WASHINGTON — Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan made it to the White House on Tuesday afternoon for President Donald Trump's signing of an executive order asking the Environmental Protection Agency to redo a controversial regulation defining the agency's reach over U.S. waters.
Sullivan and other congressional Republicans have long argued that the regulation would dramatically expand the reach of the EPA to private waters that they say should not be under the agency's control.
On Tuesday afternoon, Trump signed an executive order that sends his EPA back to the drawing board.
In addition to Republican senators who sit on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Trump signed the order surrounded by representatives of farmers, homebuilders and county commissioners. The rule "is one of the worst examples of federal regulation," and is "opposed by farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers all across our land," Trump said. He called the rule "a massive power grab" and said it treats "small farmers and small businesses as if they were a major industrial polluter."
"I applaud President Trump for his order beginning the review and roll back of the expansive overreach in the WOTUS Rule, which gave the EPA vast new authority over lands across the country, particularly in Alaska," Sullivan said in a statement.
The regulation was finalized in August 2015, but not implemented, since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit put a hold on it last year, during litigation that is still ongoing. But the fight over the rule has been ongoing for a decade.
Questions about the reach of the EPA, under the statutory language of the Clean Water Act, have plagued the agency since several complex Supreme Court decisions during the George W. Bush administration.
The Clean Water Act covers "navigable waters" — waters on which one can float a boat — for sure. But what has given the agency pause, through two administrations previous, is what to do about the streams and wetlands that connect to those waters, having a hydrological impact.
The issue is of major concern for farmers, real estate developers, ranchers and many others, as well as environmentalists and hunters.
The executive order won't solve the problem in one fell swoop — it will launch a new round of rulemaking. Whatever eventual regulation the Trump administration releases will undoubtedly end up in court, and it will take years before there is a clear decision on the agency's oversight of U.S. waters.
Sullivan argued that the executive order would "return to the rule of law and prioritizes environmental protection, keeping our waters clean without running rough shod over the Clean Water Act and our economy."
Sullivan argued for years that the Obama administration's "WOTUS" rule amounted to federal overreach. He delivered speeches on the Senate floor, participated in committee hearings questioning the rule, voted to overturn it, and held his own "field hearing" in Anchorage to discuss impacts of the then-proposed rule on Alaska.
He also co-sponsored legislation that would have forced the agency to withdraw the rule and start over.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski also praised Trump's order Tuesday.
"The Waters of the United States or 'WOTUS' rule is one of the most burdensome, overreaching rules imposed by the Obama administration — a regulation with such broad reach that it could be used to impact and delay almost any development project anywhere in Alaska," she said.
"I urge the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to reach the same conclusion that many Alaskans already have: This rule needs to be dismantled, and replaced with a better, clearer and more targeted approach that recognizes proper limits on federal authority and preserves the proper role of the states in protecting our waters," Murkowski said.