G.O.P. Hurries to Slash Oil and Gas Rules, Ending Industries’ 8-Year Wait

G.O.P. Hurries to Slash Oil and Gas Rules, Ending Industries’ 8-Year Wait

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On Friday, with his own executive orders, Mr. Trump took up two more items on the list, including a call to rewrite major provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, legislation crafted by the Obama administration and passed by Congress in response to the 2008 financial meltdown.

Not since the Reagan administration has Washington moved so quickly to roll back or nullify so many federal regulations, one of the clearest signs of an abrupt shift of power in a government now under one-party control that has flipped the script of winners and losers.

“It is a big, fat victory, after all this time,” said Luke Popovich, a vice president at the National Mining Association, an industry trade group.



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A three-way alliance has now been formed among Congress, the Trump administration and industries that struggled to reverse what they saw as an out-of-control rush to regulate by the Obama administration.

This new alignment of power is causing alarm among not only environmental groups but also other — mostly liberal — advocates who have spent much of the past eight years pushing for new rules to cover Wall Street banks, broadband providers, teacher preparation requirements, prepaid credit cards and even companies that sell high-calorie foods in vending machines.

All of these measures, and many others, now stand a chance of being reversed, watered down or blocked.

“For the last several years, whenever Congress would concoct some way to roll back a rule protecting clean air or clean water or undermine the fight against climate change, we always felt confident as we had an adult in charge at the White House,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, an environmental group. “Now, what used to be a wish list of the oil and coal and gas industry has become the to-do list for Congress and the White House.”

For Republicans, these first moves are the easy part, made possible by a law that gives Congress the power to reverse regulations within 60 legislative days with a simple majority vote in the House and Senate. Other Republican efforts to exploit this 20-year-old law — which until this week had been used only once to nullify a new rule — were thwarted five times with vetoes by President Obama since 2015.

Once the 60-day window expires, Republicans will have a harder time reversing Mr. Obama’s regulations, but will still have tools at their disposal, including cutting financing for the enforcement of rules, issuing new rules that are weaker, or negotiating with Democrats to pass new legislation.

They have bold ambitions, including rescinding a rule enacted by the Obama administration that could close dozens of coal burning power plants, and another that would extend overtime pay eligibility to an estimated four million Americans.

At a private meeting on Thursday hosted by the National Association of Manufacturers, a trade group, a senior White House adviser provided a plan on how the administration would handle efforts to curtail environmental regulations beyond the initial rush now underway to nullify recently adopted rules, said an energy industry executive who participated in the meeting and spoke on the condition of anonymity because details were confidential.

Industry advocates and their allies in Congress said the long-awaited moves toward deregulation was good for consumers and the economy, as they simply wanted to eliminate measures that they believed cost jobs and drove up prices. Among the regulations being targeted: the methane rule, an Interior Department measure meant to reduce so-called flaring, when gas leaking from wells is burned off like a giant blow torch.

“Even on the way out the door, the former administration’s regulatory onslaught continued as they pushed through more midnight regulations,” the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said on Wednesday, as he urged his colleagues to reverse the coal mining regulation, known as the Stream Buffer Rule. “Fortunately, with a new president, we now have the opportunity to give the American people relief and our economy a boost.”

Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, left, and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, after a policy luncheon last month. The energy industry wants congressional leaders like Mr. McConnell, who is from a top coal-producing state, to nullify the Obama administration’s new rules for the industry.

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Al Drago/The New York Times

Lobbyists for the so-called extraction industry — oil, gas, coal and other mining operations — said they were as surprised as anyone else by the outcome of the November election, which gave them new clout in Washington.

“A lot of us folks just did not anticipate we were going to be doing this,” said Stephen Brown, a lobbyist at Tesoro, an oil refining and marketing company based in San Antonio. “It was like the dog that caught up with the UPS truck.”

Within days of the election, conference calls and meetings between industry lobbyists, members of Mr. Trump’s transition teams and key Republican staff members on Capitol Hill were taking place. Those who took part began to plot out which regulations they wanted to go after first, participants in the process said.

Energy rules quickly ended up at the top of the list. Mr. Obama was unusually aggressive in using his regulatory powers to expand the reach of the federal government over the energy industry, after failing to win the support he needed in Congress to pass legislation to take similar steps.

But the energy industry spends about $300 million a year lobbying Congress, deploying an army of three lobbyists for each member. It also contributed more than $160 million during the most recent election cycle to federal candidates, with 80 percent of that going to Republicans, according to a tally by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group. And the industry now wanted congressional leaders like Mr. McConnell, who is from one of the country’s top coal-producing states, to nullify the Obama administration’s new rules.

“This has been a full-court press to block these rules, from a legal standpoint, a policy standpoint and a political standpoint,” said Bret Sumner, an oil and gas industry lawyer, who serves on the board of the Western Energy Alliance, a trade group that has aggressively lobbied Congress to block Obama administration regulations governing drilling on federal lands.

Mr. Sumner’s group, along with the American Petroleum Institute and other major industry trade associations and individual companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all pressed congressional leaders to immediately repeal the methane rule, which the Interior Department finalized in November.

The measure, according to the department, would force companies to prevent the release of gas via flaring or leaks, eliminating an estimated 180,000 tons a year of methane gas, a contributing factor in climate change, while also increasing federal revenue by as much as $10 million a year, as the energy companies pay royalties only on fuel they contain and then sell.

For its part, the coal industry pushed Congress to reverse the Stream Buffer Rule, also drafted by the Interior Department, that prevented mining companies from cutting off mountaintops in search of coal and other commodities, then dumping the remaining debris into nearby valleys. The department predicted the rule would protect 6,000 miles of streams and an estimated 52,000 acres of forests over the coming two decades.

“It did not take a big pitch,” said Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, of his group’s lobbying effort targeting congressional leaders to get its measure on the repeal list. “We clearly reinforced the fact this is ripe and due for Congress to reassert its power.”

A third rule targeted for quick repeal was one adopted by the Securities and Exchange Commission that required oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments for development rights — a provision intended to prevent corruption in places like Africa and Latin America. Billions of dollars from such payments have disappeared over the past several decades, at times siphoned by government officials for their personal use, instead of being used to improve the standard of living in these often impoverished nations.

Exxon Mobil, whose former chief executive, Rex Tillerson, just became secretary of state, was one of the provision’s primary opponents. He argued that the rule would force the company to disclose “commercially sensitive information” and make it harder to compete against certain foreign oil companies that do not need to comply.

By Friday, both the House and Senate had approved the first two of these repeals — on the stream rule and the foreign government payments — and final action by the Senate approving the repeal of the methane gas rule is expected soon.

Mr. Trump has already put out a memo welcoming the rule reversals by Congress. “The administration strongly supports the actions taken by the House to begin to nullify unnecessary regulations imposed on America’s businesses,” said a statement issued by the White House on Wednesday.

The push to repeal these rules has created moments of obvious frustration for Democrats on the floor of the House and Senate chambers. As the blitz began this past week, Democratic lawmakers used various props — like poster-size photographs of fish harmed by mining industry practices — to try to make their points.

Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, arrived on the chamber floor with a mock “Wheel of Fortune” board, with slivers marked “coal,” “mining” and “even more oil” indicating the available prizes that Congress was offering.

“Let’s consult our wheel to see who is the big winner of the G.O.P. giveaway this week,” Mr. Markey said, essentially conceding that Senate Democrats were all but certain to lose many of these fights.

But for Freedom Partners — the secretive club of hugely wealthy political donors led and organized by the Koch brothers — it was a week to celebrate, as there had been a great deal of progress on their “Roadmap to Repeal” list.

James Davis, an executive vice president at the group, sent a message late on Friday declaring “these repeal bills will soon be on their way to President Trump for his signature.”

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