Trump weakens states’ veto power over energy projects

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The Trump administration has curbed US states’ power to veto energy infrastructure projects, drawing praise from fossil fuel industries for a move that could make it easier to build pipelines and export terminals across the country.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday reinterpreted provisions in the federal Clean Water Act that state governors had used to stymie projects targeted by climate campaigners. The statute requires state approval for projects with the potential to pollute waterways.

New York state has invoked the act to deny clean-water permits for natural gas pipelines. The state of Oregon blocked the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export terminal citing the provision. Coastal Washington state rejected a terminal that would have exported coal mined in landlocked Wyoming. 

Energy companies argued the states were abusing a clause in the water law to obstruct projects they opposed for other reasons. 

Andrew Wheeler, EPA administrator, said the agency was returning the certification process to its “original purpose, which is to review potential impacts that discharges from federally permitted projects may have on water resources, not to indefinitely delay or block critically important infrastructure.” 

The rule comes just over a year after President Donald Trump signed an executive order aiming to streamline reviews of energy projects. In January he proposed making it easier for projects to pass scrutiny under the National Environmental Policy Act, a statute that protects habitats and landscapes. 

The rule could shift the balance of power between states and the federal government.

“States have the knowledge and the expertise to uphold water quality standards,” said Basil Seggos, commissioner of the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation. “This action is nothing short of a federal power grab that would strip New York and all states of our authority to protect clean water and public health.” 

The National Governors Association, a bipartisan group, had raised concerns that EPA would affect states’ authority over water quality, though it had no comment on Monday.

The regulation forces states to act on certification requests within a year in an attempt to end drawn-out reviews for project developers. It also limits the scope of state certifications to projects that may result in “point source” pollution of US waterways, not more dispersed environmental impacts. 

Alex Oehler, interim chief executive of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, supported the rule, saying it “clarifies the roles of federal, state and tribal authorities.”

Wyoming filed a Supreme Court petition over Washington state’s blocking of the Millennium Bulk coal export terminal on the Pacific coast. “This rule will help ensure certain states can no longer abuse the water certification process for political purposes,” said John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who chairs the Senate environment and public works committee. 

New York state in 2016 denied water permits for the $1bn Constitution pipeline, which would have carried shale gas from Pennsylvania to north-eastern states. After years of litigation, lead developer Williams Companies cancelled the project in February. 

The states of New York and New Jersey last month denied water permits for Williams’ North-east Supply Enhancement project to deliver gas to New York City through a pipeline that would run partially under water. New York said Williams had failed to demonstrate how it would protect resources including clam beds in Raritan Bay, which lies between the two states. 

The new rule “makes a mockery of this EPA’s claimed respect for ‘co-operative federalism’,” said Jon Devine, director of federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental campaign group.

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