EPA Doesn’t Want You to Know What They’re Doing

On Wednesday December 21, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled its final plans to regulate emissions from American power plants. As I implied that day, EPA’s timing may have been questionable, since they announced this significant regulation at 2pm with less than two days before the long Christmas break, when many people were either on vacation or actively vacationing in their mind.

Turns out this was not by change. A paper from Resources for the Future analyzed over 21,000 Agency press releases between 1994 and 2009 and found that a disproportionate amount of announcements by the EPA come on Fridays and before holidays — when the press, politicians, industry, and the public are less likely to notice.

[W]e analyze whether the press release policy of the EPA maximizes the effects of public disclosure on firms and the visibility of regulatory changes. Taking full advantage of such a strategy would imply releasing news about violations, settlements, and regulatory changes early in the week, when the public is most attentive, rather than on Friday, when there is likely less public and media scrutiny.

We find that press releases about enforcement actions, which include descriptions of environmental violations and resulting punishments, are more often issued on Fridays and on days before holidays. Press releases mentioning environmental awards are less likely to be issued on Fridays and on days before holidays. These findings are inconsistent with the EPA trying to maximize the impact of the disclosure of enforcement actions. The EPA also frequently issues press releases about regulatory changes. Maximizing publicity for these changes could increase awareness of new regulations and advertise the EPA’s activities. Consistent with the general objective of press releases—to increase awareness of regulatory change—we expect these press releases to appear early in the week. A disproportionate number of press releases mentioning regulatory changes occur on Friday, however.

In other words, announcements about “feel good” stories are released when reporters are more likely to see them. Announcements of new regulations and instances where EPA sues or fines companies are more likely to be released when reporters are either unable or unlikely to follow up.

This is just a simple, but telling, example of the political nature of EPA. The paper’s authors note that this practice is inconsistent with the Agency’s desire to maximize awareness by using these press releases to “increase awareness of new regulations and advertise the EPA’s activities.” This implies that EPA wants to shine a light on what they are doing in the first place. Any rational organization (like EPA) knows that if you want something to get done, you don’t give the details two days before a holiday break. The results of this study clearly show they want to keep what they’re doing as quiet as possible.

Adam Peshek is a research associate at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets, where he focuses on energy and environmental policy.