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Trump’s rollback of Obama-era rules hits setback in court

July 4, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
The Environmental Protection Agency cannot delay implementation of a rule limiting methane emissions from new oil and gas drilling wells, according to an appeals court ruling on Monday. William Brangham speaks with Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post about the obstacle for the Trump administration’s efforts to reverse environmental regulations and the wider implications.
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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Next: a legal setback for the Trump administration and its effort to reverse environmental regulations from the Obama presidency.

Yesterday, an appeals court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency cannot delay implementation of a rule limiting methane emissions from new oil and gas wells. The court said the EPA can rewrite the rule, but it can’t take the shortcut of suspending enforcement.

Juliet Eilperin is a reporter for The Washington Post, and she’s been covering this story.

Welcome back to the NewsHour.

JULIET EILPERIN, The Washington Post: Of course. Thanks.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Tell me, what did the court, in essence, rule?

JULIET EILPERIN: What the court said is that it wouldn’t necessarily stand in the way if the new administration wanted to rewrite an existing rule on the oil and gas industry, but the administration couldn’t simply suspend compliance with this rule. It had to go through a laborious public comment process if it wanted to do that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, this rule is about methane, which, as you have reported and many others, that methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas. I think it’s 25 times more potent with regards to warming than CO2 is.

What did this prior, this Obama administration rule actually do?

JULIET EILPERIN: It imposed new restrictions on oil and gas wells that are either new or modified, that if the oil and gas industry was going to create a new well or modify an existing one, it had to have tighter restrictions to lower the releases of this greenhouse gas as kind of a way that the administration was looking to reduce these emissions across the oil and gas industry over time to slow down climate change.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: EPA Administrator Pruitt and many in the industry argue that these rules — to enact these rules was too expensive, that they also overlap with state rules that govern methane.

And the EPA also argued that this — their move wasn’t subject to judicial oversight, which I take it the judges were not that happy to read.

JULIET EILPERIN: Yes, on a 2-1 ruling — and it’s worth noting that the majority were two Democratic appointees, the dissenter was appointed by a Republican — said that, essentially, by doing this, by suspending the rule, it’s essentially revoking it altogether, and that is subject to judicial rule.

They also took aim with the argument that the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Petroleum Institute were making that industry didn’t have sufficient input into the rule. And the argument was, we can point out all these ways in which you had to comment and that the rule addressed your concerns, maybe not to your liking, but they did tackle those questions back when they issued this rule in 2016.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This move by the EPA was just one of many, many attempts by Scott Pruitt and the EPA to push back on Obama era regulations that they don’t like.

Does what the court ruled in this particular case, in your mind, have any bearing on those other attempts that they’re making in other realms to roll back regulations?

JULIET EILPERIN: This ruling appears to have implications, not only for Scott Pruitt and the EPA, but whether you’re talking about the Interior Department, the Labor Department, other agencies.

These are always where there’s an effort under way to revoke these Obama era rules. And what the court said is, at least for now, your task is harder than you thought it was. You can’t just freeze them in place, and you’re going to face serious obstacles in your way, because there will be folks on the outside challenging it. And we think they have merit and that you need to take a different course if you’re going to revisit some of these rules.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: With regards to other environmental regulations, most notably, the president recently backed out of the Paris climate accord, or said that the U.S. would back out of it.

And I know that Scott Pruitt was among many arguing for that. There was a big debate within the administration, as you have reported. Does this give you a sense that, barring today’s — barring yesterday’s ruling, rather, that Scott Pruitt has really become one of the more influential Cabinet members, in as far as his ability to do the things that the president wants done?

JULIET EILPERIN: Absolutely.

I think that folks who are a fan of what Scott Pruitt are doing and those who oppose him would say that he’s clearly emerged as one of the most effective Cabinet members. We have seen him already take action on a slew of policies. It’s nearly 30 rules that — or major decisions that he has reversed in some ways.

And so what we’re seeing, is even though he only has a handful of appointees in place at this point, he has managed to manipulate the leaders of power quite effectively in a way that certainly it is taking some of his counterparts in other departments longer to master.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, thanks so much.

JULIET EILPERIN: Thank you, William.

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