CROSBY, Texas (AP) — President Donald Trump's support for shifting more power to states took a back seat Wednesday to his affinity for oil and gas production as he aimed to make it harder for states to block pipelines and other energy projects due to environmental concerns.
At the urging of business groups, Trump signed two executive orders designed to speed up oil and gas pipeline projects. The action came after officials in Washington state and New York used the permitting process to stop new energy projects in recent years.
"Too often badly needed energy infrastructure is being held back by special interest groups, entrenched bureaucracies and radical activists," Trump complained.
Trump singled out New York for his harshest criticism, saying "obstruction" by the state "was hurting the country."
The Trump administration insisted it was not trying to take power away from the states but, rather, trying to make sure that state actions follow the intent of the Clean Water Act.
Less than a week ago, nearly a dozen business groups told Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler that the environmental review and permitting process for energy projects "has become a target for environmental activists and states that oppose the production and use of fossil fuels."
The groups said in an April 5 letter that individual states shouldn't be able to use provisions of the Clean Water Act "to dictate national policy, thereby harming other states and the national interest and damaging cooperative federalism."
Washington state blocked the building of a coal terminal in 2017, saying there were too many major harmful impacts including air pollution, rail safety and vehicle traffic.
New York regulators stopped a natural gas pipeline, saying it failed to meet standards to protect streams, wetlands and other water resources. Under a section of the law, companies must get certification from the state before moving ahead with an energy project.
One of Trump's executive orders calls for the EPA to consult with states, tribes and others before issuing new guidance and rules for states on how to comply with the law.
Environmental groups described Trump's order as an effort to short-circuit a state's ability to review complicated projects, putting at risk a state's ability to protect drinking water supplies and wildlife.
"The Trump administration's proposal would trample on state authority to protect waters within their own borders," said Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation.
The environmental group Center for Biological Diversity said the orders would mark the fourth time Trump has used taken such steps to streamline permits for fossil-fuel infrastructure.
"Trump's developing an addiction to executive orders that rubber-stamp these climate-killing projects," said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the center.
Trump signed the orders while visiting the International Union of Operating Engineers International Training and Education Center, a union-run facility northeast of Houston.
Trade groups representing the oil and gas industry applauded the orders and said greater access to natural gas benefits families and the environment.
"When states say 'no' to the development of natural gas pipelines, they force utilities to curb safe and affordable service and refuse access to new customers including new businesses," said Karen Harbert, president and CEO at the American Gas Association.
Trump's order also directs the transportation secretary to propose a rule allowing liquefied natural gas to be shipped in approved rail tank cars, and directs the labor secretary to review whether investment fund managers who invest based on social goals are fulfilling their responsibility to maximize shareholder returns.
The second executive order is designed to ease the process for energy projects that cross international borders.
Currently, the secretary of state has the authority to issue permits for cross-border infrastructure such as pipelines. The executive order clarifies that the president will make the decision on whether to issue such permits.
The move follows Trump's decision last month to issue a new presidential permit for the long-stalled Keystone XL oil pipeline — two years after he first approved it and more than a decade after it was first proposed.
Trump signed the orders in between campaign fundraisers in San Antonio and Houston.
The American Petroleum Institute is applauding both moves.
“Pipelines are the safest, most environmentally sound way to transport natural gas and oil to American consumers, and API supports a robust permitting process for moving pipeline and other critical infrastructure projects forward,” said API President and CEO Mike Sommers. “Bureaucratic barriers have crippled an otherwise strong regulatory regime, preventing the construction of essential infrastructure and unnecessarily contributing to an energy disparity in America.”
The president of the Western Energy Alliance also considers the move to be a way for infrastructure projects to move forward without snags or setbacks from the state. Kathleen Sgamma says environmental concerns are important and will be considered but that it's important for projects to have a chance to move forward.
"Those permits can’t be used as an excuse to just hold things up for years and years and years until those projects just go away because they are impossible to build," Sgamma said.
The Keystone XL Pipeline is something that could affect Colorado despite the fact that it doesn't run through the state. Sgamma says many Colorado-based companies are involved in the production of that pipeline so these executive orders could affect them.
"It’s not just about helping the bottom line it’s about enabling production to move forward," she said. "That means jobs are created here in Colorado as well."
However, the executive orders come at the same time that Colorado Governor Jared Polis is about to sign SB181 into law, which prioritizes health and safety during oil and gas production.
"You can see a real big difference between the executive order that the president signed as well as Senate Bill 181," said Sen. Mike Foote. "In the executive order, health and safety is never mentioned, not once. It appears that’s not a priority of the Trump administration but it is a priority of Senate Bill 181."
SB181 and the executive orders will not directly conflict with one another, according to Sen. Foote, since one deals with federal land while the other deals with state land.
However, Sen. Foote acknowledged that the two opposing ideas can be confusing.
"I think it does send somewhat of a mixed message to everyone, not just the industry," he said.
Still, Sen. Foote says he and fellow Colorado Democrats are planning on continuing forward regardless of what the President does.
"We don’t have any control over what the Trump administration does or doesn’t do or the executive orders but we do have control over what we do here at the legislature," Sen. Foote said.
Freking reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Richard Lardner and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.