By Ramsey Scott
April 12, 2019 - An executive order from President Donald Trump that could help pave the way for coal exports garnered praise from Wyoming leadership this week. But critics see it as a way to lessen local control over issues of water quality in favor of industry’s bottom line.
In this March 28, 2017, file photo, a train near hauls coal mined from Wyoming's Powder River Basin near Bill, Wyoming.
Photo by Wyoming Tribune Eagle
One of the executive orders Trump signed Wednesday is aimed at preventing states from using the Clean Water Act to delay or kill energy projects. The most pertinent example for Wyoming is Washington state stopping the construction of a coal export terminal in 2017.
Gov. Mark Gordon and the state Legislature have cited Washington’s refusal to let that project move forward as a major disruption of Wyoming’s economy.
“I am delighted President Trump issued his Executive Order directing the Environmental Protection Agency to modernize guidance on the application of Section 401 of the Clean Water Act,” Gordon said in a statement Wednesday. “I stand with governors across the land in asserting our states’ rights to access markets foreign and domestic, as well as to protect the water, air and environment of our respective states.”
Gordon said Washington state has abused Section 401 to prevent Wyoming and other states from benefiting from global trade.
“In issuing this executive order, President Trump sets the stage to help correct the misapplication of the Clean Water Act that has been used inappropriately by some states to stymie the industries and commerce of others, and I commend him for that,” Gordon said. “Far from weakening environmental regulation, this executive order re-centers the application of the law on its original purpose as a tool to protect our water quality, not a platform for electioneering.”
The move was praised by Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., as well. Both of Wyoming’s senators are also currently sponsoring a bill in the Senate to review the Clean Water Act and prevent it from being used as a tool to fight energy development.
“It is a welcome change to see the federal government taking steps to help encourage American energy development, instead of looking for more ways to throw up red tape to block it,” Enzi said. “Projects like the Millennium Bulk Terminal in Washington would provide a boost not only for Wyoming’s coal mines, but for America’s economy as a whole.”
Wyoming has supported private companies’ efforts to sue Washington to allow the coal export terminal to move forward. But Gordon recently vetoed House Bill 251, sponsored by state Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, which authorized the Legislature to sue to allow Wyoming’s coal to be exported through Washington state. While Gordon said he agreed with the goal of the bill, he didn’t want to create redundant legal efforts that could cause confusion later on.
The Western Governors Association, of which Wyoming is a member, expressed some reservations about the executive order. The group praised the executive order’s direction to the EPA to work with states on developing new policies for water quality certification, but expressed worry about the potential ramifications on a state’s right to administer its portion of the Clean Water Act.
“Western governors are eager to work with the Administration to advance efficient environmental review, siting and permitting processes for energy infrastructure that do not shorten timelines for state input and consultation, or compromise natural resource, wildlife, environmental quality or cultural values,” the group said in response to the executive order.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, whose state is also a member of the WGA, said in a joint statement with Washington’s attorney general that he was vehemently opposed to the executive order. He promised to fight the order in court.
Inslee is currently running for the Democratic nomination for president on a platform primarily focused on climate change.
“The president’s action (Wednesday) is an unprecedented assault on the right and obligation of every state to protect their waters and their communities,” Inslee said. “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.
“We stand with governors and attorneys general across the country in opposing this dangerous attack on our environment and our families’ right to clean water. We intend to challenge any attempt by the administration to illegally constrain Washington’s authority to protect our state’s natural resources.”