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Trump signs executive orders seeking to speed up oil and gas projects

President Trump signed on April 10 two executive orders to prevent states from blocking the construction of oil and gas pipelines. (Video: The Washington Post)

CROSBY, Tex. — President Trump signed a pair of executive orders on Wednesday seeking to make it easier for firms to build oil and gas pipelines and harder for state agencies to intervene, a move that drew immediate backlash from some state officials and environmental activists.

“Too often, badly needed energy infrastructure is being held back by special-interest groups, entrenched bureaucracies and radical activists,” Trump said during a visit to a union training center for operating engineers 25 miles outside of Houston. “The two executive orders that I’ll be signing in just a moment will fix this, dramatically accelerating energy infrastructure approvals.”

The executive action seeks to rein in states’ power by changing the implementation instructions, known as guidance, that are issued by federal agencies, according to one of the orders.

That order also requires the Transportation Department to change its rules to allow the shipment of liquefied natural gas by rail and tanker truck. And it seeks to limit shareholder ballot initiatives designed to alter companies’ policies on environmental and social issues. Trump’s order requires the Labor Department to examine whether retirement funds that pursue those investment strategies are meeting their responsibility to maximize returns.

A second order, focused on cross-border energy projects, would clarify that the president is solely responsible for approving or denying pipelines and other infrastructure that cross international boundaries. The secretary of state has previously played that role.

Critics said the president’s orders on pipelines would trample on authority delegated to the states under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act and other congressional legislation. That authority has been upheld twice by the Supreme Court. Trump’s move would benefit, among other companies, Energy Transfer, whose chief executive, Kelcy Warren, was a major contributor to Trump’s campaign.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said Wednesday that his state would challenge the president’s “dangerous attack” on the environment. Washington state blocked the construction of a coal terminal in 2017, citing environmental concerns.

“No amount of politicking will change the facts — states have full authority under the Clean Water Act to protect our waters and ensure the health and safety of our people,” Inslee, who is running for president, said in a statement. “Washington will not allow this or any presidential administration to block us from discharging that authority lawfully and effectively.”

Trump’s executive orders are a response to the oil and gas industry, which has complained that pipeline delays have slowed expanded production. Shale gas in Pennsylvania’s giant Marcellus formation has been unable to reach New England markets, and TransCanada has been unable to persuade the Nebraska Public Service Commission or federal courts to allow the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry low-quality crude oil produced in Canada’s tar sands region.

The American Petroleum Institute has supported congressional efforts to stop what it called “abuses” of Section 401 of the Clean Water Act.

“Outdated Federal guidance and regulations regarding section 401 of the Clean Water Act, however, are causing confusion and uncertainty and are hindering the development of energy infrastructure,” the order states.

The construction of oil and gas pipelines has become a flash point for the environmental movement, which has launched high-profile protests and court battles to block pipelines not only for concerns about local pollution but also as part of a strategy to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Burning those fossil fuels contributes to climate change, and climatologists say the administration should be discouraging, not encouraging, more widespread use of them. The scientific consensus is that global carbon dioxide emissions must be cut in half by 2030 to avoid severe global warming.

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) halted work on a pipeline project by the Canadian company Enbridge, while the state attorney general said a law enabling it was unconstitutional. Separately, Enbridge is expected to go to court in Minnesota to restart another line.

In Virginia, the Southern Environmental Law Center has won a string of legal victories that have disrupted work on a $7 billion, 600-mile gas pipeline.

Trump specifically called out New York state for blocking a natural gas pipeline over environmental concerns.

“We need help with New York,” he said. “New York is hurting the country because they are not allowing us to get these pipelines through.”

State leaders have urged Trump not to try to override state agencies. Doing so, said an earlier letter from the Western Governors’ Association, “would inflict serious harm to the division of state and federal authorities established by Congress.” The group said the states had “exercised their authority . . . efficiently, effectively and equitably.”

After seeing the executive order, the governors’ association said any changes to the Section 401 water-quality certification program “must preserve states’ vital authority under a system of cooperative federalism.” It added that Western states “have unique expertise and insights.”

“This is a disastrous idea, one that exposes the hypocrisy of the Trump administration and threatens to undercut the ability of state leaders to determine how best to protect their rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement Tuesday.

The NRDC said “when it comes to weakening protections in any number of areas, Republicans in Washington often use the excuse that state leaders should have the broadest authority possible. However, once states take action to protect their environment, these so-called federalists balk.”

The executive order Trump signed requires the transportation secretary to submit reports to the president assessing the economic effect of the inability to transport natural gas and other domestic energy to New England and to the West Coast.

Trump spoke Wednesday in oil- and gas-rich Texas at the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) International Training and Education Center in Crosby, Tex. Construction unions have been strong supporters of infrastructure measures, and the president is seeking to boost his support among blue-collar workers before the 2020 election. Many of the people who attended the official event were wearing hard hats and construction gear, and the vast majority of voters in Crosby cast their ballots for Trump in 2016.

As Democrats seek to cater to union members and working-class white voters who helped power Trump’s 2016 victory, Trump used the official event in Texas to do a little politicking. He told the crowd, “I also know who most of you voted for, and I appreciate it.”

“American labor will always have a friend in the White House,” Trump said. “You are the men and women who get up every day and make this country run and frankly, make this country great.”

The president also invited Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush onstage, before implicitly attacking the rest of Bush’s family.

“This is the only Bush that likes me. This is the only one,” said Trump, who defeated former Florida governor Jeb Bush during the 2016 presidential primary and has criticized several members of the Bush family. “Come here, I want to meet you. Truly, this is the Bush that got it right.”

During his speech, Trump repeated themes he’s sounded before, including U.S. energy “revival,” infrastructure and economic growth. And he claimed credit for the expansion of U.S. oil and gas production, saying that deregulation and streamlined permitting have spurred investment.

One of the nation’s biggest pipeline companies is Energy Transfer, developer of the controversial Dakota Access and Rover gas pipelines. Both lines were ultimately completed.

But not without a fight. Protests along the Dakota Access route lasted for weeks. And the Rover pipeline triggered a fight with Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency. The company reported 18 leaks and twice spilled large quantities of drilling fluids in two pristine Ohio wetlands while constructing a $4.2 billion natural gas pipeline. The drilling fluid — a mudlike substance used to lubricate and cool equipment — is not toxic. But the state EPA and environmental groups were worried that the two spills, which covered an area the size of 8½ football fields, could smother aquatic life in the wetlands.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission stopped work on the pipeline for a time but later let it proceed.

Energy Transfer chief executive Warren gave $100,000 to Trump’s campaign and $250,000 to his inaugural committee. Earlier, he had given $5 million to Rick Perry’s political action committee. Perry, then a presidential candidate, is now energy secretary.

While in Texas, Trump also visited San Antonio and Houston for political fundraisers for his reelection campaign.