House lawmakers are worried an executive memorandum issued by President Barack Obama last year could give bureaucrats “sweeping new statutory authority” to block energy projects that don’t align with the president’s green agenda.
The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing Wednesday, calling into question Obama’s November memorandum, which tells federal agencies to “leave America’s natural resources in better condition than when we inherited them.” Lawmakers worry some of the language used in the order will vastly expand executive power.
“The Memorandum appears to create sweeping new statutory authority through unilateral executive action, and represents a substantial re-write of public land use and water policy by the Obama Administration,” according to a memo put out by Republicans on the committee ahead of the hearing.
In particular, Republicans worry Obama’s requirement of agencies set a “net benefit goal or, at a minimum, a no net loss goal” for “important, scarce, or sensitive” natural resources. Lawmakers say these terms are never defined in the memorandum and could grant federal regulators the power to stymie development wherever they see fit.
“The new ‘net benefit’ standard exceeds statutory standards set in law by Congress, and represents a substantial raising of the threshold that will likely result in the rejection of a host of economic and energy-related projects that would otherwise have been approved under the law, and potentially increase the cost and regulatory burden for those projects that are already permitted,” Republicans wrote in the memo.
While federal agencies are still crafting guidance documents on exactly how Obama’s order will be implemented, it does create a more stringent standard for permitting projects across the country.
For example, new coal mines or drilling sites may be vetoed by the Department of the Interior because they can’t meet the “no net loss” goal set out by Obama. Likewise, the Environmental Protection Agency may strike down mines needing discharge permits under the Clean Water Act.
Indeed, Republicans are already angry with the Obama administration for long permitting times for oil and gas drilling projects on federal lands. Lawmakers have been particularly angry since energy production on federal lands has been falling while production has been booming on state and private lands.
“Legal analysts believe that as a result of this new standard, projects that would otherwise be appropriate for approval under existing public lands statutes and guidance can now be denied approval if they do not meet the new, ambiguous standard,” Republicans wrote.
The Interior Department, however, issued a similar mitigation strategy in 2014 to allegedly provide greater certainty to those looking to develop federal lands. And a department official testifying before Congress Wednesday assured lawmakers the government was not trying to hamper development.
“The Department is working to ensure mitigation is applied consistently, predictably, and effectively, so that permit applicants and developers can proceed with projects that achieve their need while protecting our Nation’s valuable natural and cultural resources,” Michael Bean, a top U.S. Fish and Wildlife department official, told Congress, according to his prepared testimony.
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