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Energy and Environmental Regulations Under Attack—by Congress

Two environmental regulations enacted by the Obama Administration are expected to be rescinded under the Congressional Review Act: the Stream Protection Rule that protects water from mountaintop coal mining and limits on flaring methane emissions.
February 2, 2017, 12pm PST | Irvin Dawid
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"Both are recent rules not passed by Congress, but by the executive branch under the Obama administration," states Nathan Rott for National Public Radio (transcript and audio available). "Which is important, that's why they're vulnerable now." 

"The Stream Protection Rule covers waterways near surface coal mining operations like mountaintop removal mines," writes Paul Rauber for Sierra.

When the tops of mountains are blown up to get at the coal below, the resultant rubble is dumped into valleys, often leading to pollution of rivers and streams with dangerous heavy metals like selenium, mercury, and arsenic.

Some form of the rule has been around since 1983, but in late December 2016, President Obama finalized a strengthened version of the rule. It says that coal mines must not damage the “hydrologic balance” outside their permit area, and established a 100-foot buffer around streams to preserve native species. The rule also called for restoration of streams that had been damaged.

Congress will be using the Congressional Review Act to overturn this rule. Under this act, "Congress can overturn regulations issued within the last 60 legislative days with simple majority votes in both chambers," according to "'t would need to be signed into law by the president to take effect."

"The other [environmental regulation] limits methane flaring on public land," adds Rott. 

That's when companies just burn off methane during oil and gas extraction instead of trying to capture and contain it. Industry says this is an expensive burden that hurts companies. Environmental groups say methane is one of the most powerful greenhouse gases so it needs to be curbed.

Rott goes on to elaborate on the use of the Congressional Review Act (CRA), "a rarely, rarely used legislative tool." According to Brad Plumer of Vox, the House is expected to pass legislation to rescind the Stream Protection Act using the CRA on Feb 1, along with the methane waste regulation, the Securities and Exchange Commission's resource extraction rule, and two other rules, "and will then hand things off to the Senate. Trump is expected to approve all these moves."

The five rules targeted this week may just be the beginning. Republicans could conceivably use the CRA to strike down a flurry of other final-year Obama regulations in the weeks ahead (these fuel-economy standards for trucks might be one target). Democrats don’t have the votes to stop them, and CRA votes are immune from a Senate filibuster. The only real hurdle here is how much time the GOP actually wants to spend mucking around with CRA votes, as opposed to moving on to other business, like health care or taxes.

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Published on Wednesday, February 1, 2017 in NPR
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