The Biden administration is taking steps that it says are needed to prevent the degradation of the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS), but which critics said will needlessly leave Oklahoma farmers, energy producers and other businesses at the mercy of federal regulators.
Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA regulates the discharge of pollutants into navigable waterways; the WOTUS rule determines which waters are considered ‘navigable’, and the Biden EPA, like the Trump Administration’s before it, is embarking on a process of rewriting that rule.
In 2015, under President Obama, the EPA broadened the rule to the point that many in Oklahoma complained that even small ponds and ditches on farms and on drill sites were now federally regulated.
"Dramatic expansion of federal power," explained Rep. Frank Lucas, (R) OK-3, "it caused great concern among my aggies, my oil and gas people, main street business people."
Rep. Lucas and other critics found soon a sympathetic ear, however, in President Trump, who put former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt in charge of the EPA.
"With today’s executive order," said Trump during a 2017 signing ceremony, "I’m directing the EPA to take action paving the way for the elimination of this very destructive and horrible rule."
The Trump rule only went into effect last year, but environmentalists say it gives developers too much leeway and is causing harm to wetlands and other waters. On President Biden's first day in office, he ordered that the current WOTUS rule be reviewed, and last month EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the agency would initiate a rulemaking, seeking to put in a place a new rule that draws on lessons learned from both current and previous rules, and which would be durable.
Oklahoma’s congressional delegation is skeptical.
"We are fighting this, we will continue to fight this," said Rep. Lucas in a recent interview, "but I thought we had actually put this to rest a few years ago."
Lucas said elections have consequences and this is one of them. He believes his constituents will subjected to a rule similar to what President Obama's administration had in place, where waters in Oklahoma that aren't actually navigable are being regulated in Washington.
"You want to deal with people in Oklahoma City," Lucas said, referring to the location of the Department of Environmental Quality offices, "not Washington, D.C."
Whatever the new rule is, the process of making it is typically slow, meaning everyone will still be operating under the current rule for probably the next two to three years.