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GOP Lawmakers Take Steps To Repeal Environmental Regulations


Congressional Republicans are taking their first steps towards repealing some of the Obama administration's environmental regulations. The U.S. House is set to vote today on two such measures, and they're going to do it with a rarely used but powerful legislative tool. NPR's Nathan Rott has been following this story.

Hi, Nate.


MARTIN: All right, what is the House targeting exactly?

ROTT: So there are two big environmental regulations that are on the chopping block this week. Both are recent rules not passed by Congress, but by the executive branch under the Obama administration. Which is important, that's why they're vulnerable now. The first is a rule called the stream protection rule, it's being voted on today.

This requires coal mining companies to update the way they monitor water and to study the water quality of a stream or river near a coal mining operation before, during and after that mining takes place. The aim is actually to improve public health in communities near mining operations, but Republicans say the rule is a job-killing regulation. The National Mining Association has called it unnecessary and redundant.

MARTIN: OK, so that's the first one. What's the other regulation Congress will try to undo?

ROTT: The other one limits methane flaring on public land. 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.

MARTIN: So what are the odds, Nate, of these rules being cut?

ROTT: Well, the odds are pretty good. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has spoken out against the stream protection rule, and President Trump has promised to bring coal country back. But maybe the biggest reason that these have a good chance of getting overturned is because of the way in which they're going to try to overturn them.

House Republicans are looking to use the Congressional Review Act. This is a rarely, rarely used legislative tool. It allows Congress to review new agency rules like the ones we just talked about, something like the stream protection rule which took seven years to put in place, and it only takes a simple majority in the House and Senate and a presidential signature for that rule to be stopped. It could be just an hour of debate, and that should be very doable for Republicans.

MARTIN: How binding are these rollbacks? I mean, if and when Democrats regain control of Congress, can they just bring them back?

ROTT: No, and that is the catch with this Congressional Review Act. The federal government under it can't reissue a regulation that is substantially similar to the one that they overturned. So that means that if the stream protection rule is overturned, something that's, quote, unquote, "substantially similar" can't be put in place by the federal government or an agency. Now, because this method is so rare the definition of that substantially similar clause has never really been challenged in court. So it's hard to say just what would be deemed to be too similar. It's likely that a court would have to decide it.

MARTIN: Nate, we heard President Trump also issue this executive action this week. He said that for every new regulation that's passed, his administration will get rid of two regulations. So how are environmental groups reacting to that?

ROTT: Well, environmental groups are obviously very concerned about it. Regulations are how the federal government works to protect the environment and human health. But we should say that it's not going to be easy to get rid of regulations, two regulations for every one, especially when it comes to environmental rules.

Most rules don't fall under the Congressional Review Act, this process that we just talked about, and so they're not that easy to get rid of. You'd have to regulate your way out of them, and that takes time and attention, maybe even years. And any changes are likely going to be challenged in court by environmental groups, so it's going to be a really long process.

MARTIN: Yeah. NPR's Nate Rott.

Thanks so much, Nate.

ROTT: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nathan Rott
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.