A bipartisan bill introduced by senators from Louisiana and West Virginia, aimed at limiting the Environmental Protection Agency's veto power over proposed projects, now has support from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
The Regulatory Fairness Act would remove the EPA's authority to block a project before it has even entered the permitting stage. It also aims to prevent the EPA from retroactively stopping a project once it's been approved for permitting.
The bill was introduced by Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), after a West Virginia coal mine had its EPA permit withdrawn despite the mine's completion of the permitting process.
The EPA is currently considering restrictive action against the proposed Pebble Mine, before the company has applied for a permit or submitted a mining plan. State Attorney General Michael Geraghty's office has blasted the EPA's move as an example of federal overreach, saying that without an application from Pebble the EPA would be basing any decision on hypothetical assumptions.
Murkowski says she supports the bill because the EPA needs to have boundaries, not specifically because of the situation involving Pebble.
"This is not about Pebble; this is about a process," Murkowski said. "I think it's important to recognize that there is a process through the Clean Water Act where the EPA can veto this project, but what this bill is designed to do is, is -- say if there is going to be a veto -- it need to be during that time period when there is actually an application."
Some members of the resource-extraction industry say the process of permitting needs to be respected. At the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, general manager Rebecca Logan says the EPA's actions are hindering development. She says major companies will invest in other countries and the United States, and Alaska will lose jobs.
"People who are investing money have to have a certainty.," Logan said. "They have to know that if they invest money and do the right things, that they're going to be allowed to proceed."
In the Bristol Bay area, some locals support the EPA's position. Brian Kraft, who owns three lodges in the region, is opposed to both Pebble and the Regulatory Fairness Act. He says the EPA should retain its right to restrict development before a permit is issued, because it could save the companies millions of dollars.
"It doesn't make any business sense at all to allow the business to go forward," Kraft said. "Go through all the steps, apply for the permit and get the permits from the (Army) Corp of Engineers -- and then after that, the EPA come in and tell them, 'Oh no, you shouldn't have that that permit.' So, in my opinion, knowing up front from the EPA is a good thing."
The EPA says it stands by the wording of Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, which outlines the agency's relevant powers over projects. Under the section, after holding public hearings with appropriate notice, its administrator may prohibit or restrict projects upon determining that material discharges "will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas."
In an overview of Section 404(c) posted online (PDF), the EPA says it has "very sparingly" used its veto authority, employing it 13 times since 1972.