THE LIGHTBULB

The Trump administration just put its finishing touches on a new policy scaling back which waterways fall under federal protection, a move long called for by rural landowners and businesses but one vehemently opposed by nearly every environmental group in the country.  

The final rule, issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday, represents the culmination of a three-year push by the Trump administration to reverse an Obama-era rule giving federal regulators much broader authority to curb water pollution. It is part of a larger effort to rewrite or repeal dozens of environmental regulations issued under the last administration.  

And it hands a major policy win for farmers, construction firms, and oil and gas companies, just as the president braces for a bruising reelection campaign and weathers an impeachment trial in the Senate in Washington.  

Speaking at the National Association of Home Builders International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler reassured the audience that the new rule will end the practice “of having to hire teams of attorneys to tell people how to use their own land" when trying to comply with clean water regulations.

“At EPA we are not regulating for the sake of regulating,” he said.  

An array of Republican office holders, as well as business leaders, hailed the move. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said the Obama era rule “inserted Washington into local decision making” and “put unfair restrictions on how farmers, ranchers, and landowners could use their property.”

But President Trump's critics contend that the narrower interpretation will mean waterways once protected under the 2015 rule could become dumping grounds for farmers or building sites for developers that will undermine water quality well beyond those sites.  

“By removing federal clean water protection from millions of miles of streams and more than half of the nation’s wetlands, this rule will result in more pollution, dirtier water, less certainty and higher costs for everyone except the upstream polluters the Trump Administration wants to protect," said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, in a statement. 

“It breaks the law and ignores the basic science that tells us our waterways are critically interconnected," he added.  

The 1972 Clean Water Act made it illegal to pollute so-called navigable waters without a permit. But what constitutes such waterways has been the question regulators, lobbyists, judges and members of Congress have wrestled over for decades.

The Trump administration's new rule, which goes into effect in two months, seeks to resolve the issue by writing a new definition of navigable waters: No longer covered under the law are streams that only flow when it rains. Also exempt are most wetlands separated from other larger bodies of water.  

For example, among the waters that will no longer fall under federal jurisdiction are the wetlands along the Ashley River in South Carolina, according to Geoff Gisler, who runs the clean water program at the Southern Environmental Law Center.  

“Right now, that particular area of the watershed is facing pressures from developers that want to build over streams and wetlands," Gisler said. "This new rule from the Trump administration allows those builders to both pollute and fill in valuable wetlands.”  

In a draft report released last month, a group of EPA’s independent science advisers cautioned that the rollback “neglects established science” that shows how contamination of groundwater, wetlands and waterways can spread to drinking water supplies.

The Obama administration sought to expand the reach of the Clean Water Act over ponds, streams, wetlands and ditches that feed into larger bodies of water in order to preserve swaths of wetlands crucial for providing habitat for animals and protecting drink-water supplies. But several Republican-controlled states, led by former former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, sued the Obama administration for what they say as an illegal federal overreach that unnecessarily burdened businesses.

The courts ultimately had blocked the rule in 28 states before its repeal. Pruitt would go on to serve as Trump’s first EPA administrator before being succeeding by Wheeler in 2018

Noting that the Obama administration claimed its rule was about protecting water, Wheeler said Thursday: “But it was really about power. Power in the hands of the federal government, over homebuilders and developers.”

So just how many waterways will be impacted by the new rule? In his remarks in Las Vegas, Wheeler said that the agency did not know exactly how many miles of streams or acres of wetlands will be excluded from federal protection — and that any estimates activists provide are inaccurate.

Jon Devine, a water policy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that lack of data “raises the question: If you don’t know what the rule is going to do, why the heck are you doing it?”

An internal EPA analysis from 2017, obtained by the publication E&E News, does suggest an answer: Nearly a fifth of all streams and more than half of all wetland acreage will no longer be protected by federal regulators under the new rule, according to the report.

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

POWER PLAYS

— The exodus of federal scientists under Trump: Hundreds of scientists have been pushed out of the federal government, sidelined or muted since the beginning of Trump’s tenure. The mass departures have been “fueled broadly by administration policies that have diminished the role of science as well as more specific steps, such as the relocation of agencies away from the nation’s capital,” The Washington Post’s Annie Gowen, Juliet Eilperin, Ben Guarino and Andrew Ba Tran report. “While the administration has come under fire for prioritizing the concerns of industry at the expense of science in government decisions, the cumulative effects are just beginning to appear after four years of Trump in the White House.” 

  • By the numbers: A fifth of high-level appointee positions in science are vacant. At the EPA, almost 700 scientists have left in the past three years, with only 350 replacements hired.
  • Here’s what the impact looks like: An Agriculture Department office in Kansas City, Mo., has a data model that could help farmers manage the impact of climate change on their crops. But the federal researcher who created it — and the only one who knows how to access and use the model — left his job rather than relocate.

— More Trump officials are taking jabs at Greta Thunberg: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin mocked the Swedish climate activist during a news conference at the World Economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, suggesting the teenager should go to college and study economics before making recommendations to global leaders. 

  • What he said: “Is she the chief economist or who is she? I’m confused,” he joked in response to a question about Thunberg’s calls for corporations to divest from fossil fuels. “It’s a joke. After she goes and studies economics in college, she can go back and explain that to us.”
  • What she said: "My gap year ends in August, but it doesn’t take a college degree in economics to realize that our remaining 1.5° carbon budget and ongoing fossil fuel subsidies and investments don’t add up,” she tweeted in response to Mnuchin's jab.
  • What an economist said: The Post’s Philip Bump reached out to Gernot Wagner, an economist who has a joint bachelor's degree in economics and environmental science in public policy from Harvard University, master’s degrees from Stanford University and Harvard, and a PhD from Harvard. “According to Wagner, Thunberg doesn’t need to go much further than Economics 101 to make her case,” Bump writes. Wagner said: “It’s Economics 101 that tells us that when there is a difference between private costs and costs to society. That difference ought to be included in one’s decision-making. … And when I say ought, of course, the private individual won’t; it’s up to somebody in a position of power — let’s say the secretary of Treasury — to want to guide economic policy in the right direction.”

— Angela Merkel says addressing climate “could become a question of survival”: In a speech in Davos, the German chancellor said there’s pressure for world leaders to take climate action because the “question of being able to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement could become a question of survival.” She urged leaders to help move Europe to “climate neutral” by 2050. 

  • To quote: “These are obviously transformations of a gigantic historical scale,” Merkel said. “These transformations basically mean that in the next 30 years we have to leave behind the entire way of business and life that we got used to during the industrial age.”

— FERC commissioner McNamee announces exit: Bernard McNamee, a Republican member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, unexpectedly announced he won’t seek another term after his tenure ends June 30. “McNamee, who joined FERC in December 2018 after a stint in the U.S. Department of Energy, said he needs to take a break from D.C. government work in order to spend more time with his family,” Law 360 reports.

  • Why it matters: His departure means there's a chance the agency will lose quorum for the second time in three years; McNamee is one of three commissioners, which is the minimum amount necessary to keep quorum.

— EPA docs don’t support Wheeler’s climate claim: The EPA didn't provide evidence to back a claim from Wheeler that “most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out.” He made the comments during a CBS interview last year, prompting environmental group Sierra Club to submit a Freedom of Information Act request and file a lawsuit to push the agency to hand over any documents or research that support Wheeler’s statement, the Hill reports.

  • The response: Documents related to Wheeler's interview preparation, "obtained by the Sierra Club and shared with The Hill, never mentions the words climate change nor does it offer any insight into what scientific evidence might back his claim." “Trump’s EPA just admitted what everyone already knew: Andrew Wheeler invented these false claims out of thin air as part of his ongoing work to protect the fossil fuel industry from accountability for driving and exacerbating the climate crisis,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said.
  • What EPA says: The agency said it “responded to a narrow request for agency records under the FOIA, not to a request to prove or disprove a scientific statement. ... It is misleading to portray the agency’s response to a narrow portion of a document request as the full extent of the Agency’s or the Administrator’s scientific knowledge on a subject. In fact, it is inaccurate to state that the documents do not demonstrate any backing for the statement.”

— More on the disappearance of a well-known advocate for monarch butterflies: Homero Gómez González, an advocate at the forefront of the battle to protect against illegal logging in North America’s premier monarch butterfly habitat, disappeared last week. That was a month after he met with The Post’s Kevin Sieff. “By the time we met, he thought that he had prevailed — and he spent as much time as he could with the butterflies he had helped save, a thundering, broad-shouldered man in a cloud of orange and black monarchs,” Sieff writes.

  • Latest in the investigation: Authorities have not revealed any theories, though many in the town of Rosario, Mexico, believe he was kidnapped by loggers. “On Tuesday, investigators interrogated 53 municipal police officers about his disappearance, according to the attorney general of Michoacan state. A search team using rescue dogs has been dispatched to comb the area. No arrests have been made,” he adds. Magdalena Guzmán, the spokeswoman for the Michoacan attorney general’s office said they “can’t disregard any possibilities” and said Gómez González’s family had received calls demanding money for his safe return.

— U.S. firefighters killed in air tanker crash amid Australia fires: Three U.S. fire crew members died while battling the ongoing fires in southeastern Australia after their California-based air tanker crashed, the Los Angeles Times reports.The three crew members were of Great Falls, Mont., Buckeye, Ariz. and Navarre, Fla. "We extend our sincere condolences to the families of the crew, their friends and loved ones, and our own CAL FIRE family who worked, fought fires, and trained with the crew of Tanker 134,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said in a statement. 

— The Doomsday Clock is closer to midnight: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is moving the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, the symbolic hour that marks the end of the world. It’s the first time in 70 years that the clock has passed the two-minute mark, underlining the growing risk of nuclear war, climate change and disinformation, The Post’s Hannah Knowles and Abby Ohlheiser write. 

  • The reasoning: While the group has traditionally focused on the availability of nuclear weapons and the prospect that world powers could use them, the latest announcement “also underscored changes over the years in the threats tracked by the Doomsday Clock, as the Bulletin’s scientists express growing concern about the state of the planet."

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Brookings Institution holds an event on climate threats and climate justice.

EXTRA MILEAGE

— The first sunrise in 65 days: The sun was set to make a brief appearance in Utqiagvik, Alaska, on Thursday afternoon, the first time the sun rose there in 65 days. "The city, home to about 4,500, has been in the nonstop dark of 'polar night' since Nov. 19," The Washington Post's Matthew Cappucci writes