February 14, 2017: Catching Up

Here’s a rundown of all of the major environmental policy changes and political battles that have occurred since the 115th Congress was sworn in on January 3:

Revival of Keystone XL, Dakota Access Pipelines 

On January 24, President Trump signed executive orders reviving, and expediting the environmental review process of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The President justified his action by stating that the regulatory process has become overly burdensome for developers. The orders essentially direct the Army Corps of Engineers to move forward on the projects. On February 7th, the Army Corps of Engineers granted an easement for the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, circumventing entirely the environmental review process. Construction has begun as of Thursday, February 9, as the pipeline is being installed under the Missouri River reservoir that provides water to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. There likely will be legal challenges. The Obama administration had established previously that an environmental review must be completed for DAPL, and there must be sound legal basis to alter this ruling. Both pipelines carry crude oil from Alberta to refineries in the Midwest.

Axing contributions to UN Climate Change Initiatives

Congressional Republicans introduced a bill that would forbid any public body to contribute to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the central funding mechanism for the Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This is largely a symbolic move and may not be a high priority as such. Furthermore, similar iterations have been introduced in Congress before, but were obviously futile with a Democratic executive. In the past, President Obama circumvented Congress to contribute to the GCF through State Department program money. President Trump will likely not direct his State Department to send money to the UNFCCC, although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has not been clear about his intentions with the Paris Agreement. In confirmation hearings, he told Senators that the United States should “maintain its seat at the table”.

Proposal and pushback on selling federal lands

Rep Jason Chaffetz (R-UT-3) introduced a piece of legislation entitled the Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act, that would direct the Interior Department to sell 3.3 million acres of federal lands in 10 Western States. The identified lands were those parcels categorized as unproductive to taxpayers in a 1997 survey. After push back from constituents, environmental groups, and hunting groups, Chaffetz withdrew the Bill from consideration.

Repeal of the “Stream Protection Rule”

Congressional Republicans, invoking a decades old, rarely used piece of legislation called the Congressional Review Act (CRA)*, voted to repeal an Interior Department Rule that prohibited the dumping of coal mine-produced waste into nearby waterways that were outside of the permitted mining zone. The CRA is a mechanism for Congress to review executive-led agency rules within 60 session days of the enactment of the rule, and so is only effective at times of presidential transition. Rep Bill Johnson (R-OH-6) said candidly in on the House floor, “the stream protection rule is not about protecting streams. It was designed for one purpose–to regulate the coal mining industry out of business. It is the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s war on coal”. The disapproval motion has passed the House and the Senate and awaits President Trump’s signing as of February 9.

House overturns BLM methane rule

In an underreported but significant move, House Republicans passed a Resolution of Disapproval under the before-mentioned Congressional Review Act that would nullify a new Obama era rule that requires companies producing natural gas in BLM or reservation land to pay a royalty on methane leaks in the form of venting and flaring. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and the rule was intended as part of a federal effort to reduce emissions nationwide. The rule awaits Senate and executive approval. If passed, this move represents a small, but significant step in rolling back climate protections.

House overturns BLM planning rule, 

House Republicans again invoked the Congressional Review Act to take the first step to nullify an Obama era BLM rule that seeks to strengthen the planning process and increase opportunities for public input on BLM land decisions. Congressional Republicans called the rule “unnecessary” and an example of “government overreach” that takes power from local and state officials and places it in the hands of the federal government. This move is a part of a larger debate over public lands and the role of the federal government in managing them. Liberal critics view this sort of policy as a nod to special interests looking to exploit cheap public land with little oversight. The Resolution of Disapproval currently sits in the Senate where it should pass, and will go to President Trump’s desk for signing to immediately nullify the law.

Changes at the EPA

Some social media furor erupted when four Republican lawmakers introduced a bill to eliminate the EPA. This is a momentous task and is unlikely to pass, as lawmakers would have to undo decades of legislation empowering EPA to do certain things, as well as figure out how to carry out the requirements of laws such as the Clean Air Act.

On Friday February 7, Rep Sam Johnson (R-TX-3), introduced in the House another bill to “eliminate certain programs” from EPA. According to The Hill, the bill would cut the large majority of EPA’s budget, close regional offices, and eliminate numerous air pollution and climate change programs. This piece of legislation would severely limit the ability of EPA to do its work. This action seems to fall more closely with Republican priorities and political will at this point than does complete agency elimination.

Other News Bits

  • A CRA review that would loosen EPA’s clean air rules regarding cross-state pollution was introduced in the US Senate and awaits action.
  • Another CRA review that would weaken regulations on exploratory drilling on the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf was introduced in the House on February 9. It awaits action as well.
  • Former Republican officials and party members came out in support of a nationwide, aggressive carbon tax to combat climate change, coupled with the deregulation of the oil and gas industries. The plan, according to the officials, is a true conservative climate solution.
  • Trump signed an executive order in his first week of office that mandates that for every new regulation passed, two more must be rescinded – meaning that the costs of one regulation would be offset from saving via eliminating other regulations. This is a fairly arbitrary standard, and its direct effects remain unclear. Regardless, it clearly makes introducing more regulation more difficult.

*In the first ten days of Donald Trump’s presidency, Congressional Republicans have invoked the Congressional Review Act 37 times, which is more than any other single legislative term since the CRA was passed. The Washington Post refers to these actions as the “most ambitious regulatory rollback since Reagan”.

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Author: Jared Sousa

Macalester College '2017, Political Science and Environmental Studies

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