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Trump Administration Rolls Back Obama-Era Water Rule


More reversals today in U.S. policy on protecting the environment. The Trump administration rolled back a 2015 rule that had expanded federal protections to millions of acres of wetlands and waterways around the country. And U.S. officials announced that they plan to sell oil and gas leases in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. NPR's Nathan Rott is here to explain. He's at our studios at NPR West. Hey there, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So the water rule that has been repealed, what was it? What exactly might this mean for water protections?

ROTT: So, like all things involving water policy, there's a lot of history here that is both complicated and controversial. Basically, the 2015 rule that's been repealed tried to define the scope of the Clean Water Act, which waters in the U.S. should get federal protection. The Clean Water Act is sort of vague. It largely prohibits pollution in what's called navigable waters.

KELLY: Navigable - I mean, what does that exactly mean? You can get a boat up there or what?

ROTT: Exactly, yeah, think big enough to float a boat.


ROTT: But there's been a number of lawsuits, Supreme Court cases and other efforts to try to figure out how far those protections should expand from a navigable water. So obviously the law says you can't just pollute directly in, say, the Missouri River. But does that mean you also can't pollute in the small stream that feeds into the Missouri or the wetland along its path?

The Obama rule aimed for more protection. You know, waterways are connected, so it said protections should encompass that bigger network. But that definition was quickly challenged by developers, farmers and mining interests who saw it as a federal overreach that slowed development. Andrew Wheeler today, head of the EPA, called it an egregious land grab. And because of that, it was one of the top targets of the Trump administration when it came into office.

KELLY: What is the likelihood that this rollback is going to be quickly challenged, challenged in court by people who by - people who are not happy with this rollback?

ROTT: I mean, it's undoubted. There is - every environmental policy and every environmental rollback that the Trump administration has looked at has been challenged in court - or not, I shouldn't say every, but most have been challenged in court. And a number of groups are already threatening to challenge this one.

What's interesting, though, is what this does right now is it's going to revert federal water protections back to where they were in 1986. And I should say that even will be a little short-lived because the Trump EPA is currently writing its own water rule which they say will be finalized by the end of the year.

We saw an earlier draft of that proposal, and it would greatly reduce the amount of waterways that get federal protection. Millions of acres of wetlands, for example, would no longer be protected. Ephemeral or intermittent streams - you know, waterways that only flow when there's been precipitation or rain - those would no longer be protected. So it's a big reduction we're looking at, and like you said, one that will undoubtedly be challenged in court.

KELLY: And put this in context for us, Nate. It seems like every other week we're talking and you're telling me about another environmental regulation that's being rolled back. How many times has this happened under the Trump administration?

ROTT: Well, during the announcement of this water rule repeal today, Andrew Wheeler said his agency has completed 46 deregulatory actions since Trump took office. And he said an additional 45 are forthcoming. And he was celebrating that. Of course, the EPA is just one agency.

There's been many rollbacks and reversals at agencies like the Interior Department. So this is definitely part of a bigger trend. But again, it's hard to know how many of these will stick. I think that will depend on the courts and, frankly, whether or not the Trump administration gets another four years in office.

KELLY: And before I let you go, Nate, real quick - this other development in Alaska and the announcement that oil and gas leases are going to be up for sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What's going on there?

ROTT: Right. So it's a major reversal. Republicans have tried and failed for nearly four decades to open up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development. Congress actually changed the law to allow that in 2017. Today, we learned the Trump administration is going to open nearly all of the refuge's coastal plain to leasing - very controversial, very likely to be challenged in court as well.

KELLY: Thank you, Nate.

ROTT: Thank you.

KELLY: That's NPR's Nathan Rott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.