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Biden moves to revoke Trump water regulations

Tucked toward the bottom of one of his many first-day executive orders, President Joe Biden carried out a single policy shift that could reverse years of Republican legal struggle.

Biden on Wednesday revoked a 2017 order by former President Donald Trump that changed the so-called Waters of the United States rule — an obscure policy with potentially far-reaching effects on environmental regulation, fracking and pipeline construction.

The Environmental Protection Agency rule details which waterways are covered by federal protections.

Back in 2014, with Barack Obama as president, then-Congressman Bill Shuster called GOP colleagues and industry representatives together in Altoona to discuss the policy, which they claimed would subject landowners and developers to brutal federal regulations.

Since that time, Republicans have worked in the courts and in Congress to change the Obama-era policy, with Trump calling in 2017 for its reversal.

“The EPA so-called Waters of the United States rule is one of the worst examples of federal regulation, and it has truly run amok, and is one of the rules most strongly opposed by farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers all across our land,” Trump said at a White House event that year. “It has been a disaster.”

Energy interests in particular opposed the measure, with natural gas industry figures telling Shuster in 2014 that stronger protections would lead to major cost increases for pipelines.

Biden’s change is part of a slew of opening-week reforms that signal a new environmental policy, from rejoining the Paris climate agreement to canceling a major cross-country pipeline project.

Joyce charges into opposition

Freshly appointed to a minority seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, picked up where his predecessor left off: attacking a Democratic president’s “radical executive actions.”

While Biden moved to reverse Trump’s executive policies on the climate, immigration and pandemic response, Joyce said the orders would kill jobs and “end America’s energy independence” — already a common phrase among conservatives working to stave off new environmental protections.

“Blocking the Keystone XL pipeline and re-entering the Paris Climate Accord will have far-reaching consequences for Pennsylvania communities,” Joyce said, referring to a proposed pipeline that would have run from Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska.

Joyce also struck at Biden for rejoining the World Health Organization, the United Nations agency responsible for global public health. Trump announced in September that the U.S. would withdraw from the organization effective this July, a move Biden immediately reversed.

Critics accused the WHO of failing to properly investigate China’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic — an accusation that snowballed as Republicans invoked Cold War language against the organization.

“(I)t is reprehensible to rejoin the corrupt World Health Organization, a pawn of the Chinese Communist Party and its co-conspirator in lying to the world about the origins of the virus,” Joyce said this week.

For the moment, however, GOP complaints about Biden’s orders don’t come with much bite. With Congress in Democratic hands and executive orders not subject to their review, they have little hope beyond courtroom victories.

Amendments move closer to vote

Local lawmakers backed two proposed amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution this month — one that would limit the governor’s power and another that could give the GOP a greater hand in the courts.

One, House Bill 55, would make two unrelated changes: It would formally guarantee equality under the law regardless of race or ethnicity, while also limiting the governor’s power to declare an emergency longer than three weeks without lawmakers’ approval.

The second component would represent a victory for Republican lawmakers who have long sought to reverse or scale back Wolf’s powers during the COVID-19 emergency. Wolf has fought a running battle with the GOP-controlled General Assembly over his ability to issue business regulations and mandates during the pandemic.

Its co-sponsors include state Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona, state Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, and state Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, among others.

A second proposal, House Bill 38, would change Pennsylvania’s judicial system so appellate judges are elected by district. The judges, who currently serve in statewide roles, would represent geographical regions under the amendment — a change that critics say would let Republicans draw friendly maps to regain control of the courts.

“Judicial gerrymandering further fractures our democracy,” leaders of the state AFL-CIO said in a written statement Jan. 13. “Statewide judges make decisions that impact all Pennsylvanians, and all Pennsylvanians should have an equal say in who holds these positions of power.”

The judicial bill was co-sponsored by state Rep. Rich Irvin, R-Huntingdon, and state Rep. Tommy Sankey, R-Osceola Mills.

If the proposals pass in this session for their second time, they would move to a statewide popular vote. If voters approve them, they would become part of the constitution, bypassing Wolf’s veto.

Ryan Brown is at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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