Senate Votes to Reverse Obama-Era Coal Rule, Sends to Trump

  • Trump set to be first president since Bush to sign a repeal
  • Lawmakers argue stream protection rule harms coal miners

QuickTake: Trump Aims to Brighten Coal’s Future

Republicans in Washington took their biggest step yet to reverse Barack Obama’s regulatory legacy, dusting off a little-used congressional tool and voting to kill a rule aimed at protecting streams from the effects of coal mining.

With the Senate following the House in voting for the measure, President Donald Trump is now poised to be the first president in 16 years to sign a regulatory repeal resolution. It will be only the second rule overturned by the Congressional Review Act -- and for Republicans it’s just a start. They have a long queue of other rules they want to repeal the same way. 

"A lot of the talk of the election is now going into action," Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, said on the Senate floor before the vote. She called the coal-mining rule a "last minute power grab aimed at giving more power to the federal government."

While Trump and congressional Republicans are divided on issues such as tax and trade, they are united in wanting to halt federal regulations. House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled his Better Way plan last year that outlined how both specific rules should be rescinded, and the process be changed so that issuing new regulations is harder. In his first days in office Trump issued an order directing departments to cut two rules for every new one issued. He has advocated against the biggest environmental rules issued under Obama, including the landmark Clean Power Plan. That makes use of the CRA especially relevant.

Killing Obama’s Rules? Congress Has an Act for That: QuickTake

"This is a confluence of circumstances that is very unusual where you have a new president and a Congress that are united in wanting to do this," said Morton Rosenberg, a former Congressional Research Service specialist.

Republican lawmakers are also moving to overturn a number of other Obama-era regulations using the 1996 law that enables Congress to undo recent federal rules with a simple majority vote. Congress has used the law successfully only once in its history: In 2001, President George W. Bush joined Congress in killing an ergonomics rule adopted by the Labor Department during the Clinton years. Republicans passed similar resolutions during the Obama era but he vetoed them.

On this coal measure, no veto is likely. On Wednesday, the House voted 228-194 for the measure. The Senate voted 54-45.

Rule Excessive?

Trump has characterized the so-called Stream Protection Rule as "excessive," while Republican lawmakers echo mining industry warnings that the edict could strand billions of dollars of coal in the ground. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from coal-producing Kentucky, has made terminating the Stream Protection Rule one his top priorities, calling it a"parting salvo in the Obama administration’s War on Coal."

Congress is moving to repeal of two other energy-related regulations, as well. On Friday the Senate passed and sent to Trump a measure halting an SEC rule requiring oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments. And the House voted and sent to the Senate the repeal of a rule limiting methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. Republican lawmakers are also targeting a gun-control regulation and a rule requiring prospective government contractors to disclose labor violations.

“Fortunately, with a new president we now have the opportunity to give the American people relief and our economy a boost," McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Coal Rule

The Stream Protection Rule was worked on throughout the Obama administration, finally getting published in its waning days. Its repeal, while not unexpected, is a blow to environmentalists who helped shape the regulation and Appalachian communities concerned about the health of their waterways and water supplies.

"To see eight years of work disappear without committee of jurisdiction oversight and just a few hours debate on the House and Senate floor doesn’t seem very democratic," said Jenifer Collins, a lobbyist with the environmental group Earthjustice.

"It’s very demoralizing to see that hard work of people in Appalachia that are experiencing the destructive impacts of coal mining go away," she said.

The Interior Department rule requires mining companies such as Arch Coal Inc. and Peabody Energy Corp. to monitor water quality and to take other safeguards to protect surrounding communities from the impacts of mountain top removal and other mining techniques. The rule, which updates regulations issued in 1983, would protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests, primarily in Appalachia, according to the Interior Department.

Constrained Review

While Republicans lawmakers have introduced at least a dozen resolutions for regulations they want to repeal, not all will make it to the president’s desk. The Congressional Review Act has some constraints. For one, the law applies to rules issued in the past 60 legislative days.

Also, it stipulates that debate must happen before the vote, and with several nominations and appropriations bill to deal with, Congress may not have the time to deal with each measure.

"If it went beyond four or five I would be surprised," Rosenberg said in an interview. "But I tell you McConnell is really tough."

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