Eye on Washington: Oct/Nov 2017

October, 2017


DC Buzzword: Deregulation

To understand Washington’s obsession with deregulation, it is helpful to look at why the regulations exist in the first place. For decades, the public watched helplessly as beaches were closed when oil spills came to shore, as exhaust from vehicles made air unhealthy, as toxins made their way into our waterways and food, and as wildlife teetered toward extinction. As a result, in the 1960s and 1970s, the public demanded that Congress address these threats and pass new regulations. The Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts are examples of public pressure effectively translated
into legislation.

The 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is the overarching legislation that empowers communities to engage with the federal government when proposed actions might affect the environment and public health. NEPA created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enforce environmental laws. Of course, actual enforcement of these laws is unpopular with polluters. Industries that have been caught poisoning our environment are, understandably, unhappy about the authority of the EPA and routinely lobby their congressional representatives to reduce or eliminate regulations and enforcement.
Watchdog non-profit organizations and corporate interests use the threat of legal action to assure an agency adheres to the laws. This potential legal threat can delay actions—perhaps because the action is, indeed, illegal even though it may be locally popular.

Deregulation was a foundational issue in President Trump’s campaign.  He has appointed cabinet members and directed staff to move his anti-regulation agenda forward quickly using both executive power and support for new legislation. One way to move projects along more quickly is to “streamline” the legal process to limit public engagement or limit which science or alternatives will be considered. There is an implicit push for local input to be considered paramount to national public input, even though public lands and natural resources belong to all Americans—and important scientific knowledge may reside beyond local communities. Another method of streamlining actions is to limit or remove the ability of citizens or organizations to bring legal action when a proposal violates the law such as the Endangered Species Act.  

Examples of Congress and the Trump Administration to accomplish the Deregulation Agenda:

Forest Management

An important forest management policy dilemma is characterized by how far the government should go in thinning forests or in fighting fires once they start, particularly in remote wilderness areas. Congress is  giving lots of attention to  the “Resilient Federal Forests Act” H.R. 2936.  Author, Bill Westerman (R-AR), says his bill is needed because: “It’s no secret that federal forest lands are in dire straits.”  

A popular section of the bill moves funding for large fire suppression from the U.S. Forest Service budget to compete within an emergency account with hurricanes, earthquakes and other national disasters.

Conservationists, however, are concerned with the bill’s “streamlining” components which may result in drastically increased timber production based upon politics vs. science. When the bill was passed by the House Natural Resources Committee and sent to the full House, Brad Brooks of the Wilderness Society wrote, “By voting to advance H.R. 2936 today, Congress added America’s national forests to the chopping block—along with the wildlife refuges it’s trying to sell off, and the national monuments the Administration wants to review
and dismantle.”

Air Pollution

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment held a hearing on four bills aimed at “reducing regulatory burdens on small manufacturers and other job creators.” Climate change denier and EPA Director Pruitt endorsed  all four bills that would  ease environmental  regulations  for a select, few  industries: H.R. 1917 “the BRICK Act,” H.R. 350  “Recognizing the Protection of Motorsports (RPM) Act,” H.R. 1119, the “Satisfying Energy Needs and Saving the Environment Act,” and H.R. 453, the “Relief From New Source Performance Standards Act.”

The four bills allow exemptions or extend compliance deadlines for brick makers, wood-heater manufacturers (which contribute significantly to particulate air pollution), the amateur car-racing business (which does not want private vehicles modified for racing to abide by car exhaust air quality regulations), and a portion of the coal-fueled  electric power industry. Supporters of the bills point to negative impacts of environmental regulations on these industries.

Those concerns were countered by public health and environmental groups that claimed all four measures would lead to dirtier air and harm to human health. “Air pollution just makes sick people sicker,” said Rebecca Bascom, a physician and Pennsylvania State University medical professor.

Endangered Species

In September, the House Natural Resources Committee conducted a final mark-up, or edit, to six bills that could have a negative effect on protecting our most threatened native wildlife. Examples: H.R. 3131, the “Endangered Species Litigation Reasonableness Act,” would seriously discourage citizen lawsuits to challenge agency decisions.  H.R. 210, the “Native American Energy Act,” authored by Rep. Don Young (R-AK), would give tribes the ability to increase energy development on Indian lands by reducing federal regulations that require the same environmental considerations as other public lands.  H.R. 717, the “Listing Reform Act,” would amend the Endangered Species Act to allow the Interior or Commerce departments to  prioritize  endangered species petitions based on criteria such as a political controversy to avoid consideration of listings opposed by industry and private property owners, and  H.R. 424, the “Gray Wolf State Management Act of 2017,” which would ban judicial review of the new rules de-listing wolves on parts of  the US.

Welcome NEC Fall Semester Policy Interns: Carlos Calleja, Taylor Ross and Jessie Avitia. Photo courtesy of Dan Sealy.



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