Navigating Uncle Sam's Public Comment System

By on March 24, 2013 in Current Events with 2 Comments

Have you commented on a proposed federal rule recently? It’s been a long time for me. I decided recently to participate and learned that things have definitely changed, mostly for the better.

First a bit of background. My “issue” is ethanol. I admit I am still stinging from the unexpected car troubles and sizeable bill from a few years ago when our dealer had to go in and “de-gunk” the engine of a one-year new car.  The culprit was ethanol gas. It cost us around $500 for the repair and we learned some valuable lessons talking to several mechanics then and since. We were told to use real gas whenever possible. If all we can find is E10, then be sure and use one of several expensive additives ($20 per bottle) that are now on the market to counter the gunking effects of ethanol. They also told us never to use E15 or E85 (gas with 15% ethanol) because most car engines are not designed to handle it and there will be problems.

One of our local mechanics even keeps an engine on his desk that he tore out of one car to show customers what the ethanol will do. Suffice it to say that it looked horrible enough that we have since taken his warnings very seriously.

As we continued our investigations we learned that boats, tractors, lawn equipment, etc. are particularly vulnerable to the bad effects, which is why we find it relatively easy to find ethanol-free gas at marinas and in rural areas. Pity the poor city dwellers, though.

When one mechanic assured us that our cars would get better gas efficiency if we use the real deal, we started keeping close track of our MPG. Sure enough, we average anywhere from 4 to 6 MPG better depending on the car when we run a tank of pure gas through it as compared to E10.

In short, we are sold. We follow apps and websites devoted to telling you where the nearby gas stations are that have real gas; we carry the expensive additives in each car in case we are stuck with E10; we avoid E15/E85 at all costs.

Thus, having read that the Environmental Protection Agency was taking steps that would mean more E15/E85 at the pump, I was inspired to weigh in. Somewhere I read that the comment period would be closing soon (March 25th as it turns out). I decided I needed to act.

Where to start? EPA.gov made it fairly simple to find Regulations.gov, the website devoted to the public comment process. It was a delight to find this site and it was relatively easy to get to a particular EPA proposed rule that seemed to be the one of interest to me. I found it daunting that there were thousands of proposed rules with open comment periods. Here’s how it looked the day I logged in:

Regulations With Comments Due Soon

  • Next 3 Days(97)
  • Next 7 Days(194)
  • Next 15 Days(432)
  • Next 30 Days(809)
  • Next 90 Days(1,235)

Newly Posted Regulations

  • Today(92)
  • Last 3 Days(183)
  • Last 7 Days(496)
  • Last 15 Days(1,181)
  • Last 30 Days(2,176)
  • Last 90 Days(6,126)

That is a lot of proposed rules by anyone’s standards!

But with the site’s features for narrowing the search, I was able to call up the proposed rule at http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=EPA-HQ-OAR-2012-0546-0001

Of course, this may have not been the rule I wanted (who could tell with thousands of proposed rules government-wide, over a hundred from EPA alone), but it was close enough. Scrolling through thousands of words I finally found a discussion toward the very end on blending that talked about what will add up to a need to use more E15/E85. Bingo!

Having found what may be the proposed rule I was interested in, I saw that it invited comments from refiners, manufacturers, etc. Nothing about consumers. Undeterred, I submitted my individual comment explaining my objections to requiring more of the higher ethanol gas at the pumps.

When I hit the “submit” button, I got a nice “Your comment was submitted successfully!” This convenient and informative web form reiterated the name of the regulation, the agency, the document ID, and a tracking number for my individual comment. The form explains how to use the tracking number so I can find my comment after explaining it may take several weeks before the comment shows up depending upon the volume of comments received on any given proposed regulation. As an added attraction I was given the chance to complete a customer satisfaction survey, which I did, giving the site high marks.

Browsing the site, I learned that it was launched in 2003 as part of the eRulemaking that was set up in 2002. The stated goal is to increase access and participation in the process and make it more effective and efficient. Dozens of agencies participate in the eRulemaking process with EPA having served as the “managing partner” since its beginnings. Kudos to this group and its Regulations.gov website. It was relatively easy to use and I had my say.

A fool’s errand, you say? I agree. Probably the only thing I succeeded in doing was giving some EPA employee a good laugh in return for about an hour’s worth of my time. But that’s all right. I participated in the process. I am a believer in that. And I wish more citizens would—how could that hurt? They certainly have a great tool with Regulations.gov.

Any opinion you discern from the above is mine alone.

© 2016 Susan McGuire Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Susan McGuire Smith.

About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.

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