Congress

Shutdown ties up Trump’s fossil fuel agenda

94 percent of EPA’s workers are furloughed

The EPA had planned by March to complete a rule easing tailpipe emission standards. Now that timeline could be in doubt. Above, Alex Gromov puts a probe into the tailpipe of a car as he performs a smog check in San Rafael, California, in 2017. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images file photo)

The partial government shutdown has snagged progress on President Donald Trump’s ambitious agenda to boost fossil fuel use and extraction, including the administration’s repeal and replacement of the Clean Power Plan, which has a March deadline.

Over the last two years, the Trump administration set in motion an aggressive deregulatory agenda, easing emissions regulations and making it easier for energy companies to extract fossil fuels from public lands. Some of the regulatory rollbacks that have been in the works are due to be finalized in the next two months but are now facing delays — such as cessation of public hearings — because of the shutdown, now in its third week.

The administration moved quickly to replace former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which put nationwide limits on greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. According to the White House’s unified agenda, the EPA’s deadline to finalize the repeal is in March.

The agency had also planned by March to complete a rule repealing Obama administration carbon emission limits for new power plants, as well easing tailpipe emission standards for cars and light trucks of 2021-2026 models after declaring that the previous administration’s regulations were unreasonable and based on outdated data.

“I don’t think agencies are necessarily going to be able to pick up where they left off,” said Jeff Holmstead, a partner at the law firm Bracewell LLP. “It’s now gone on long enough that there are certainly starting to be concerns by industry.”

Holmstead served as EPA air administrator in the George W. Bush administration.

Unraveling those regulations has been a key part of Trump’s attempts to fulfill a campaign promise and to purse his “energy dominance” agenda. Conservatives view the rules mostly written under the Obama administration as overreaching and stifling to industry and job creation. And congressional Republicans have cheered the administration on as it overhauls the way the government regulates the environment and the use and extraction of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.

Hearings halted

While the government is shut down, public hearings and commenting processes for some of the regulatory rollbacks have been halted, including for the Clean Water Rule, which vastly expanded federal authority over waterways and scheduled for March finalization, and a revision of an Obama administration’s New Source Performance Standards, or NSPS, which sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new, modified and reconstructed energy facilities.

“The current government shutdown has caused the public hearing and comment process for the proposed NSPS update to be delayed,” Michelle Bloodworth, chief operating officer at American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said in an emailed response. “We are hopeful that once government funding is restored that the EPA will again move quickly to advance regulations that take into account the important role the coal fleet plays, including the NSPS proposal that will set standards for the next generation of coal plants.”

The group advocates “at the federal and state levels on behalf of coal-fueled electricity and the coal fleet.”

Holmstead, who has opposed some of the previous administration’s rules in court, including the Clean Power Plan, says uncertainty over whether Trump could win a second presidential term in 2020 is causing some supporters of his energy and environment agenda to be concerned that if the deregulatory actions are delayed, there might not be enough time for the administration to complete or defend their outcomes.

“There are some people who really support the regulatory reforms and are concerned that the administration is already behind on some things,” Holmstead said. “The longer it drags on, the more challenging it will become. There’s no doubt that keeping the government shut down for too much longer certainly puts at risk some of the things that they’re trying to do.”

‘Disruptive’

During the shutdown, 94 percent of the EPA’s 13,900 workers are furloughed, according to the agency’s contingency plan, and most operations are on hold. Clean-ups of toxic Superfund sites continue where the EPA says failure to maintain operations would pose an “imminent threat to life.” Some work in its laboratories involved in toxicity testing as well as essential law enforcement activities continue.

The House is expected to take up legislation later this week that would fund the EPA, Interior Department and other similar agencies, although the chance for passage in the GOP-led Senate looks dim.

Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was among seven Republicans who voted with Democrats on Jan. 3 to pass a six-bill spending package that aimed to pressure the Senate GOP to open the rest of the government while holding separate discussions on Trump’s desired border wall.

“It’s very disruptive,” he said of the shutdown. “And that’s the reason why I’m one of those trying to get the government to open and still maintain border security.”

Upton said he plans to vote again with the Democrats on the Interior-Environment bill when it comes up for a floor vote.

Even though environmental advocates oppose the administration’s rollbacks and have accused Trump of pandering to polluters, they find nothing to celebrate in an EPA shutdown, because they say, it comes at the expense of other public health programs, including grants to states for air quality monitoring.

“I’m concerned that a process that’s already chaotic in terms of environmental protections would get even more complicated,” said Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Watch: Trump says no sign of GOP disunity, may still declare national emergency

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