Political News

Pruitt Plans to Roll Back Obama-Era Rules on Water Pollution and Tailpipe Fumes

Posted June 14, 2018 8:05 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is expected on Friday to send President Donald Trump a detailed legal proposal to dramatically scale back an Obama-era regulation on water pollution, according to a senior EPA official familiar with the plan. It is widely expected to be one of his agency’s most significant regulatory rollback efforts.

And, as soon as Monday, the same official said, Pruitt is expected to publish another major change: his agency’s legal proposal to gut President Barack Obama’s rule to reduce climate-warming pollution from vehicle tailpipes. That proposal risks a court battle with California and raises the prospect that the American car market could be split in two, with groups of states enforcing different pollution rules.

Pruitt has been dogged by allegations of legal and ethical violations and is seeking to burnish his reputation in the eyes of the president. While Pruitt has initiated the rollback of dozens of environmental rules over the past year and a half, the latest one-two push comes as he is battling allegations that he improperly used his government post to secure a job for his wife.

This week, the chorus of critics calling for Pruitt’s resignation swelled to include the conservative National Review, which once championed his appointment. And on Wednesday, Pruitt’s onetime political mentor, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told the conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham that Pruitt needed to move past his management blunders and that it may be “time for him to go.”

The weakening of the water and tailpipe-pollution regulations have been top priorities for Trump since he took office. The release of a new water regulation to replace the Obama-era rule, known as Waters of the United States, would hand a victory to two important groups for the president: farmers and rural landowners (who make up his political base), as well as golf-course and real estate developers.

The Trump Organization, the Trump family’s real estate conglomerate, itself owns more than a dozen golf resorts in the United States. White House officials did not respond to a request for comment on the potential for Trump’s business interests to benefit from the potential changes.

“It perhaps helps Pruitt show the White House that he’s still very effective, even while he’s under fire,” said Myron Ebell, who led Trump’s EPA transition team and works for the industry-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington organization. “The water rule was front and center in the president’s campaign promises.”

While both the proposed water and tailpipe plans represent major steps toward weakening those regulations, the proposals are still in draft form, and could still be changed during a public comment period. The final versions of the regulatory rollbacks are to be published this year. The EPA official who described the filing plans for both requested anonymity to discuss internal agency planning.

Farmers, real estate developers and golf course owners protested vociferously in 2015 when the Obama administration put forth its clean-water regulation, which took an existing federal prohibition on pollution in major public waters, like the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound, and expanded that protection to include the streams, tributaries and wetlands that flow into those waters.

A regulation protecting large public water bodies is legally required under the Clean Water Act. But there have been decades of legal battles over how expansive such a regulation should be. The Obama administration’s regulation took a wide view of how far the federal government could go in its effort to protect waters; Trump directed Pruitt to take a far narrower view of the law. In his 2017 executive order directing Pruitt to rework the clean water regulation, Trump told Pruitt to be guided by the views of Antonin Scalia, the conservative Supreme Court justice who died in 2016. In a 2006 opinion in the case Rapanos v. United States, Scalia argued for an extremely narrow interpretation of the Clean Water Act, one that protected only major water bodies and the water that flowed into them from continuously running tributaries.

It is widely believed that Scalia's opinion has shaped Pruitt’s forthcoming proposal, according to people familiar with the plan. It would regulate pollution only in large, public bodies of water, and in permanent streams and tributaries that drain into them. Exempt from regulation would be seasonal streams, water bodies that flow in some portions of the year but not others.

Environmental groups say Pruitt’s expected proposal will mean dirtier water. “Roughly 60 percent of the stream miles in the U.S. are intermittent, so if that’s what the proposal cuts out, it will make it easier for polluters to dump in them,” said Jonathan Devine, an expert in clean water law at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.

The Obama rule, if enacted, could have barred farmers and developers — particularly of water-rich properties like golf courses — from using chemical fertilizers and pesticides that might have drained into streams and wetlands. In particular, opponents complained, the rule could have required farmers and other property owners to register for EPA permits to use such chemicals on their land even if the land did not directly abut a major water body.

The anger among farmers fed directly into the populism that helped drive Trump into office, and he seized upon it.

“Really, they were trying to regulate land use,” said Donald Parrish, director of regulatory relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation. “It would have called into question where and how farmers could use things like manure spreaders and pesticide sprayers. Or how deeply they could plow. Or even what kinds of crops could be grown where.”