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A wave of contentious changes to the environment

by Emmy Frank - Staff Writer
Mon, Mar 6th 2017 09:15 pm
Photo taken from Fox News on Twitter

Trump continues to proceed with his controversial cabinet picks. Texas Governor Rick Perry (above) was confirmed by the Senate in a 62-37 vote on Thursday, March 2 as the head of the Department of Energy, an organization Perry opposed in the past.
Photo taken from Fox News on Twitter Trump continues to proceed with his controversial cabinet picks. Texas Governor Rick Perry (above) was confirmed by the Senate in a 62-37 vote on Thursday, March 2 as the head of the Department of Energy, an organization Perry opposed in the past.

 


Last week, President Donald Trump made more changes regarding environmental policy with a new executive order and the appointment of a new Secretary of Energy. These actions have received praise from Republicans and criticism from Democrats.

First, on February 28, President Trump signed an executive order to roll back the "Waters of the United States," or WOTUS, rule. According to Michelle Ye Hee Lee's article for The Washington Post, "Trump's claim that Waters of the United States rule cost 'hundreds of thousands' of jobs," the executive order will instruct a review of this rule. The WOTUS rule was issued back in 2015 under the former President Barack Obama administration. It came after the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers decided that there needed to be clarification on the scope of federal jurisdiction regarding the regulation of wetlands, rivers and streams. 

Uncertainty spurs from The Clean Water Act's language. It is written so that "navigable waters" will be regulated, but what constitutes as "navigable" has been disputed. According to the article, the 2006 Supreme Court case Rapanos v. U.S. attempted to clarify this ambiguity. The final decision interpreted "navigable waters" with a very conservative outlook. However, the concurring opinion from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy offered a different perspective. He explained that there was a "significant nexus" between different sized bodies of water, leading many to expand their outlook on what navigable waters can constitute.

The WOTUS rule applies to small bodies of water, which is part of the reason why there are so many opponents. According to the NPR article, "Trump to sign order rolling back another environmental regulation" by Susan Phillips, waters that could be subject to regulation under WOTUS are brooks, streams that only have water in them seasonally, ditches, and in some cases even puddles. The NPR article explains that supporters of the rule argue the point that some states aren't equipped to ensure clean drinking water and healthy streams, whereas opponents say the federal government has gone too far. 

Owen McDonough from the National Association of Homebuilders puts it like this: "So you can think about farm fields in Bucks County, Pa., that is changing hands from longtime farmer now to a builder and developer. And that builder and developer is all of the sudden faced with a property that has jurisdictional waters of the United States on it for which he or she has to secure federal permits, offset his impacts."

McDonough certainly has a point. Securing federal permits are notorious for taking a lot of time and the potential fines one could receive from the EPA for breaking the Clean Water Act could be over $30,000. This doesn't sound quite fair to builders, developers and private landowners who just happen to have small bodies of water on their land.

The problems with the WOTUS rule did not go unnoticed. According to the aforementioned The Washington Post article, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th circuit has long since issued a nationwide stay, meaning that the rule was halted from going into effect. So, the true economic impact of the rule, although speculated, has never been recorded because the rule didn't even have a chance to go into effect. Two of the biggest opponents to the rule, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau Foundation, have not conducted a job review because of this. 

With a Republican-dominated Congress and a conservative leader to the EPA, the WOTUS rule will most likely be repealed. This means that the phrase "navigable waters" will probably be interpreted conservatively for the rest of Trump's presidency, halting the passage of new Clean Water regulations and potentially repealing other existing regulations.

This drastic change in how the government views the environment was also observed in Trump's pick for the Department of Energy. According to Maggie Penman's article for NPR, "Rick Perry sworn in as Energy Secretary," former Texas Governor Rick Perry was sworn in as the new Secretary of Energy on Thursday, March 2, by the Senate in a 62-37 vote.

Trump's pick for Perry mirrors his pick for the new leader of the EPA Scott Pruitt. Both Pruitt and Perry are running departments that they previously opposed, and both are known to have been climate change skeptics and big oil supporters. Both are criticized by environmental groups and praised by conservatives. It is predicted that as the Secretary of Energy, Perry will not put a lot of focus on clean energy.

Trump's latest actions are part of the ongoing trend of putting emphasis on energy policy over environmental policy. A precedent is being set here, one that emphasizes jobs over the  environment and profit over public health. Clearly, our country is not quite committing to environmental health, safety and sustainability in the way that Obama had previously attempted to. Only time will tell what benefits and consequences this sentiment will result in. 

mfran8@brockport.edu