Obama Administration Crosses Off a Big Item on Its Safeguard To-Do List, But Much Remains to be Done

James Goodwin

May 27, 2015

Unless you’re living under a rock or are a FIFA executive official being indicted for criminal conspiracy, you’ve no doubt heard by now that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has at long last released its final rule establishing a clear regulatory definition that, consistent with both the previous court decisions and the best available science, delineates which water systems are covered by the Clean Water Act.  The rule was included in a recent CPR Issue Alert, highlighting 13 essential regulatory actions that the Obama Administration should commit to completing during its remaining time in office.

The rule would seem to provide everything that conservative opponents of regulation would want: regulatory certainty and efficient use of agency funds (i.e., by preventing the EPA from having to undertake wasteful case-by-case analyses of which water bodies warrant federal protection).  Yet, it has been a lightning rod of controversy, attracting specious claims that the rulemaking represent a nefarious attempt by power-drunk, faceless bureaucrats in Washington, DC, to assert federal control over all land use in the United States.

Thanks to these ceaseless attacks, the rulemaking has been a long time coming.  It’s a little late, but I am nonetheless relieved to see it finally cross the finish line.

Could the final rule have been better?  Sure.  For example, the final rule doesn’t provide automatic protections for certain categories of geographically isolated water bodies that are nonetheless critical to the ecological health of larger streams and rivers, such as prairie potholes and vernal pools.  Even the EPA’s science advisors said the agency had a legally sufficient scientific justification for extending automatic protections to these water bodies.  Nevertheless, the rule marks a significant improvement over the status quo, and no doubt represents one of the biggest environmental achievements of the Obama Administration.

This is no time for the Obama Administration to rest on its laurels, however.  Much work remains to be done—including tackling climate change and protecting workers from silica dust and harmful pesticide exposure—and the time for getting it done is quickly running out.  And for those out there keeping score, pursuing this agenda aggressively doesn’t mean that the Obama Administration is being “combative” or “doubling down” on executive action.  Rather, carrying out these actions to protect people and the environment is precisely what he was elected to do.  It’s not about “winning,” “scoring political points,” or “thumbing his nose” at industry and the Administration’s Republican opponents; it’s about doing the people’s business.   I hope the Obama Administration moves with all due urgency to continue getting this business done.

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