The Trump administration Tuesday (Dec. 11) moved forward with a promise to repeal Obama era rules that expanded federal authority under the U.S. Clean Water Act despite criticism from environmental groups that the action would lead to more polluted water bodies.
At a news conference that was live-streamed across the internet and social media, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of the Army officials unveiled a final draft of the so-called WOTUS or “waters of the U.S.” rules that clarify the federal government’s right to control authority over rivers, lakes, streams, and other bodies of water under the 1972 Clean Water Act.
The EPA-led proposal allows President Donald Trump to keep his promise to remake the nation’s climate change policy, including replacing dirty air and water rules promulgated under former President Barack Obama that were championed by the environmental community.
Only weeks after taking office in early 2017, President Trump ordered then-EPA Director Scott Pruitt to review WOTUS rules expanded under the previous administration and re-draft new regulations that would spur economic development, reduce barriers to business growth, and provide significant cost savings while still protecting the nation’s navigable waters.
“Our proposal would replace the Obama EPA’s 2015 definition with one that respects the limits of the Clean Water Act and provides states and landowners the certainty they need to manage their natural resources and grow local economies,” said EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who replaced Pruitt in early July.
“For the first time, we are clearly defining the difference between federally protected waterways and state protected waterways,” Wheeler continued. “Our simpler and clearer definition would help landowners understand whether a project on their property will require a federal permit or not, without spending thousands of dollars on engineering and legal professionals.”
ARKANSAS CONGRESSIONAL SUPPORT
The EPA and Corps proposal today is the final step of a two-part process to review and revise the definition of “waters of the United States,” consistent with President Trump’s executive order in February 2017. EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials will now take comment on the proposal for 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
The two federal agencies also plan to hold an informational webcast on Jan. 10 and a later listening session in Kansas City on Jan. 23 to get further comment from a wide-range of stakeholders. To date, Arkansas’ all-Republican congressional delegation, including U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, have already expressed strong support for the president’s plan.
U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, earlier in June 2017 told Talk Business & Politics he was pleased with the decision to change the WOTUS rules, saying the Obama administration overreached with water rules to the detriment of rural communities.
“I think we have to dispel the myth that WOTUS was about clean water. We all want clean water, and characterizing opposition to WOTUS as being against clean water is an incredible oversimplification. The fact is, WOTUS was vague, poorly written, and an unprecedented expansion of federal regulation that didn’t take into consideration the livelihoods of many folks living in rural America,” Crawford said.
“WOTUS would have subjected producers and landowners to jurisdictional challenges and unprecedented levels of compliance costs. It’s a relief to all of us that the new administration is listening to affected stakeholders and will be scrapping the rule,” added the Northeast Arkansas congressman.
‘DIRTY WATER’ RULE
However, Glen Hooks, director of the Arkansas chapter of the Sierra Club, said the Trump administration’s actions today would weaken critical parts of the Clean Air Act, exempting polluters from important programs that prevent and clean up certain streams, wetlands and other water bodies by removing federal protections.
Calling the new proposal the “Dirty Water Rule,” Hooks said the Trump plan would wipe out safeguards for water bodies that provide drinking water to tens of millions of people. It also hurts the outdoor economy that depends on clean water and supports 7.6 million jobs and $887 billion in annual consumer spending, he said.
“Arkansas is fortunate to have some of the cleanest water in the entire nation, but that doesn’t happen without active efforts to protect it. This latest attack on our water is a new low for Trump and Wheeler as they again unabashedly side with corporate polluters instead of our families,” said Hooks. “Not only will this rollback endanger the drinking water sources for millions of people, but it also jeopardizes wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, and economies that rely on safe, clean water.”
The Trump administration has already repealed the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s climate change policy, known as the Clean Power Plan. That far-reaching plan, if implemented under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, would have cut carbon dioxide emissions under the EPA’s purview by an average of 32% by 2030.
The Trump era rules, known as the Affordable Clean Energy rule, or ACE, offer laxer regulations that would give more power to states to develop their own plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions. EPA officials also said the new, simpler rules would further promote energy independence and boost economic growth and job creation.
Last week, EPA officials revised the source standard for greenhouse gas emission under Section 111(d) for new, modified or reconstructed fossil fuel-fired power plants. Those rules also allowed President Trump to keep a campaign promise to redefine U.S. “clean coal” standards in hopes of rescuing an ailing industry that still supplies a good portion of the nation’s power.
However, efforts to prop up the U.S. coal industry so far have failed. A recent report released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows total U.S. coal consumption in 2018 will fall to 691 million short tons (MMst), a 4% decline from 2017 and the lowest level since 1979. In the past two years, several top U.S. utilities have announced plans to replace their aging coal-fired fleets with cheaper natural gas and clean renewable energy facilities.
So far in 2018, 11 GW of coal-fired generating capacity was retired through September, and another 3 GW is expected to go offline in the fourth quarter, based on data reported to EIA by plant owners and operators. Entergy Arkansas recently announced plans to retire its sprawling coal-fired White Bluff and Independence power plants in Jefferson and Independence counties by 2028 and 2030, respectively.
Officials at the state Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), which implements and regulates EPA rules in Arkansas and is mandated to protects the state’s environment, air and water quality, were complimentary of the EPA move.
“Arkansas is seeking a rule that strikes a proper balance between state and federal protections. We applaud the EPA for efforts to improve certainty, and we look forward to reviewing the draft rule and providing further input,” ADEQ executive director Becky Keogh tells Talk Business & Politics.
On Nov. 30, the EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas approved ADEQ’s regional haze plan to improve visibility in wilderness areas across Arkansas and Missouri. In late July, ADEQ officials also released a proposed list of impaired natural water bodies in Arkansas that will be targeted by the EPA for restoration and further study over the next two years.