Social Media Remains an Underutilized Tool in Federal Rulemaking

by Aaron Johnson, Vice President of Public Affairs on October 12, 2017 - 1:57pm

The White House kicked off a regulatory reform initiative last week as the federal government enters the first full fiscal year of President Trump’s term. Vice President Pence gathered leaders of numerous agencies to discuss ways the government can rein in overreaching regulations to help spur economic growth. So far, we’ve seen several onerous regulations repealed or on the verge of being rescinded. Western Energy Alliance also has many recommendations for additional reforms.

In addition to focusing on regulatory rollback, we’re pleased the Trump Administration is using the bully pulpit to tell Americans about the benefits of our industry, which is a drastic change from the previous administration’s countless regulatory obstacles. Recall last year the Government Accountability Office revealed that under President Obama the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used “covert propaganda” to lobby the public to support regulatory overreach.

We hear a different tone today coming from the Office of the President to the federal agencies. President Trump frequently stresses the importance of reducing unnecessary federal regulations in order to promote America’s “energy dominance” in major speeches. Through executive orders he’s authorized pipeline construction and the rollback of methane and hydraulic fracturing rules, to name a few.

Likewise, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks frequently about the need to reform regulations targeting our industry, and just gave a lengthy speech at the Heritage Foundation on making America an energy superpower. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt similarly speaks about the need to reform regulations impacting our industry and to return to a model of federalism.

We especially notice a difference online. The divergent tone on fossil fuels from the new administration first drew headlines in April when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) added a banner image on the agency website of a coal seam in Wyoming. Astonishingly, this resulted in 638 headlines in a 48-hour period in outlets ranging from Mashable, NPR, CNN, to NBC News.

The difference is apparent on Twitter as well. A search of the national and regional Twitter feeds of the Department of the Interior (DOI) and EPA shows 79 tweets so far about economic and environmental benefits of fossil fuel production.

We’ve also seen oil and natural gas as a regular topic in agency YouTube videos, blogs and in the Your Public Lands newsletters. A year ago, who would have thought BLM California would do a video on oil and natural gas production!

Still, there’s greater opportunity within social media channels for agencies to communicate regulatory issues to the public. Agencies aren’t taking full advantage of social media to involve the public in what should be an open, transparent process. Social media could be a powerful tool for alerting the public about regulatory comment periods if used more effectively and consistently.

As pointed out in the Source Rock last November, neither DOI nor EPA announced public comment periods on Twitter in 2016. So far in 2017, DOI announced public comment periods in just seven tweets. Those included comments on Secretary Zinke’s review of national monument boundaries, onshore oil and gas mitigation, offshore oil leasing, and a bentonite mining project. EPA has only tweeted about proposed rulemaking for the Clean Power Plan and Waters of the U.S. rule. This is just a modicum of progress given the otherwise large number of announcements published in the Federal Register. Last time we checked, Facebook and Twitter had billions of followers–the Federal Register, not so much.

Finding notices in the Federal Register is tedious. Agencies should take advantage of social media more effectively to get the word out, rather than just burying them in a bureaucratic publication that only regulatory and legal specialists can wade through.

Agencies have missed the chance to notify the public about opportunities to comment on numerous regulations, including hydraulic fracturing, royalty valuation and methane rules; regulatory reform initiatives; resource management plans; lease sales; and sage grouse plans. Granted, these topics don’t drive as many Likes and Shares as pictures of Monument Valley and herds of bison. But they’re still important for public engagement, a far more important function for government than being “Liked.”

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