Environmental protections dying
WASHINGTON — One after another, landmark U.S. protections for climate, air and land are in the crosshairs of the Trump administration as his agency leaders move past early fumbles and scandals to start delivering on a succession of environmental rollbacks.
On Thursday, the Interior Department proposed easing rules on oil and gas drilling for millions of acres of range in the West. And the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to unveil its proposed rewrite of a major 2015 Obama rule that extended federal protections to thousands of waterways and wetlands.
Supporters and opponents expect the overhaul of the national water rule could go even further, also changing aspects of how the U.S. enforces the 1972 Clean Water Act, one of the country’s foundation environmental measures. Environmental groups say the rewrite could lift federal protections for millions of miles of streams and wetlands.
The pending water rule changes and other major rollbacks already announced give big wins to energy companies, farmers, builders and others who’ve fought for decades against environmental rules they see aimed at stalling or stopping projects until developers give up.
Maybe crucially, this month’s complex overhauls of major environmental rules are associated mainly not with the high-profile political figures that Trump appointed as Cabinet heads for Interior and Environment, but with both men’s deputies, who are Washington veterans and technocrats.
At EPA, now acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler was named to succeed Scott Pruitt, whose own, more hastily announced environmental rollbacks have been mired in legal challenges since scandals over spending helped drive Pruitt from office in July.
At Interior, Deputy Administration David Bernhardt had worked on easing the sage grouse protections hindering oil and gas drilling, and as a lobbyist for oil and gas previously. His boss, Ryan Zinke, remains in office but is battling to regain Trump’s favor amid ethics investigations.
Myron Ebell, a director at the Washington-based Conservative Enterprise Institute who led President Donald Trump's environmental transition team, said the administration could be rolling back environmental rules even more quickly if it had moved faster to fill leadership teams in federal agencies.
“Dysfunction in the White House personnel process has really slowed them up, but they are starting to make some progress now,” he said.
Environmental groups say more than a half-century of federal preservation of even remote, unloved and at times bone-dry creeks and wetlands has helped protect major downstream lakes and rivers from upstream pollutants, fertilizer runoffs and oil spills, helped clean up big water bodies including the Chesapeake Bay, and helped buffer humans against droughts, floods and hurricanes.
Many farmers, miners, builders and others loathe the federal protections for remote creeks and seasonally dry frog ponds, seeing the water protections as unjustified federal barricades to plowing or building on their own private property.
Many of the rollbacks put in motion aim to prop up the declining U.S. coal industry.