With four fellow Republican congressmen at his side and a panel dominated by shale-drilling industry figures, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, brought his committee to Altoona on Monday for a hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency's latest water proposal.
No Democratic members of the committee attended the hearing, and attempts to get comments from them by telephone were unsuccessful.
Held at the Blair County Convention Center under the auspices of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the hearing was meant to gather information on an EPA proposal that would purportedly clarify which waterways are under federal regulation. While it's a murky issue rendered more complex by past Supreme Court rulings, Shuster and his fellow representatives quickly made clear where they stand.
The change is a sign of President Barack Obama's "imperial presidency," Shuster said in a news release before the hearing. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, said Obama's administration "think they already have jurisdiction over all the waters of the United States."
EPA officials and their supporters, including some sportsmen's groups, say otherwise.
The changes, proposed April 21 and up for a public comment period, merely smooth the complicated rules dictating which waters are covered under the 1972 Clean Water Act, they've said. If successful, the EPA would confirm that wetland areas and occasionally filled ponds draining into larger waterways would be covered by federal rules, just as larger streams and rivers already are.
According to the farmer, homebuilder and Marcellus Shale drilling figures answering the congressmen's questions Monday, the change could mean longer waits for permits and tremendous expense as they carry out work in suddenly larger protected areas.
"It has a significant effect on our cost," said Jacqueline Fidler, environmental resources manager for coal and gas powerhouse Consol Energy. Depending on the new definitions, Fidler said, environmental mitigation for a single gas pipeline project could cost Consol an extra $10 million.
The congressmen laughed as Rep. Jeff Dehnam, R-Calif., asked Fidler whether heavy ships traverse the shallow Pennsylvania wetlands - a dig at the EPA, which the representatives criticized for going beyond its supposed jurisdiction of "navigable waters."
That jurisdiction question is at the root of Shuster's and his colleagues' complaint. The Clean Water Act allows the EPA to regulate waters with a "significant nexus" to major waterways; according to some intepretations, that includes wetlands and rain-filled streams.
It has a tangible effect on both industry, like the shale drillers, and on property developers who must navigate state and federal permits.
"I can't play a guessing game of 'is it jurisdictional" Indiana builder and Pennsylvania Builders Association representative Warren Peter said. "It just shifts authority from the state to the federal government."
Shuster and his colleagues tied the rule change and its supposed business-squelching effects to similar environmental rules, including one that has been blamed for closing Pennsylvania coal plants.
But to the EPA, the proposal would ensure upstream waters - those that trickle and percolate into major rivers - get the same protection as waters down the line.
"In the end, the increased clarity will save us time, keep money in our pockets, cut red tape, give certainty to business and help fulfill the Clean Water Act's original promise: to make America's waters fishable and swimmable for all," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in an op-ed piece.
Jeff, Ripple, a Somerset County business owner and environmental head for the Pennsylvania Council of nonprofit Trout Unlimited, said the relatively innocuous EPA changes are being used as a symbol of a runaway federal government.
"They [congressmen] are getting a lot of pressure from the large corporations - the ultility companies, the drilling companies - because they're not seeing a rapid turnaround in getting their permits," said Ripple, whose group asked for a hearing spot before learning it was invitation-only.
One voice certainly seemed to be missing at the hearing: the EPA itself, whose officials apparently were not invited.
Asked afterward why the agency responsible for the rules wasn't sought to respond to the representatives' and industry figures' concerns, Shuster said business figures don't feel comfortable criticizing the federal government in person.
It's an explanation he made earlier, when he offered to redact the names of shale energy executives willing to submit stories of their regulatory struggles.
"You don't trust the federal government," Shuster told a representative from Washington County-based Rice Energy. "You're afraid they're going to do something to harm you financially if you spout off too loud."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.