The Trump administrations carries out a major piece of its regulatory reform agenda this week, while some lawmakers hold out hope for breaking an impasse over a coronavirus relief package.
After the administration won a preliminary court decision on Friday, reforms that take effect Monday will streamline the federal environmental review process by imposing time and page limits on analyses conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act. The changes could speed the approval of federal grazing permits and also will affect Agriculture Department programs.
On Friday, the new NEPA regulations survived a motion for preliminary injunction filed mostly by Southeastern conservation groups. “The plaintiffs here may ultimately succeed in this case, but at this point they have not made that clear showing,” U.S. District Judge James Jones in Virginia said in his opinion.
Among various claims, the plaintiffs said the rule is inconsistent with the NEPA law itself because it “removes the requirement that agencies consider cumulative and indirect impacts on the environment,” Jones said.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Public Lands Council praised the decision. “Ranchers will now be able to move faster in making range improvements that can prevent and reduce the impacts of wildfires," NCBA Executive Director of Natural Resources and PLC Executive Director Kaitlynn Glover said.
NCBA and the American Farm Bureau Federation have intervened on the side of the government in the case. Jones noted there are three other cases challenging the new regs, “but it appears in none have the plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction or stay.”
Separately on Monday, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler will announce some next steps in the administration's agenda, using a webinar with the Federalist Society, the conservative legal group, to talk about a new rule on guidance procedures. Guidance documents issued by EPA and other agencies are not legally binding but they clarify how the agencies believe regulations should be interpreted and followed.
Larry Kudlow, President Donald Trump's top economic adviser, reiterated to reporters on Friday that additional deregulation will be a top priority for a second term. "All I can say is wait for more, it’s coming," Kudlow said.
On Capitol Hill, the House is back in session this week as Democrats remain locked in a stalemate with the White House over coronavirus relief while insisting they haven’t given up hope of a deal ahead of the election.
Congress is fast running out of time to get an agreement, since lawmakers want to be home in October to campaign. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., privately urged members of her caucus to hang tough in the negotiations, according to reports, and publicly said there was still a chance for agreement on a coronavirus relief package.
USDA is due any day to announce rules for the second round of payments to farmers under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had said the announcement would be made last week. The deadline for signing up for the program’s first round passed on Friday.
Perdue has been under pressure from members of Congress to expand the list of commodities that are eligible for the program.
Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, who is in line to become the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee next year, told Agri-Pulse he still hoped a new coronavirus aid package can get enacted before the election, but he noted that Perdue “has plenty of money” available to make the CFAP-2 payments.
As of last week, USDA had made $9.7 billion in payments through the program’s first round, well short of the $16 billion that was originally budgeted. Perdue also has $14 billion available from the CARES Act, which passed Congress in March.
Also this week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on the new rule issued by the Trump administration to limit the number of wetlands, streams and other features subject to federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.
The Navigable Waters Protection rule replaced the Obama-era “waters of the U.S.” rule issued by the Obama administration in 2015 and later repealed by the Trump administration. Farm groups have generally welcomed the new rule, because the Obama-era version had increased the number of wetlands and other areas subject to federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.
But lawsuits challenging the new rule are in different stages throughout the country. Most attempts to persuade courts to issue injunctions blocking implementation — probably most notably by 17 states and two cities — have failed, except in Colorado, where an order preventing the NWPR from going into effect in that state is being appealed in the 10th Circuit
Both national and state farm groups have filed briefs supporting the government in the appeal, which has yet to be decided.
Briefing also is moving forward in a widely watched case in South Carolina led by the South Carolina Coastal Conservation Council in which major farm groups have intervened.
Wetlands protection will be an issue in the presidential election, if a newly formed group called Sportsmen and Sportswomen for Biden has anything to say about it.
In an online launch of the group last week, Midwest hunting and outdoors advocates, such as the former leaders of the Ohio and Wisconsin departments of natural resources and at least a couple of Republicans, criticized President Donald Trump’s conservation record, including the new NWPR.
“There has been no president in our history who has been worse for conservation than President Trump,” said Scott Hassett, a former secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.
Also this week, the National Farmers Union will conduct its annual fly-in virtually this year. Several hundred NFU members have signed up for the event, which include remarks from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
NFU President Rob Larew said that regional groups of the organization’s membership will be meeting online with their members of Congress.
Here is a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:
Monday, Sept. 14
National Farmers Union virtual fly-in, through Friday
4 p.m. — USDA releases weekly Crop Progress report.
Tuesday, Sept. 15
Growth Energy Biofuels Summit, through Thursday
Wednesday, Sept. 16
American Coalition for Ethanol annual conference
10 a.m. — House Energy and Commerce subcommittee online hearing, "Building a 100 Percent Clean Economy: Opportunities for an Equitable, Low-Carbon Recovery.”
10 a.m. — Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, 106 Dirksen.
Thursday, Sept. 17
8:30 a.m. — USDA releases Weekly Export Sales report.
10 a.m. — House Energy and Commerce subcommittee online hearing, “Trump FCC: Four years of lost opportunities.”
Friday, Sept. 18
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