The Trump administration has formally repealed an Obama administration rule defining what water bodies are covered under federal protections.
The Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineer regulation delivers on a "key promise of the president," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said at a Thursday event at the National Association of Manufacturers headquarters in downtown Washington.
Wheeler said the Obama administration's rule had greatly expanded Washington's reach over private lands.
"Their definition was so far reaching they needed to clarify in regulatory text that puddles were excluded," he added.
The EPA's rule eliminates the 2015 Obama regulation, known as Waters of the U.S., or WOTUS. The rollback will remove the Obama-era protections for the nearly two dozen states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories that still follow the 2015 rule. The WOTUS rule had been on legal hold in the rest of the states in the country.
The rollback is a victory for Republicans, industry groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, and farming groups like the American Farm Bureau, who staunchly opposed the Obama EPA's rule as overregulation.
"On paper, I could see where a bureaucrat could cook it up," Republican Senator Mike Braun of Indiana told the Washington Examiner, talking about federal and state regulators implementing the 2015 rule.
"In practice, it was completely overshadowing all the efforts that have been made through no-till farming and conservation practices" that farmers already were doing, Braun said. Braun has introduced a bill with Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa to codify the Trump EPA's move into law.
Environmentalists and former EPA officials, however, say the Trump administration's moves will undercut water quality safeguards that keep Americans' tap water clean and protect habitats.
The EPA's next step is to finish a second regulation that will set the Trump administration's own definition of waters covered under the Clean Water Act protections. The agency's proposal would limit the types of waters covered, including excluding all ephemeral streams and many wetlands.
Wheeler said that rule will be finalized in the winter.
For years, the Obama EPA rule "has been used by government agencies to punish farmers and private land owners with out-of-control fines and imprisonment for simply working to protect or better their property," acting White House Office of Management and Budget director Russ Vought said in a statement.
But for states that want to protect their streams and wetlands, regulators will now be subject to ambiguous guidance, stemming back to a 2006 Supreme Court case, Betsy Southerland, former director of the science and technology office in the EPA's Office of Water from 1984 to 2017, told the Washington Examiner.
And those states won't have the resources to head off land developers, oil and gas pipeline developers, and miners from filling in streams or dredging wetlands, she said.
"Once these headwater streams and wetlands are destroyed, they're gone forever," Southerland added.