If a Law Chops Down a Forest, Does Anyone Care?

As a whole, the GOP doesn't like environmental regulation. In the past few years, though, Republicans in Washington have had little time to act on that animosity: They've spent their energy insisting that climate change does not exist, that if it does exist, it's not humanity's fault or that if it is humanity's fault, dealing with the consequences will cost too much. That was when Democrats had control of both houses of Congress and were pushing to pass legislation to address climate change. After having disarmed the cap-and-trade bill, which passed the House but failed in the Senate, and gained a majority in the House, Republicans are going even further. Not only are they going after the Environmental Protection Agency, its budget, and its regulatory power but they are also going after the most basic laws governing the health of the country's environment and of the people who live in it.

Over the past few months, House Republicans have advanced legislation in both appropriating and authorizing committees that would undermine the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Water Act. On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee marked up a funding bill for the Department of the Interior that blocks the Fish and Wildlife Service from making any additions to the endangered species list. Today, the House Committee on Natural Resources plans to go over a suite of bills that the Department of Interior says would exempt it from complying with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)--"the cornerstone law guiding environmental protection and public involvement in Federal actions," as the Bureau of Land Management's deputy director, Mike Pool, put it to the committee last month. The House could also vote on a bill that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to override state-issued permits for coal companies, factories, wastewater treatment plants, and other enterprises that dispose of their waste in waterways, if the terms of the permit do not adequately protect streams and lakes.

These are just a few of the ways that House Republicans are going after environmental laws, and environmental groups are flipping out. David Goldston, the director of government affairs at the National Resources Defense Council, told reporters on Monday that Republicans are "actually going back and changing fundamental statutes of environmental and health protections in ways that haven't been true in 40 years."

House appropriations bills must pass through the Senate and across the president's desk, of course. But in the last round of financial negotiations, centered on April's continuing resolution that funded the government for the rest of the year, anti-environmental riders that made it through the House became law. Those riders presaged the policies the House is looking at now. Congress backed off protecting endangered species by allowing Idaho and Montana to delist wolves. It also undid the Obama administration's efforts to use public lands temporarily for conservation by classifying them as wild lands. The bills under consideration now advocate the exact opposite approach to the use of public lands: They will allow these tracts to be used quickly for energy generation without requiring that companies follow long-established procedures that protect animals, plants, and human health.

Much of this policy originated in the national resources committee, led by Representative Doc Hastings of Washington state. Hastings is the type of Republican who thinks the government should do everything in its power to bring gas prices down. That includes extracting oil and gas resources from public lands, even if those fuels will provide only a short and partial respite from the pain of paying $4 per gallon for gas. Oil and gas interest have contributed more money than any other industry to his campaigns.

Another piece of legislation that would further brush aside environmental safeguards on public lands is working its way through Hastings's committee. In this case, the argument is that environmental laws are hindering the border patrol's ability to do its job. (A similar provision made it into an early version of the Department of Homeland Security's appropriations bill in June.) He also says he is working closely with Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho on ceasing to fund endangered species protection as a way to push the Endangered Species Act into debate. The law was last reauthorized in the 1990s; Hastings and Simpson are cutting its funding to force a debate on the law as a whole.

If none of these attacks work, there are plenty of other Republicans ready to slice out protections that environmental laws have ensured. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has attacked the Clean Water Act, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee is questioning whether the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the power to regulate carbon. If these attacks succeed, they could create more room for Republicans to unravel the environmental laws that have kept air, water, land, and people safer than they otherwise would be for four decades. This could just be the beginning.