Republicans have begun dismantling Obama-era environmental protections by targeting rules that restrict drilling in national parks, curb the release of methane and prevent people from being harmed when the tops of mountains are blown off to access coal.
House lawmakers are using the Congressional Review Act, which enables them to revoke federal rules imposed in the last 60 legislative days, to strip away what Republicans call “job-killing red tape” designed to tackle climate change and protect people and wildlife from harmful pollution.
The rollback came as Democrats boycotted a committee vote to confirm Scott Pruitt as Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt has sued the EPA 14 times as attorney general of Oklahoma over its climate, mercury and smog regulations.
All 10 Democrats on the committee refused to turn up to the environment and public works panel, denying it a quorum, complaining that Pruitt had failed to answer basic questions such as what is a safe level of lead in drinking water. Republicans claimed the move was a “congressional temper tantrum” as they pushed ahead with a bonfire of environmental regulations.
On Wednesday, the House will probably vote in favor of axing the stream protection rule, which safeguards waterways from the effects of mountaintop removal mining. The rule prevents mining companies from piling debris into streams and requires them to restore the vista and ecological function of blasted areas.
Mountaintops are regularly blown up in the coal-rich Appalachia region in order to reach the minerals underneath. The rubble is often dumped into the valley below, contaminating the water for nearby residents and wildlife. It is estimatedthat more than 500 Appalachian mountains have been decapitated, resulting in 2,000 miles of streams becoming strewn with debris.
The Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said the stream rule, introduced in the dying days of Barack Obama’s administration, “unfairly targets coal jobs”, which causes harm to “real people who support real families in real communities”.
However, environmentalists warned that the repeal would endanger public health. Pollution from mountaintop mining has been previously linked to an increase in cancers and birth defects.
Bob Wendelgass, chief executive of Clean Water Action, said: “This is an unconscionable attack on basic clean water safeguards for communities already devastated by toxic pollution from coalmining.”
Davie Ransdell, a former surface mine inspector for the state of Kentucky, said the repeal was “beyond disappointing” because it risks water quality and eliminates jobs that could have been generated to help clean up mines.
Republican congressman Paul Gosar has put forward a separate bill that would scrap new safety and planning standards for oil and gas drilling in national parks. There are more than 40 national parks in which the government does not own the underground mineral rights, which allows fossil fuel firms to extract them.
The bill is the latest in a series of Republican attempts to sell off tracts of public land and loosen restrictions on development. Republicans are also seeking to remove requirements for oil, gas and coal companies to disclose payments from foreign governments.
“These challenges are direct attacks on America’s national parks,” said Nicholas Lund, senior manager of conservation programs at the National Parks Conservation Association.
“Each of these rules provides the commonsense protections for national parks that millions of Americans demand. If the park service’s drilling rules are repealed, national parks across the country would be subjected to poorly regulated oil and gas drilling, threatening parks’ air, water and wildlife.”
Republicans are also keen to kill off an Obama directive that slashes the amount of methane emitted during oil and gas drilling. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, around 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas, and is regularly leaked, vented and flared – burned off – during drilling operations.
Green groups cheered the introduction of the rule – which is estimated to remove emissions equivalent to that of one million vehicles each year – but Republicans have opposed it as onerous and have moved to scrap it.
Rob Bishop, chairman of the house natural resources committee, said the methane rule is “one of the most egregious abuses of power from the Obama administration designed to shut down responsible energy development on our federal lands”.
Democrats support the regulations and claim that Republicans are rolling back the edicts in order to appease fossil fuel interests.
“Slavish deference to corporate and wealthy donor wishlists by Republicans is taking a toll on our environment, on our health and on our economy, and if these rules are wiped out it’s going to get a lot worse,” said Raúl Grijalva, ranking member of the House natural resources committee.
Scott Slesinger, legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Republicans were “using a law [the Congressional Review Act] with far-reaching consequences that has rarely been tested. It not only repeals existing protections, it blocks similar safeguards in the future.
“Supporters who vote for these resolutions should explain why they think there should never be any limits on what gets dumped into streams, or any limits on mountain top removal coalmining, or on methane spewing into the air.”