March 3, 2017: A lot happening in a very short time

Zinke Confirmed as Interior Secretary

Montana representative Ryan Zinke was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday as Interior Secretary. As Interior Secretary, Zinke will have authority and will set policy directions on a number of critical issues. Zinke is an interesting case, as he has both opposed efforts to transfer federal lands out of federal hands (and opposed such a move in his Senate confirmation hearing), but is also a vocal supporter of the expansion and exploration of extractive industry and energy development on public lands. As a Representative, Zinke voted against wildlife protection expansions to different species under the Endangered Species Act including the contentious sage grouse. He also voted to override water flow minimums to preserve fish species during the Californian drought, opting instead to use that water to divert to agriculture. Zinke is a relatively unknown politician and he is likely to reverse a number of the federal lands policies set by the Obama administration and former administrator Sally Jewell. His confirmation is only the beginning and as soon as DOi begins acting, it will become increasingly clear the direction Zinke and the Trump administration intend to take the department and its jurisdiction.


EPA cuts clarified:

On Tuesday, some specifics came out of the Office of Management and Budget regarding proposed budget cuts at EPA as a part of the fiscal year 2018 budget. The administration has proposed a 20% reduction of the agency staff, a budget cut of around 25% (which would total around $2 billion), and the elimination of a number of EPA programs. Programs included, according to InsideEPA, include grants for brownfield redevelopment and diesel engines, as well as money that goes towards the implementation of the Clean Power Plan. This would constitute a dramatic weakening of the agencies ability to regulate industry, and specifically would cut back on the climate change programs that EPA has in place. A full list of proposed EPA cuts can be found here, courtesy of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. It’s quite a list. 

Again, this is a preliminary proposal. It is very unlikely that even a conservative Congress leaves in place such dramatic cuts. I would expect many of the energy and climate-related programs will be dismantled, but it is difficult to imagine a number of local or regional clean-up programs and grants will be cut to the level the administration is calling for.


Trump signs CWA executive order

On Tuesday, Feb 28, President Trump signed an executive order directing the EPA to begin re-evaluating the Water of the US Rule (WOTUS). WOTUS, issued in 2015, clarifies and extends what waterways are protected under the Clean Air Act. Opposition to the Rule has been intense among conservatives and industry groups, who hold up the Rule as a perfect example of EPA stepping beyond its legal bounds.

The order itself does not eliminate the WOTUS Rule. Rather, it directs EPA to begin the long and arduous process of rewriting the rule in such a way that makes it irrelevant. It is important to remember that agency rule changes must be supported in court, and so the administration and EPA will have to provide sufficient justification beyond “we want to get rid of this rule because we think it hurts business”. Jonathan Swain of axios tweeted out a copy of the Order that he was able to get his hands on.

During the signing of the order itself, President Trump (that is getting easier and easier to write), bought into the conservative rhetoric of the WOTUS Rule extending federal protections over “puddles”. On Thursday, EPA officials argued that there is Supreme Court precedent that would allow the quick revision of the WOTUS Rule in favor of a weaker rule.


House passes two bills aimed to increase regulatory oversight, hamstring regulations.

The House passed two bills this week that are now being sent to the Senate, H.R. 998 and H.R. 1004. H.R 998, the “SCRUB Act”, creates a regulatory review commission that reviews the Code of Federal Regulations, and identifies old, “unnecessary or obsolete” major rules and regulations to eliminate. To repeal or alter a rule or regulation identified by the commission, Congress can approve or deny those recommendations. Essentially, the Senate appoints members to a commission who can identify rules to be repealed, and then Congress has the final say on the matter.

H.R 1004, the “Regulatory Integrity Act of 2017”, intends to give the “public” greater access to knowledge about proposed regulations. It mandates that regulatory agencies publish the details of a regulation before the regulation is established. This bill is not a severe challenge to regulations, but it does have two distinct effects: slowing down the regulatory process, and potentially giving industry groups and interests greater firepower and access points to object to or attempt to halt potential regulations. This is not a new piece of legislation. It has passed the House in previous Congressional sessions, but never advanced given President Obama’s veto powers.

Taken together, these acts represent a both symbolic and practical attempt to slow down the regulatory process and exert Congressional controls over agency regulation.


Author: Jared Sousa

Macalester College '2017, Political Science and Environmental Studies

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