WASHINGTON — One of the Bush administration's more obscure political appointments is shaping up to be one of the most important for the plastics industry.
John Graham, who runs a Harvard University center known for sharply questioning whether some environmental regulation is worth the cost, has been tapped to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a wing of the Office of Management and Budget.
The job sounds boring and "inside the Beltway." But the office can wield tremendous behind-the-scenes power because it acts as gatekeeper of federal regulations ranging from air quality to ergonomics. It has the power to review them and block those it chooses to.
What worries environmental and public interest groups are Graham's close financial ties to the business community, including plastics and chemical companies. The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which Graham founded and directed until Bush nominated him, gets a significant part of its $3 million annual budget from plastics and chemical companies.
The center's donor list reads like a Who's Who of the chemical industry, albeit not updated to reflect recent mergers: the American Chemistry Council, the Chlorine Chemistry Council, Dow Chemical Co., DuPont, Geon Co., Amoco Corp., Exxon Corp., Mobil Corp., Millennium Chemicals Inc., Lyondell Chemical Co., Eastman Chemical Co. and Union Carbide Corp., among others. Earnest Deavenport, Eastman's chairman and chief executive officer, sits on the group's executive council, along with the president of the National Association of Manufacturers.
The center has done special projects for the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., has done work on dioxin issues and is finishing up a two-year, $500,000 study on styrene's health effects for the Styrene Information and Research Center in Arlington, Va.
Graham is very well thought of by industry.
"I think John Graham is one of the brightest and most incisive people in the country on regulatory matters," said Lewis Freeman, former chief federal lobbyist for SPI and now a government affairs consultant.
Freeman said the Bush administration intends to make OIRA more important than it was in the Clinton administration, elevating it to its intended status.
"They have a big stick if the president in office allows them to use it, and if they have someone in that office who knows how to use it," Freeman said.
Graham, whose academic training is in public policy, has said more risk analysis would have avoided problems like the unforeseen health risks from putting the additive MTBE in gasoline to make it cleaner. And he has said that toxic-pollution-control programs cost 146 times more than medical programs, when comparing lives saved.
But critics say Graham sometimes has taken extreme positions that are favorable to his funders, such as telling an Environmental Protection Agency meeting that low levels of dioxin protect against cancer.
"I feel like they lend an intellectual patina to an anti-regulatory agenda," said Laura MacCleery, a lawyer for the consumer group Public Citizen in Washington and author of a lengthy report on Graham.
Harvard Center spokesman David Ropeik said the center's critics have a different view of acceptable risk. Rather than debate, they try to attack him, he said.
"They are trying to impugn our credibility with the stereotype of all corporate money being evil and corrupting," Ropeik said. He noted that the center gets significant funding from government agencies like EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, he acknowledged that no environmental group gives money or sits on the group's board. The center's approach "is not one that is going to attract Greenpeace," Ropeik said.
MacCleery said Public Citizen's 130-page report on Graham lays out detailed, substantive objections and questions whether the center inflates industry costs and downplays public benefits of regulations.
In the case of the styrene risk assessment, SIRC paid the Harvard Center for the study but has been at arm's length since then, said Betsy Natz, SIRC executive director.
SIRC had no role in choosing the scientists and officials for the panel, and while the report is done, SIRC will not be told of its conclusions until it is peer-reviewed and published, she said.
SIRC did not establish any parameters or conditions on the study, she said. Ropeik echoed Natz's description of SIRC's role and said the center follows Harvard University rules on scientific independence.
"The idea was to find the most well-respected group we could to do an analysis on styrene," Natz said. "We've been out of the loop, which is the way it should be."
SIRC interviewed one other group about doing the study but chose Harvard because it was "by far the most well-respected," and SIRC wanted an independent review, she said.