(Illustration by Dan Kirchoff)
(Illustration by Dan Kirchoff)
While the eyes of the nation were on the president’s Twitter feed, his immigrant ban and the new Supreme Court nominee, Congress started moving ahead to dismantle environmental regulations, squelch information on climate science and consider selling federal public lands.

Clean Air and Clean Water

Just as the Los Angeles Times reported on scientific research published this week on the link between air pollution and dementia in women, the House started the process of overturning three environmental rules, including one on air quality.

Senate leaders said they will take the rules up promptly after the House acts.

Two other rules on oil and gas drilling on National Wildlife Refuges in all states but Alaska (there are currently 1,700 wells on 100 refuges in the Lower 48, according to Greenwire) and a third related to oil, gas and mineral extraction on lands administered by the National Park Service are also in the congressional pipeline.

And another, a new planning process for Bureau of Land Management lands, is headed down the pipe, too.  

BLM?lands came to wider attention when rancher Cliven Bundy refused to pay fees for grazing his cattle on federal land in Nevada for two decades, staged an armed rebellion against federal employees, told television viewers African Americans were better off picking cotton, then ended up in jail.

Bundy likely would appreciate the Wednesday announcement that the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service are now cutting grazing fees for private ranchers who graze their cattle on federal land.

Rules on the Chopping Block This Week

The Republican majority wish list for overturning Obama-era regulations is long, but the real list of what will be overturned may not be, according to E&E News, since each attempt to overturn allows up to ten hours of debate — a time-consuming process that would eat up other Republican agenda priorities.

Rules and orders that end up on the short list have a good chance of being overturned.

The Congressional Review Act (CRA), the instrument that allows Congress in the early days of a new presidential administration to overturn rules and executive orders (or at least some of them) in a straight up-or-down vote, has only been effectively used once, to overturn an ergonomics requirement in the workplace.

That is poised to change in a way that will make the CRA  a well-known tool to undo executive action with a simple majority vote in Congress, rather than the 60 votes typically needed.

Under the CRA, both houses of Congress have a short window of time under the new presidential administration to overturn any executive order or rule that Obama put in place since the end of last May, than send it to Trump to sign. 

Regulations put in place earlier than May that were never formally finalized may also be subject to being overturned.

Conceal Payments from Oil and Gas Companies to Foreign Governments

Publicly traded oil and gas companies fought hard against the Securities and Exchange Commission rule that was passed in the waning weeks of the Obama administration. Former Exxon head Rex Tillerson, who was confirmed as the new Secretary of State on Wednesday, was among them.  The rule requires companies to report how much money they pay to foreign governments for mining and drilling. Petroleum companies say it puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Those in favor of transparency say the rule reduces opportunities for corruption.

The rule is up for a vote and will likely be overturned in the House on Thursday, then pushed to the Senate.

Ditch the Clean Water Near Coal Mines Rule

The Stream Protection Rule was put in place to do a better job of protecting human health and reducing ecological impacts of coal mining by tightening water quality standards near mines. Coal business interests and unions say the rule will kill up to 77,500 jobs, duplicate regulations under the federal Clean Air Act, elevate federal control over state control, and increase household electricity bills. 

The Office of Surface Mining, the federal agency that regulates coal mining, analyzed those claims and reported the Stream Protection Rule didn’t kill jobs (it added about 280 jobs); did not duplicate the Clean Water Act; set a minimum federal standard for the quality of water running off from coal mining that gave states flexibility on how to implement the regulation; and would increase household electric bills by about two cents a month.

The rule was up for a vote in the House on Wednesday. It likely was overturned and passed to the Senate, though no results were in by press time. 

Roll Back Clean Air Rule on Methane

On Friday, February 3, the House will vote on the rule designed to reduce the amount of methane released into the environment. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas known to contribute to atmospheric warming. 

The flaring rule is designed to control leaks, flareups and venting of methane gas. It applies to private industrial businesses who lease drilling and mining rights to federal public lands. 

Conservative legislators from western states, where most federal public lands are located, fought hard against the rule, which was adopted in late 2016.

Industry is divided on whether the methane rule is a burden. Some in the energy industry argue regulating methane emissions on public lands is anti-business; others in the industry argue capturing the escaping methane actually increases business revenue. The real argument against the methane rule may be more about restricting federal control over what happens on public lands.

National Parks, NASA, Scientists Resist Gag Order

Fake news may influence American elections but government information control in the digital age is turning out to be a game of whack-a-mole.

 Gag orders on agency Twitter accounts from the National Park Service to National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the cancelling of the EPA’s climate science page, seemed to have backfired when alternate social media accounts started popping up that looked like official government accounts. Many of them appear to be posted by federal employees.

Even as some were closed down, more have popped up. An unofficial copy of the EPA?climate science webpage, SaveOurEPA.com, went live last Friday.

Scientists, usually a fairly apolitical bunch, are concerned about research cuts and “alternate facts,” a new term unintentionally coined in the past week by Trump’s advisor Kellyann Conway.

A scientist’s protest march in the capital modeled on the Women’s March on Washington will be held on Earth Day, April 22.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s daughter reportedly joined Dakota Access protesters after President Trump gave the go-ahead for completing the Dakota and the Keystone pipelines. It is unclear yet how the directive to move forward with building the oil pipeline will be implemented, as lawsuits for and against are becoming difficult to untangle. 

Inside the civil service, employees in two agencies in the executive branch told The Free Press they were keeping their heads down and trying to keep their jobs, while employees in two other agencies in western states say federal co-workers are speaking out in public places, heedless of consequences.

The AltUSNationalParkService Facebook page that popped up last week has tens of thousands of followers, so far, with unofficial posts from Acadia National Park and U.S. Forest Service employees, indicating that a growing number of federal employees in the land management and natural resource agencies do not plan to remain uninvolved.

Public Lands, National Monuments: “Sell them off”

On Wednesday, Ryan Zinke of Montana was skating towards confirmation as the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. Zinke said he opposes selling off public lands, such as those administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Zinke said he favors state-level management of some of those lands. Zinke also said he would stand behind undoing some national monument designations. 

National monuments that were designated under executive order within the past eight months, like the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine and the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, fall under the time limits imposed by the Congressional Review Act, but it is still not clear if they can be rescinded in the same way rules are, since the national monuments were declared under the Antiquities Act. 

It may be complicated, but Greenwire reported Tuesday that Senate Republicans would start discussing trying to undo some national monuments and the presidential use of the Antiquities Act to create new ones.

The five Native American tribes who pushed to have Bears Ears designated a national monument because of its cultural significance asked Zinke to meet with them to hear their concerns this month.

Environmental groups have pledged swift litigation if Congress moves to undo any national monuments.

Bishop, Poliquin, and the Anti-Park Caucus

Overturning the designation of Bears Ears as a National Monument is a personal goal of Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. Bishop is one of the founders of the Anti-Park Caucus, whose overall focus is to give public lands over to states and let them decide whether to sell, lease out for more timber, oil, gas, and coal extraction, or protect for recreation or for ecological reasons. 

Bishop came to Maine for a listening session last spring to hear from opponents to the then-proposed Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument at the request of Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin.  

After the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was established in August, Poliquin said he would work with surrounding communities to make it an economic asset to the hard-hit paper mill towns in the Katahdin region.

In Washington, the House Natural Resources Committee will hear two public lands bills in coming days:  H.R. 621 would get rid of 3.3 million acres of federal public land in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming, and H.R. 622 would eliminate 1,000 law enforcement staff on National Forests and Bureau of Land Management lands and give federal block grants to states to replace federal agents with local deputies. 

The role of the federal agents is public safety and enforcement of environmental, natural resources, and archeological protection laws. It is not the same as the duties of state  law enforcement or state game wardens, who are tasked with upholding state hunting and fishing laws.

In the interests of disclosure, I?used to work as an unarmed  forest protection officer for the U.S. Forest Service, with responsibility for enforcing the Endangered Species Act, the provisions of the Wilderness Act, and other federal laws.

Push Back Against Pruitt to Head EPA

Scott Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma with a history of suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), taking the side of industry in environmental disputes, and doubting the effects of pollution on climate change, indicated he would take a conciliatory approach to working with polluting industries as the new head of the EPA.

Pruitt sued the EPA over the Clean Power Plan, the plan initiated after the U.S. signed on to the 2015 Paris climate agreement in 2015 to reduce pollution contributing to climate change.

The Clean Power Plan is now effectively dead.

Pruitt’s confirmation process got temporarily derailed  Wednesday at the committee level when Senate Democrats refused to show up to vote. Democrats say they want more questions answered about Pruitt’s finances and whether he will recuse himself from lawsuits against the EPA that he participated in as the attorney general of Oklahoma. 

Pruitt has made no commitment to do either.

At least one Democrat must be in attendance to allow the committee to vote and then pass the nominee over to the Senate for final confirmation.

Senate Republicans in the committee that was deciding on two other controversial cabinet picks — Price for Health and Human Services and Mnuchin for Treasury — simply changed the rules so that Democrats were no longer necessary, sending the two men to the Senate floor for a full vote, where they will likely be confirmed. 

John Barrasso of Wyoming, the Republican head of the Senate committee vetting Pruitt, said on Wednesday that he was not prepared to hold a vote without Democrats present.

At the State Level: Rooftop Solar Incentives Nixed

Back in the Pine Tree State, the Maine Public Utilities Commission ruled Tuesday to roll back the state’s rooftop solar program. 

Under the new rules, Maine residents who install solar panels on their roofs  after January 1, 2018, will receive less credit for the extra energy they send back to the power grid.