President Obama vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline approval bill today, marking the first time he has wielded his veto pen against environmental degradation. It won’t be the last. Since many more such vetoes are expected in the coming months, let’s take a brief look at the bills likely to meet an inky end on the president’s desk.
Waters of the United States
The Clean Water Act is a tiny bit vague: It prohibits pollution of the “waters of the United States.” After the act passed in 1972, successive Republican and Democratic presidents assumed this gave the federal government the authority to protect wetlands, streams, lakes, and any migratory bird habitat. In 2001, however, the Supreme Court rejected that interpretation by a vote of five to four, ruling that it does not cover such “isolated waters.”
That decision created widespread confusion. Today, no one—not even the Supreme Court—knows exactly where the act applies and where it does not. In a 2006 attempt to clean up their mess, the justices failed to produce a majority opinion on what “waters of the United States” means. This uncertainty has undercut the government’s ability to respond to oil spills and other environmental threats.
So the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a rule last March that would bring all tributary streams and adjacent waters back under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. The new coverage area would be smaller than it was before 2001, but the proposal would at least clarify the law.
Several Republican members of Congress oppose the rule, with the aggressive backing of the American Farm Bureau, which represents the factory farms that discharge huge amounts of pollutants into our waters. They held a rare joint House-Senate hearing on the issue earlier this month, and some of the objections have been, let’s say, factually challenged. Republican Jason Smith of Missouri, for example, wrote that the rule would bring “standing water in potholes” within the scope of the Clean Water Act. The president of the American Farm Bureau called the rule “the biggest federal land grab…that we’ve seen to date,” and claimed it would force farmers to seek EPA approval to build a fence or plant crops. The EPA has correctly dismissed those claims as myths. Even so, a bill to block the agency’s proposal is likely forthcoming, but it will almost certainly draw a veto.
Carbon Pollution Plan
June 2, 2014, was a landmark date in climate change history: The EPA proposed rules to limit carbon pollution from U.S. power plants. The agency calculated how much each state could reduce emissions by improving efficiency at coal-fired power plants, transitioning to natural gas, developing renewable energy projects, and reducing unnecessary power use. The EPA then customized 50 reduction targets, one for each state. If the rule is adopted, nationwide emissions would drop 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
Republican legislators were not pleased, especially those from coal-producing states. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky made an extraordinary attempt to block the rule before it was enacted. Senator Shelley Moore Capito accused the president of “disenfranchising” her West Virginia constituents.
So far, the GOP-controlled congress is laying low on the issue, possibly because climate change denial is becoming increasingly embarrassing to the party. A Republican source told Politico recently that there is an “obvious lack of enthusiasm among Republican staff, and maybe members, too, to do something” about the rules. It’s probably just a matter of time, though. Legislative activity will pick up later this year. And when it does, the president may have to defend his administration’s climate legacy with a stroke of the veto pen.
Methane doesn’t get as much press as carbon dioxide, because it represents just 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The gas, however, is 20 times more potent as a warming agent, making it an equally hot mess.
Natural gas comes from several sources, but when it’s taken from the ground, processed, stored, and delivered to consumers, molecules of methane escape at each step. These leaks, when added together, make energy producers the largest single source of methane emissions—even worse than those infamously flatulent cows.
In January, the White House announced plans to take action and will soon publish a rule requiring oil and gas producers to reduce their methane emissions by up to 45 percent by 2025, compared to 2012 levels.
Republicans and allies in the energy industry called this proposal expensive and unnecessary, likening it to “forcing ice cream makers to spill less ice cream.” You have to give it to them—that’s a hilarious quip. It’s also preposterously inapt. If ice cream makers had a history of spilling more than a 100 millions of tons of ice cream every year, and that ice cream was destroying our climate, we probably would force them to be more careful.
President Obama probably won’t have to worry about this veto until at least the fall, since the EPA is expected to officially propose the rule in the summer. That is, of course, assuming Republicans don’t try to abolish the EPA altogether before that time. You never know.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.