The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Senate just voted to overturn another environmental rule — sending it to Trump’s desk

A corral is shown in an area known as Little Finland on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016, in Gold Butte, Nevada. (Photo by Ronda Churchill for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

An Obama-era rule aimed at modernizing the management of public lands is one step closer to being repealed. The Senate voted Tuesday to overturn an Interior Department regulation known as the Planning 2.0 rule in a move that critics say hands too much influence to the oil and gas industry and takes away input from local communities. From here, the resolution will go to President Trump, who has previously indicated his intent to sign it.

Planning 2.0, which was finalized late last year by the Bureau of Land Management, was intended to shorten and streamline the process associated with federal land use planning, while making it more transparent and accessible by allowing for earlier and greater public input on proposed management plans. It was touted by BLM officials as a way to make faster decisions that best reflect the concerns and priorities of the communities they affect.  

Now, some groups are arguing that the rule’s repeal could plunge federal land management, particularly in the Western states, back into an outdated system that fails to adequately take public concerns into account.

“Republican members of Congress want to silence the public voice on the management of public lands,” said Phil Hanceford, assistant director of the Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Group, in an interview with The Washington Post. “It’s a simple rule that allows for more transparency and more public opportunity for participation in the management of our public lands, period. And because of special interests getting involved, the Congress essentially wants to roll that back.”  

If President Trump signs the resolution, the Planning 2.0 rule would become the second major Obama-era environmental regulation to meet its demise under the Congressional Review Act, a law that allows Congress a finite period of time to overturn federal rules after they have been finalized. Last month, he signed a resolution overturning a regulation that would have blocked coal mining companies from engaging in any activities that could permanently pollute streams and other drinking water sources.

Proposed rollbacks of several more environmental rules remain in the pipeline, including a controversial regulation aimed at curbing fugitive methane emissions from oil and gas operations on public lands, which is expected to go to a vote in the Senate as early as this week. Dozens of other regulations across a variety of federal agencies have the potential to come to the chopping block. According to one tally, maintained by a former staff member at the Congressional Research Service, at least 49 resolutions for repeal have already been introduced, and three have been passed into law, including the stream protection rule. Overall, the White House has expressed explicit support for the repeal of at least 10 regulations.

In a statement, the Wilderness Society’s president, Jamie Williams, added that the Planning 2.0 rule’s repeal may make it easier to implement management plans that allow for increased drilling on public lands, which many environmental groups have opposed. “Congress is bent on using its power to permanently impede public input on where and how often we drill on our public lands,” he said.

Other Western-focused groups have been divided about the rule’s potential effects — in fact, they seem to have a fundamental disagreement about whether it would have increased or decreased the weight of input from local communities.  

Ethan Lane, executive director of the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a trade group for cattle ranchers and beef producers, supported the rule’s repeal, suggesting that it would have actually made it more difficult for stakeholders to make their opinions heard. Although the Planning 2.0 rule was designed to allow greater and earlier public comments — an effort Lane said he believed was made with “the best of intentions of BLM to streamline the planning process” — the shortened turnaround time on rule-making could have the opposite effect, he said.

“By the time you get your first bite of the apple, it has been picked over by experts and by biologists and planners, and a million dollars have been spent and months of time and effort have gone into several hundred pages of documentation, and you’re give 30 days as a layman landowner to come up with a substantive response of your primary concerns,” Lane said. “It’s incredibly daunting.”  

Lane also suggested that the rule could have caused a shift to a stricter, more preservation-focused land management philosophy. He pointed to some recent comments made by newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who remarked last Friday that some public lands are better managed under the philosophy of naturalist John Muir, in which humans strive to keep their footprint to a minimum, and others are better managed under the philosophy of forester and politician Gifford Pinchot, in which resources are used and renewed by humans.

I think that’s exactly right,” Lane said. “Our concern is that, in this case, Planning 2.0 was running the risk of moving BLM back towards the Muir model.”  

In fact, this is the kind of approach that many environmental groups have called for in the West, pushing back against proposals for increased energy development or agricultural expansion on public lands. Hanceford, of the Wilderness Society, suggested that the Senate’s vote speaks to a disproportionate amount of power given to industry stakeholders.  

And other Western landowners argue that the rule would have given them a greater voice in federal decision-making.

Under the former rule … there’s really not been much transparency or opportunity for landowners to be involved early on in the planning process,” said Lesli Allison, executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance. “We didn’t know where those decisions came from, who was forming them, and certainly landowners didn’t have an opportunity to be part of an early planning process.”

Allison added that there’s a great diversity of opinion among Western landowners about how their environments should be managed, including on issues such as energy development, and that improving the system for public input “absolutely should transcend partisan boundaries.”  

“What our landowners have experienced is that whether it’s energy development or any other kind of natural resource use, building relationships and creating opportunities for collaboration early in the planning process has been very helpful in resolving many of the conflicts,” she said. “These really are multiple-use landscapes, and their use really has to be thought through carefully from beginning to end.”