Obama’s Alaska regs could cling long into Trump’s term

Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media
Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media

As a candidate, President-elect Donald Trump said he’d liberate business by striking as much as 70 percent of federal regulations. Trump vowed to dump Obama-era policies and unleash the energy industry to produce more oil, gas and coal. It would seem like good times for natural resource extraction in Alaska. But Trump will find some policies easier to dismantle than others.

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President Obama’s policies for Alaska are embedded in a variety of documents: executive orders, memoranda, agency action and formal rules. Some can be undone with the stroke of a pen.

Consider the Pebble mine, a massive project proposed for southwest Alaska that opponents say is a threat to the salmon runs of Bristol Bay. Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said it’s unlikely Trump would want to continue the EPA’s efforts to block the mine using the so-called “veto authority” in the Clean Water Act.

“Mr. Trump campaigned on halting and reversing EPA overreach across the country,” Heatwole said.

Heatwole said he doesn’t know if Trump has specifically taken a position on Pebble but he said he sees no reason why Trump’s EPA wouldn’t just reverse course.

“Certainly, the EPA’s preemptive actions against Pebble — you could probably call it a poster child in that regard, in terms of EPA overreach,” he said.

Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo also says there’s nothing stopping the EPA from making a U-turn on Pebble.

“Yes, I think it’s entirely possible that EPA in a Trump administration may choose not to continue the process,” Waldo said.

Waldo hopes Pebble won’t get the financing it needs to proceed, but if it does, Waldo points out Pebble will still need federal permits.

“There are laws that protect the resources in Alaska and the United States, and there are procedures the agencies are required to go through in making changes,” Waldo said. “And we will be vigilant in making sure the laws are obeyed and the procedures are followed.”

President Obama has issued hundreds of executive orders and memos that Trump can undo once he takes office, just as Obama did after his inauguration. But some of Obama’s Alaska policy is enshrined in formal rules, and they’re more firmly set. Among them are restrictions on predator hunting in Alaska’s national preserves and refuges, which opponents see as Obama intruding on Alaska’s right to manage fish and game, and Arctic drilling standards. The so-called WOTUS rule, defining which waters are subject to the Clean Water Act, would also have a big impact in Alaska.

“It takes a lot of work to overturn a policy that has already been set by a rule,” said Tom Lorenzen, a Washington D.C. lawyer at the firm Crowell & Moring who used to work for the government, defending EPA regulations.

Generally, when a president wants to alter or toss a regulation, agencies have to go through the same laborious rulemaking procedure it took to get the reg on the books, with notices, public comment periods and a lot of documentation. It can take a year or more. And then, Lorenzen says, whatever group that liked the rule as it was will likely to sue.

“Well, I’ll tell you, I’ve been through two transitions: from Clinton to Bush, and from Bush to Obama, both inside the Department of Justice, and (repealing regulations) is not as easy as people might lead one to believe,” he said.

Often, the administration prevails years later. Or never. Case in point: The Roadless Rule for national forests. President Bill Clinton’s regulation lives on, despite the Bush administration’s best efforts to gut it.  We’ll see if President Trump takes a stab.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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