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Sen. Hatch's WEST Act: Further Proof the GOP Has Gone South

Scott Slesinger

Posted May 1, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, Moving Beyond Oil, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, U.S. Law and Policy

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 For the past two years, the Tea Party-dominated U.S. House has been passing bills that set a new low in the history of environmental policy – bills that undermine foundational environmental laws and principles (although their sponsors often try to hide their radicalism and claim they’re just delaying a rule here and there or asking for a study). 

Now, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has rolled many of the House’s greatest hits into the “Western Economic Security Today” or “WEST” Act, which was introduced last week.  What it lacks in originality, the WEST Act makes up for in pure bravado, joining together disparate radical proposals, many of which have nothing at all to do with the intermountain West.  But it could be called the “Wild, Wild West Act” because the bill is the equivalent of a shooting spree, taking aim at fundamental environmental protections.

While the bill couldn’t pass the Senate, this is more than a matter of shooting “blanks.”  It demonstrates once again the stranglehold the Tea Party has on policy making and how it continues to define positions that make it impossible for Congress to reach agreement and produce for the American people.

Forget the BP Oil Spill Ever Happened

 The WEST Act rolls up three bills that, together, would require offshore drilling on every acre of our oceans on an expedited basis.  This would be outlandish even if the BP disaster had never happened, but it’s incomprehensible considering that the consequences of inadequate safeguards for offshore drilling are still lapping up on the Gulf Coast shores. 

Today, the Gulf is experiencing a record setting dolphin die-off. Some of the most productive fishing grounds have been cut by 50%, with shrimp, oyster, and crab catches at low. Tar balls and oil slabs continue to roll ashore from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle. And many residents and fishermen continue to suffer illness and disease from their exposure to chemical dispersants and oil.  

Despite all this, the WEST Act would demand drilling with less protections instead of implementing the recommendations to make drilling safer.

  •  H.R. 1229 would force the Secretary of Interior to approve drilling permits on a rushed and arbitrary deadline, and would automatically grant approval of permits if the Secretary missed that deadline. 
  • H.R. 1230 would sidestep proper analysis of environmental risks and force lease sales that the Administration cancelled in the wake of the BP Gulf oil disaster, including off the coast of Virginia.  The Administration cancelled these lease sales to ensure it “learned lessons” from the Gulf disaster.  Congress has yet to amend a single law to prevent another BP disaster.
  •  H.R. 1231 would force new drilling off the Atlantic coast – from Maine to Florida, off the California coast, and in our nation’s most pristine environments, the Alaskan Arctic and the fishing mecca of Bristol Bay.  It would require a doubling of oil drilling over current levels, without any regard for the jobs and businesses that depend on healthy oceans and coasts to thrive

 For more on these bills, see here.

 Make It Harder to Breathe

 The WEST Act also includes three bills that would make it harder for Americans to breathe.

  •  H.R. 2021 would limit the ability of the EPA to regulate air emissions from massive offshore drilling operations and support vessels.  It would do this through a variety of means, including exempting offshore oil drilling companies from applying pollution control technology to vessels such as ice-breakers, which in the Arctic Ocean can account for up to 98% of air pollution from drilling.  While this bill would have the greatest impacts on Alaska’s North Slope communities, which would experience vastly deteriorated air quality and suffer the accompanying health problems, the bill would also affect more than 20 states and territories.  The only entity this bill will benefit? Big Oil. For more on this bill, see here.
  • The “Dirty Air Act” (H.R. 910), would block the EPA from enforcing Clean Air Act safeguards against carbon pollution by exempting carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants from the Clean Air Act's definition of "air pollutant," overturning the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Massachusetts v. EPA. This bill would repeal every action EPA has already taken and block every action EPA is developing to limit carbon pollution from power plants, oil refineries, and other industries, thereby putting our health at risk. It would also scuttle the consensus clean car and fuel economy standards that are backed by the car companies, the auto workers union, the states, and environmentalists. This means more pollution and higher fuel bills for all Americans.
  • Another provision,the misleadingly named “Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011” (H.R. 1633) would block the EPA from updating health standards for dangerous particle pollution under the guise of blocking nonexistent and unplanned EPA regulation of so-called "farm dust."  This anti-science bill would deny Americans the right to know if the air is safe to breathe by blocking a scientific and health review of standards – before review has even begun. Worse, this bill would force EPA to ignore harmful soot pollution emitted overwhelmingly by industrial polluters like coal-burning power plants, incinerators, chemical plants, and oil refineries, along with diesel vehicles--not farms, which the bills use as cynical cover for abolishing review of health standards for industrial pollution. There are no EPA farm dust regulations. There are no such proposed regulations. There are no EPA intentions for such regulations. This bill is a hoax.

 Harm Bay-Delta Fisheries, Dry Up the San Joaquin River, and Repeal State’s Rights

 The WEST Act also includes the “State Water Rights Repeal Act” (H.R. 1837), which would eliminate protections for California’s iconic salmon fishery and the San Francisco Bay Delta Estuary by elevating agricultural water uses above all other water needs, including those of cities, fisheries, and the environment.  Further, this radical bill would repeal state and federal laws protecting California’s Bay-Delta estuary, including the historic San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act, the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act, endangered species protections, aspects of the state constitution, and other provisions of state law and water rights. H.R. 1837 would likely lead to more extinct fish species, 40 miles of the San Joaquin River dried up, fewer jobs, and more struggling small farmers. And it will make it more difficult – if not impossible – to develop real solutions to improve the reliability of California’s water supplies and to restore the Bay-Delta estuary. California deserves a water policy that benefits all Californians, not just agribusinesses. For more on this bill, see here.

 Pollute Our Waters with Pesticides

Finally, the WEST Act includes a bill (H.R. 872) that would eliminate the Clean Water Act requirement that entities that pollute our waters obtain permits (either from EPA or from their state government). In other words, this bill would allow the spraying of some of the most toxic and dangerous pesticides directly into the waters we swim in, fish in, and get our drinking water from.  As a result, it would put our health, our water, and our environment at risk. For more on this bill, see here.

It is time for this pattern of trying to gut virtually every environmental law to appeal to a narrow segment of the population to stop. Those who oppose these anti-environmental policies need to speak up. Like Grace Kelly in “High Noon,” sometimes you can’t allow bad things to happen and just take the train out of town.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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