CONSUMER FORUM

Government regulations soon to change

Posted May 29, 2011, at 6:12 p.m.

The next time you read about a change in government regulations, read well beyond the headline. You may want to have your say before the rules disappear.

The White House announced Thursday that it wants federal agencies to eliminate unnecessary rules. For example, EPA officials said Thursday that requiring gas station owners to make greater efforts to capture gasoline vapors was a burden. They shouldn’t have to carry on, White House officials reasoned, because modern cars do a much better job of containing those vapors than older models.

The man charged with reviewing thousands of pages of federal regulations projected the savings for us. Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (part of the White House Office of Management and Budget), said dropping the mandate that states require vapor recovery systems at the pumps will save $67 million a year.

Jamie Py, president and CEO of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, says cars made since 1998 have canisters designed to contain gasoline vapors released during refueling. Adding a system at the pump is not only redundant, it actually works against the car’s built-in system, allowing more vapors to escape.

Py says the industry convinced the Maine DEP of that reality about five years ago, allowing many gas stations to save thousands of dollars each in installation and maintenance costs.

Sunstein’s guest column in the Wall Street Journal was aimed primarily at business-oriented readers. He must have delighted them in quoting President Obama’s call to end “absurd and unnecessary paperwork requirements that waste time and money.” Come to think of it, that’s not a bad pitch to consumers who feel they’re over-regulated, too.

The rhetoric escalates as Sunstein forecasts hundreds of millions of dollars saved every year by states, municipalities, individuals and businesses who don’t have to deal with the outdated regs. Cutting the red tape will allow workers to be more productive, businesses to create jobs, exports to grow. Economic impact over time will be in the billions.

One rule in place since the 1970s was designed to deal with oil spills. It classified milk as an “oil” and said spills in dairies should be treated as such. The Environmental Protection Agency decided recently that might have been over the top and gave dairy farmers an exemption. Expected savings: up to $1.4 billion over 10 years.

The rule revisers aim to “strike the right balance” between protecting the public and letting business do its business. Rather than imposing changes in a vacuum, the process will include comments from the people all these rules were passed to protect in the first place: you and me.

So, let’s comment.

Let the Health and Human Services Department know if you think the requirement for bar codes on some pharmaceuticals–to prevent patients from getting the wrong meds–should be “modernized.” Tell the Food and Drug Administration about changing requirements on food labels. Watch as Transportation looks again at the consumer protections it affords air travelers.

Some cynical observers say lifting the rules is a concession to business as President Obama edges toward the political center prior to the 2012 elections. We say it’s an alert to consumers to pay attention to a process that’s just beginning.

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