Monday, September 21, 2015

Notes on Regulatory Capture

NRC Public Meeting
A couple of recent local news items discuss a too-cozy relationship between regulators and the supposedly regulated, to the detriment of ratepayers and ordinary citizens.  Neither is nuclear-related but they may give us some ideas on how regulatory capture might (or does) manifest in the nuclear industry.

PG&E and the CPUC

First up is an article* about Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).  PG&E is responsible for the deadly 2010 gas main explosion in San Bruno, CA.  It was later revealed that PG&E was involved in private, i.e., secret, lobbying to get the CPUC judge it wanted to handle the case.  An as investigation later concluded, such ex parte discussions gives the utilities an advantage over other participants in the regulatory process.

The article concentrates on remedial legislation working its way through the system.  One bill would close the loophole that allows secret meetings between the CPUC and a regulated entity under certain conditions.  Another would create an independent inspector general for the agency.

Berkeley Zoning Adjustment Board 

This editorial** focuses on a city zoning board that is stuffed with members whose background is in the development industry.  It quotes at length local resident James McFadden who has some excellent observations about the nature of regulatory capture in this situation.

“Although many people are quick to assume that capture means corruption, they really are different things.

“Capture is more of an aligning of economic world views, not necessarily to any monetary advantage, often just to make one's job easier or more pleasant in dealing with people on a day to day basis . . . .

“Captured individuals . . . don't see their behavior as incorrect.  They have forgotten that their role is to provide oversight and protection to the public . . . Their public meetings evolve into patronizing facades of democracy.

“. . . For the most part, capture is about creating a pleasant working environment with those in industry who they deal with on a daily basis.  It is a slow and insidious process that strikes at the heart of human psychology which allows us to work in groups. . . . When we-the-public show up and complain, we become the opponent to be ignored.

“. . . The [public] meeting becomes a dance of false empowerment where getting through the meeting on time is more important than focusing on important issues or input from the public.”

Our Perspective

Do you see any of the above behavior in the nuclear industry?  Here’s a clue to get you started: the mental model for all federally regulated or controlled activities, viz., the infamous “iron triangle” of special interests, Congress and federal bureaucrats.  In the nuclear space, utility lobbyists and industry organizations encourage/pressure Congress for favorable treatment in exchange for support at election time.  Congress leans on the NRC when job losses are threatened because of a lengthy plant shutdown or costly “over regulation.”  The NRC listens to or cooperates with industry “experts” when it is considering new policies, regulations or interpretations.  We believe the iron triangle is alive and well in the nuclear industry but is nowhere near as scurrilous as, say, the welfare system.

(Now the anti-nukes also lobby Congress and certain members of Congress are relentless critics of the NRC.  Do the scales balance?  And where does the clash of lobbying titans leave Joe Citizen?)

Expanding on one side of the triangle, nuclear utilities make efforts to build organizational, professional and personal relationships with the NRC because it’s in their direct economic interest to do so.  In the other direction, don’t NRC personnel try to get along with utility people they see on a regular basis?  Who wants to alienate everybody all the time?  The NRC tries to avoid being too cozy with the utilities but they can’t completely avoid it.  They are in the same business and speak the same language.  However, it’s far from scandalous, like the relationship between the former Minerals Management Service and the offshore drilling industry.  And there is no overactive revolving door between the NRC and industry.

What about outsiders who try to influence policy?  At the top, gadflies who address agency-wide issues or work with HQ personnel may eventually get a seat at the table.  But in the field, Jane Citizen making a statement at a meeting concerning the local plant probably doesn’t have as much leverage.  Consider how difficult it is for the average whistleblower to have an impact.

The Wikipedia entry on regulatory capture cites Princeton professor Frank von Hippel, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Associated Press to support the position that the NRC has been “captured.”  Has the NRC been too accommodating to the industry?  You be the judge.

There is an old saying: “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  That’s true in some cases.  In other situations, familiarity breeds—greater familiarity.

*  J. Van Derbeken, “CPUC reform bills on governor’s desk,” San Francisco Chronicle (Sept. 15, 2015).  Questionable conduct flowed both ways.  It also came to light that the then-President of the CPUC appeared to offer his support for PG&E’s (and other utilities’) positions on regulatory cases in return for their contributions to his favorite political causes.  That’s called influence peddling.

**  B. O'Malley, “Berkeley's Zoning Board Slouches Toward Birthing Its Monster,” Berkeley Daily Planet (Sept. 13, 2015).  The Daily Planet is an online progressive (lefty) newspaper in Berkeley, CA.

1 comment:

  1. Other considerations include "the revolving door". "going native", and "the Stockholm Effect." I hope that we have an extended discussion.

    Did "regulatory capture" affect the prolonged failure to surface "Dieselgate?"


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