EPA proposes rolling back states' authority over pipeline projects

EPA proposes rolling back states' authority over pipeline projects
© Getty Images

Democrats, environmentalists and state officials have lambasted a new proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would limit states’ ability to stall the construction of pipelines.

The regulation targets a portion of the Clean Water Act known as Section 401, which states have used to block controversial pipeline projects, arguing they pose a risk of contaminating drinking water.

The Trump administration proposal would cement guidance issued in June that critics say seeks to limit states’ influence over controversial pipeline projects.

“Apparently the Trump administration only likes states’ rights when it can use them as an excuse to allow polluters to destroy streams and pave over wetlands, not when states and tribes want to actually protect their waterways from pipelines or other harmful projects,” Madeleine Foote, deputy director of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement.

The EPA said the aim of the proposal is to comply with an April executive order from President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE directing the agency to accelerate and promote the construction of pipelines and other important energy infrastructure.

“Our proposal is intended to help ensure that states adhere to the statutory language and intent of [the] Clean Water Act. When implemented, this proposal will streamline the process for constructing new energy infrastructure projects that are good for American families, American workers, and the American economy,” EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerEnforcing environmental laws is a key to environmental justice EPA reapproves use of pesticide previously struck down in court OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities | Rocky Mountain National Park closed due to expanding Colorado wildfire | Trump order strips workplace protections from civil servants MORE said in a statement.

The Clean Water Act essentially gives states veto power over large projects that cut through their rivers and streams, giving them a year to weigh permits and determine how projects would impact their water quality.

Democratic-held states are already vowing to take legal action if the rule is finalized.

“We will not be deterred by the Trump administration from exercising our state’s full authority to protect Washingtonians’ right to clean water. The law is absolutely clear — states have both the right and the responsibility under the Clean Water Act to preserve our environment and protect public health. The White House’s relentless attacks cannot change that," Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeWashington, Oregon, Nevada join California plan to review COVID-19 vaccine 10 under-the-radar races to watch in November On The Trail: A third coronavirus wave builds just before Election Day MORE (D) and Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a joint statement. 

“If the EPA finalizes this unlawful proposal, we’ll have no choice but to explore all legal options to defend Washington’s authority to protect our natural resources,” they said.

The EPA’s proposal has divided lawmakers along party lines.

Sen. Tim Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, argued that the proposed rule "defies" the intent of Congress and "would render states virtually powerless" at protecting their water resources and drinking water.

But Republicans argued the proposal would help put an end to what many see as an abuse of the law.

“It is encouraging to see the EPA moving forward with this proposal according to President Trump’s timeline,” Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerGOP cool to White House's .6T coronavirus price tag Romney calls first Trump-Biden debate 'an embarrassment' Netflix distances from author's comments about Muslim Uyghurs but defends project MORE (R-N.D.) said in a statement. “We cannot let states hijack energy infrastructure without legitimate cause and prevent the United States from continuing its energy revolution."

States have recently sidelined two large projects using the certification process through the Clean Water Act, actions that contradict the energy dominance strategy promoted by the Trump administration.

New York denied a certification for the Constitution Pipeline, a 124-mile natural gas pipeline that would have run from Pennsylvania to New York, crossing rivers more than 200 times. Washington state also denied certification for the Millennium Coal Terminal, a shipping port for large stocks of coal.

But even states with more conservative leadership have spoken out for maintaining states rights under the law.

“We urge you to direct federal agencies to reject any changes to agency rules, guidance, or policy that may diminish, impair, or subordinate states’ well-established sovereign and statutory authorities to protect water quality within their boundaries,” the Western Governors’ Association wrote in a January letter when the White House was still weighing an executive order.

The proposal was given high marks from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some energy industry groups.

“While the statute recognizes the distinctive roles of the federal and state governments in the environmental review process, the balance between those roles has recently been disrupted and some states have viewed Section 401 as a means of determining which interstate pipeline projects are in the public interest and which are not,” Don Santa, president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said in a statement.