Gutting regulations damages democracy

Shutting the public out of natural resource rule-making is bad for the environment — and the country.

 

Amanda C. Leiter is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a professor at American University’s College of Law and served as deputy assistant secretary, Land and Minerals Management, U.S. Department of the Interior, from 2015-’17.


A subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources recently held a hearing with the curious title: “Examining impacts of federal natural resources laws gone astray.”

The title reflects the reality that “regulation” is now a dirty word in the nation’s capital. Indeed, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney recently spoke of “that slow cancer that can come from regulatory burdens that we put on our people.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Laws and regulations can always be reformed and improved, but the real threat to America’s natural resources, and to the health of our democracy, is the Trump administration’s nontransparent, one-sided assault on commonsense regulation. The administration’s efforts are ostensibly aimed at giving industry — particularly the energy industry — a voice in rulemaking, and at eliminating rules with excessive costs.

During a May visit to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent most of his time with groups opposed to the monument.

But the administration exerts little effort to solicit the views of communities that benefit from regulations — those who rely on the government to protect America’s air, water, lands, wildlife and sacred places from the threats of population growth, climate change, and uncontrolled, first-come-first-served development.

Moreover, the implication that industry was shut out of rulemaking efforts during prior administrations is simply false. The United States has one of the most balanced, transparent and science-based resource management regimes in the world. The Obama administration’s adherence to that regime meant that everyone had a seat at the table during development of resource management rules.

Complicated rulemakings took the administration years to complete, because agencies had to notify stakeholders that their interests could be affected, hold public meetings, and consult with affected tribes as well as industry players, trade associations and non-governmental organizations. Public comments had to be solicited, read and reviewed. To give one example, in developing a 2016 rule that limits wasteful and polluting emissions of natural gas from oil and gas operations on public lands, we received, read and responded to over 330,000 public comments.

Moreover, once a rule becomes final, the outreach process must be repeated, and regulated industries must be given a reasonable amount of time to come into compliance before the rule becomes effective.

This is a painstaking process. But this participatory regime serves a vital purpose: It ensures that agencies are aware of the many competing demands on public resources in a country as large, diverse and resource-rich as the United States. Now, the Trump administration seems intent on elevating development interests above all other resource uses.

For example, a recent Washington Post review showed that in March and April of this year, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke held more than a half-dozen meetings with executives from oil and gas firms and trade associations to discuss reversal of Obama-era policies. And a New York Times and ProPublica examination of more than 1,300 pages of handwritten sign-in sheets from Interior Department headquarters found that, from February through May, at least 58 representatives of the oil and gas industry signed their names on the agency’s visitor logs.

Back in early May, Zinke suspended upcoming meetings of the Bureau of Land Management’s 30 Resource Advisory Councils. For more than two decades, those councils have given diverse local interests, including recreationists, an opportunity to give feedback on BLM regulatory proposals and policy changes.

The Rocky Mountain Resource Advisory Council tours a solar energy zone in the San Luis Valley. The citizen group provided recommendations to the BLM on the management of public lands and resources in Colorado’s Royal Gorge, San Luis Valley and Gunnison area. Secretary Zinke suspended meetings for groups like this in May.
Bureau of Land Management

Zinke’s halfhearted “outreach” efforts are similarly one-sided. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, for instance, during the secretary’s May trip to Utah to “review” the designation of Bears Ears National Monument, he “traveled extensively with anti-monument heavyweights” yet held only two “meetings with pro-monument activists.” He also failed to hold a single public meeting.

Similarly, a recent Interior Department call for comments on reforming agency regulations asked only for suggestions of regulations to be thrown out or revised. The call provided regulatory opponents with a checklist of rationales for deregulation, yet offered no similar guidelines to backers of regulations.

In short, our natural resources laws have not gone astray; what has gone astray is our commitment to protecting our natural resources and our public lands from uncontrolled energy development. This administration’s disdain for open and participatory rulemaking is unlawful and undermines our democracy.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.