Some small hope has been renewed for a climate change bill out of Congress this year. But if the legislative process fails to produce a law, Obama’s regulatory levers will become more and more important — and how they evaluate new rules will come under scrutiny.

So is it a problem that industry groups are meeting with key regulatory officials in the White House in much bigger numbers than environmentalists?

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is the powerful behind-the-scenes agency that review cost-benefit analyses of major environmental regulations like CAFE standards or coal ash regulation. Before rules like these are put into action OIRA reviews agency analysis to see if the rule is economically beneficial.

A quick scan of OIRA’s public meeting records shows that, since President Obama took office, industry and trade associations have held many more meetings with OIRA than advocacy NGOs or unions-something like eight times as many.

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If OIRA were turning down greens in favor of business interests, this would be a major cause for concern. But, according to the folks in that office, they take every meeting requested to discuss regulations under review. That means the reason for the lopsided meeting log is a lack of requests from groups working for stronger protections.

Some progressive groups see OIRA as a major problem. Some even point to the imbalanced meeting docket with suspicions of a biased OIRA. And it is true that over the past thirty years, the office has been known to use cost-benefit analysis in a biased way. The book “Retaking Rationality” outlines the ways the office has been used to unfairly slow down or block new rules, and push through deregulation.

But there are good reasons to think that under President Obama, and his OIRA Administrator Cass Sunstein, OIRA is singing a different tune.  Recent evidence is here, here and here.

For many regulations, when economic analysis is applied without bias, the numbers come out on the side of public interest.  Used fairly, it is a powerful tool for environmentalists.

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But this tool can’t achieve anything if environmentalists are afraid to use it. While it is understandable for groups to feel discouraged by past misuse of cost-benefit analysis, they should make sure they are not giving industry a leg up in the regulatory process with a new administration. Under President Clinton, green groups missed a major opportunity to reshape how cost-benefit analysis is used by failing to engage in the process-a look at the past year shows that we are in danger of history repeating itself.

Over the next months we will learn whether Congress as an institution is up to tackling climate change. If it is not, more energy will be channeled into the regulatory process. That will mean that industry interests will continue to dump resources into pressuring the Administration, including OIRA.  If environmentalists want to have more success with regulation than they are currently having in Congress, they cannot let good opportunities to influence the process pass them by. Instead, greens should be taking an opportunity to gain ground: they should work with OIRA to forge an unbiased cost-benefit analysis while they can.

And that starts with setting up some meetings. 

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