In a move that furthers the Trump administration’s goal of reducing unnecessary and duplicative red tape while also helping refocus his agency’s efforts on its statutorily-defined core functions, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt issued a memorandum announcing that the agency would limit its interference with the Army Corps of Engineers’ permitting process under the Clean Water Act. In particular, Administrator Pruitt said the agency will prepare a proposed regulation that restricts EPA’s ability to override the Army Corps’ permitting decisions either before or after the fact.
Both were problems under the Obama administration. In the case of the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, EPA effectively vetoed the project before the Army Corps permit approval process had even begun. In the case of West Virginia’s Spruce Mine, EPA blocked a coal mine that had already undergone extensive environmental review and was approved by the Corps. Henceforth, the EPA will work concurrently with the Army Corps’ permitting process rather than create its own separate process and timetables, according to Pruitt.
In the case of the Pebble Mine, EPA preemptively vetoed the project by means of a highly critical “scientific” assessment written by self-avowed mining opponents. Based on this assessment—and especially EPA’s speculation of harm to salmon populations—the agency issued a proposed determination that mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region would violate the Clean Water Act. This action effectively doomed the permit process before it could commence. Joining the mining company in objecting to this action was the state of Alaska itself, which had been granted the lands and mineral rights in question from the federal government for the express purpose of their future development.
The upcoming rulemaking, if done right, would be an important step in the right direction, though it should be noted that the Army Corps process under the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act is daunting enough and could use some streamlining in its own right. But at least we would have one federal permitting process rather than two for major energy, infrastructure, and mining projects across the country.
The Obama EPA’s treatment of the Pebble Mine provides a textbook case of what the memorandum seeks to prevent. Nonetheless, Pruitt’s announcement explicitly left the previous administration’s actions largely intact, placing thousands of potential new jobs in doubt. Alaska’s holdings in and around Bristol Bay comprise an area the size of Ohio, and the region suffers from high unemployment.