EPA’s Tone-Deaf ‘Listening’ Tour

Washington, D.C., Nov. 8, 2013 — Attempting to deflect continuing charges that its upcoming policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions don’t have popular support in the country, the Environmental Protection Agency this week wrapped up a series of 11 meetings around the country, which the agency has billed as “listening sessions.” The Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune newspaper’s editorial page correctly tagged them as “tone deaf.”

EPA touted the sessions as important to its upcoming rulemakings. “The feedback from these 11 public listening sessions,” the agency said, “will play an important role in helping EPA develop smart, cost-effective guidelines.” An unstated but nonetheless important reason for the sessions was to counter the charge from coal-state interests that the Obama administration is waging a “war on coal,” something the White House and the EPA deny.

As the Casper editorial observed, “Whatever a person’s view about the desirability of setting deadlines for reducing carbon pollution, there’s no denying that the people who will enact the changes are the ones who produce coal now.”

But the geography of the EPA road show did nothing to advance its case that the Obama administration is not warring against coal. Indeed, EPA furthered the charge by scheduling its public meetings everywhere … except coal country.

Where did EPA hold its listening sessions? Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. What places did the EPA’s traveling circus avoid? Wyoming, West Virginia, and Kentucky, the nation’s three leading coal-producing states. Nor did the EPA entourage touch down in North Dakota, where Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp was once a director of the nation’s only commercial-scale coal-to-natural gas plant.

Was this politically inept scheduling purposeful or just dumb? Dumb seems most likely. In a time of budget austerity (and partly disrupted by the government shutdown), the agency chose to take its road show to cities where the agency already has regional offices. But criticism from coal-state interests started raining down on the agency as soon as it announced the schedule, so EPA had plenty of time to make a few adjustments.

That didn’t happen, maybe because the issue never rose to the level of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy or, by implication, the White House. That suggests that agency folks were either asleep at the controls or just didn’t care. How budget-busting would it have been to rent a hall in Charleston, W.Va., and another in Casper?

Pinching pennies – if that’s what was involved – resulted in further evidence that EPA has stacked the deck against coal and the people and communities coal supports around the country. The agency has a legitimate interest in demonstrating that its rules incorporate the idea of fairness; that was missing as EPA allegedly listened to the public.

But to be honest, the very concept of the listening sessions is almost entirely political window dressing (just not done very well in this case). As Amy Harder and Clare Foran wrote in National Journal, “Indeed, these listening sessions across EPA’s 11 regional headquarters (many of them this week) consist mostly of three-minute speeches by the usual cast of characters. New ground, including the elusive middle kind, is unlikely to be found at these sessions.

“Instead, it’s the private meetings EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, her aides, and even President Obama himself are holding to talk through EPA’s ambitious climate-change rules with the industries affected—especially those in the coal industry—that will make the most difference in how the administration crafts these regulations and how much pushback McCarthy faces.”