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Environmental Regulation

Steam rises from the cooling towers and stacks on a brisk morning in 2014 at the Jim Bridger Power Plant in Points of Rocks.

In eight years, President Barack Obama’s agencies have proposed or considered thousands of rules and regulations, from the controversial Clean Power Plan to updating standards on exposure to dangerous chemicals at construction sites.

Government watchdog groups say the regulations keep people safe and hold companies accountable. Small-government proponents describe the federal onslaught as burdensome, costly and unprecedented.

Now a new Congress is drawing power from two rarely used laws that could wipe away nearly all recently passed rules. Attempts to pass the REINS Act, which gives Congress the final say over all major regulations, or the Midnight Rule Relief Act, which deletes final acts of Obama’s administration, are common. Their success is not. But a conservative Congress is placing hope in an incoming Republican president.

For many in Wyoming, the effort is welcome news. Cowboy State energy producers often complain of excessive regulation as they drill and mine on public lands overseen by federal agencies.

Environmentalists say the new approach will change how small groups or interested citizens can influence federal environmental policy through public meetings and talks with local agents. Traditionally keen to work with feds, environmentalists are struck by uncertainty. Many anticipate a fight.

A ‘power grab’

Cowboy State environmental advocates are disconcerted by the power brewing in D.C. Some of Obama’s most controversial policies, the Clean Air Act, the Stream Protection Rule and the BLM’s Flaring and Venting rules, took years of work to complete, in many cases by Wyoming-based federal experts, after multiple periods of public input, land groups say.

The BLM alone employs almost 700 people in Wyoming, including petroleum engineers, wildlife biologists and natural resource specialists who analyze the impact of rules and regulations and develop best practices.

Congress is seeking the power to undo a number of rules and regs with a wave of a hand, opponents say.

“This is potentially a very rash action on the part of Congress that could undermine the great influence that the public has over these types of environmental policies and regulation,” said Chris Merrill, associate director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

The two congressional proposals would set a precedent of insecurity for public rights groups, where any policy could be upended by elections, he said.

It’s an ironic situation for Wyomingites, who often see Washington as an outsider that shouldn’t meddle in state affairs.

“It’s so contradictory in many ways here in Wyoming,” said Connie Wilbert, a Riverton native and director of the Sierra Club’s Wyoming chapter. “It’s interesting because those types of actions really are in direct contradiction of the oft-heard state mantra, ‘We need more local control.’”

But Wilbert also believes in the power of federal intervention for essential issues that impact health and safety, she said

As Congress seeks to undo the past eight years, groups like the Sierra Club and the Outdoor Council are adjusting to new landscape.

Merrill said he’s unsure of what the future holds. The rules and regulation process, where departments on the ground develop rules based on congressional and presidential policies, has stood for decades, he said.

“The best approach is the approach where local stakeholders are involved,” he said. “People can participate and agencies can receive that feedback. That’s the way the government has operated for decades now when it comes to protecting air and water.”

Congress appears to be making a power grab, he said.

“I think that most folks in Wyoming would much prefer a process where local people have input,” he said. “Congress making decisions out of Washington, D.C., is the exact opposite of that process.”

The new balance of power could have interesting effects, like challenging state agencies to address environmental concerns. Wyoming has been a leader in the past, and the state is well-placed to take that mantle again, he said.

Groups like the Sierra Club are poised to protest and litigate.

“It’s fundamental to our democracy that we be able to participate,” said Wilbert. “We will absolutely resist efforts to undermine our foundational environmental safeguards, regulations and laws using every legal tactic that we have at our disposal.”

Wyoming’s delegation

Yet there is a reason conservatives in Washington are pushing back, say members of Wyoming’s congressional delegation.

Obama weakened Congress’ power, and his administration’s environmental incursions undermined business, industry and economic growth, said U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi.

The fallout has been clearly visible in Wyoming, the conservative republican said.

“Regulations do have an impact, and we are seeing the disastrous effects on Wyoming’s economy, especially in the number of jobs lost in the energy sector,” he wrote in a statement to the Star-Tribune. “Just look at how the state Legislature is grappling with the state budget – that revenue shortfall is also a product of those regulations.”

However, of particular offense to U.S. Sen. John Barrasso are the recent regulations, passed in the last days of Obama’s leadership.

“Outgoing administrations should be prohibited from issuing regulations on the way out the door,” the Republican senator said. “The Midnight Rule Relief Act would block the Obama administration and future outgoing administrations from imposing new regulations in its final weeks in office.”

Enzi, a longtime Washington politician, has successfully used congressional power to undo a previous administration’s regulations before, after President Bill Clinton left office in 2001. But it’s a rare move. The Congressional Review Act, the base law that the REINS Act expands, is not often implemented.

If Congress is successful, that is likely to change in a big way.

“The REINS Act and other legislative actions would ensure that the expanding bureaucracy would be continuously accountable to Congressional input and approval,” Enzi said. He sponsored the REINS Act in this and a previous session. “It’s how it should be, but it’s not how it is.”

He described the act to repeal regulations in-bloc not as an expansion of power but as a way to limit the growing bureaucracy.

“It is Congress who creates the laws, and these proposals are just new ways to try and ensure that these bureaucratic agencies are carrying out those laws appropriately.”

Changes in Washington may cause friction and frustration in Wyoming’s land and environmental groups, but an industry-friendly president-elect is soon to take office, and his Congress, including the Wyoming delegation, is poised to rebound like a coil compressed for too long.

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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