Senate to start undoing Trump’s rollbacks using once-obscure law

Ari Natter April 30, 2021

(Bloomberg) — Senate Democrats began using a special procedure to undo parts of Donald Trump’s regulatory agenda Wednesday, starting by rescinding a measure that made it harder for the Environmental Protection Agency to limit leaks of the powerful greenhouse gas methane from oil and gas wells.

The 52-42 vote on the methane rule is the first of several that Democrats plan to use under the Congressional Review Act. That 1996 law allows lawmakers to rescind federal regulations passed in the waning days of a presidential administration as long as they act within a few months of a new Congress.

It had been used only once before 2017 when Republicans, led by then-President Donald Trump, used it to repeal 14 Obama-era rules including one that limited the ability of the mentally ill to buy firearms to another forcing oil companies to disclose their payments to foreign governments.

“The Congressional Review Act was seen as this very extreme thing. It was almost like an atomic bomb. It wasn’t something you just casually trotted out,” said James Goodwin, a senior policy analyst the Center for Progressive Reform, a Washington-based non-profit. The Trump administration and the 115th Congress “normalized it in this way it hadn’t been previously.”

It only takes a majority vote, meaning Democrats, who control the Senate, can do it without Republican votes.

Democrats have introduced six resolutions targeting regulations promulgated during the final months of the Trump administration, according to the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, which tracks the Congressional Review Act. Among the targets is one by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency that critics say allows predatory lending and another one by the Securities and Exchange Commission that makes it more difficult for small groups of corporate shareholders to introduce resolutions on sustainability and other issues.

Other rules Democrats are targeting include a Department of Health and Human Services measure that requires the agency to review thousands of regulations to prevent them from expiring, and a Social Security Administration rule that allows agency attorneys to substitute for independent administrative law judges in deciding disability determinations, according to the coalition, which is made up of labor, environmental and consumer protection groups.

In addition to the methane vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said the Senate will take up a resolution to repeal an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rule that critics say makes it harder for workers to prevail against employers in workplace discrimination claims.

Under the CRA, Congress can pass a resolution striking down a federal rule within 60 legislative days of it being finalized and published in the Federal Register from the end of the last congressional session. That doesn’t leave Democrats much time. This year the cutoff date is May 21 in the Senate, according to Amit Narang, a regulatory policy advocate with watchdog group Public Citizen.

The measure to repeal Trump’s methane rule had the support of Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine as well as some oil and gas producers, such as Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Equinor ASA, Cheniere Energy Inc. and Pioneer Natural Resources Company.

Trump’s methane rule, finalized in 2020, ended methane-specific emission limits at new oil and gas wells, while removing additional curbs on leaks of smog-causing volatile organic compounds from gas transmission and storage equipment.

Environmental advocates said the move, which still needs to be approved by the House, effectively reinstates prior standards shaped by both Trump and former President Barack Obama, including mandates for semiannual monitoring of some wells and leak inspections and repairs of transmission and storage equipment.

“If the joint resolution of disapproval is enacted, it would restore the 2016 standards that limited methane pollution from new, reconstructed and modified sources in the oil and gas industry, which is the nation’s largest industrial source of methane emissions and an important source of other health-harming pollutants,” the EPA said in an emailed statement.

Reinstated methane requirements would apply to new and modified sites. Under President Joe Biden, the EPA is expected to develop requirements for nearly a million existing wells too.

Methane, the chief component of natural gas, is a valuable energy source and commodity in its own right. Yet it’s also a powerful heat-trapping pollutant that can exacerbate climate change when it escapes from oil wells or gas pipelines. It represents about a 10th of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and is estimated to be at least 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere over a 20-year period.

“This is a very big deal and the fact we are using our first CRA on the methane rule shows how important it is,” Schumer told reporters prior to the vote. “Methane is one of the most poisonous things we can put in our atmosphere.”

Until Trump was elected, the Congressional Review Act had only been used successfully once before. In 2001 Congress voted to overturn a Labor Department ergonomics rule issued by the Clinton administration.

“It’s good to see the Democrats using it when it makes sense,” said Public Citizen’s Narang. “It’s good to see Congress getting involved in helping the Biden administration roll back some of the Trump de-regulatory agenda.”

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