama administration. In practice, our window into the Obama adminstration’s meetings with lobbyists is currently draped with blackout curtains.
Coal Lobbyists Swarmed White House Last Winter
The best indication of how easily coal lobbyists are getting their message across to White House staff comes from last winter, when the coal ash issue was causing a rift between the White House and EPA. An October 2010 report produced by DeSmogBlog and PolluterWatch documented a lobbying swarm by coal ash interests involving dozens of secretive meetings with White House staff between October 2009 and April 2010.
The result? The coal lobbyists’ White House blitz achieved in short order exactly what the industry wanted by delaying federal regulation of coal ash waste indefinitely.
Keep in mind that EPA administrator Lisa Jackson first promised a rapid regulatory response on coal ash during her confirmation hearing in January 2009 (on the heels of the December 2008 TVA disaster). Jackson followed through partially by proposing coal ash rules sixteen months ago, when she promised to issue a decision by the end of 2009.
Yet the EPA just announced another delay this week, stating that the agency has no idea when it will get around to issuing its ruling on whether to classify coal ash as hazardous waste.
The never-ending coal ash battle demonstrates the immense success of coal industry lobbyists in 2010, and yet coal ash is only one -- albeit a significant one -- of the ongoing threats posed by our addiction to dirty, dangerous coal.
There’s also the continued assault on Appalachian communities and waterways posed by mountaintop removal mining.
A wise man once remarked: