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Legislative Watch January 9, 2012

Legislative Watch

Posted January 9, 2012 in U.S. Law and Policy

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In early December the House approved, largely by party-line votes, three bills that would significantly alter the entire regulatory system in ways that would make it much harder to issue new rules to protect health and the environment; the Obama administration issued strong veto threats against all three bills. Then as Congress rushed to finish its business for 2011, House Republicans pushed to include anti-environment riders on both the omnibus spending bill and the payroll tax cut extension. Few anti-environment provisions made it into the spending bill; the tax bill includes one rider, a Republican provision requiring the president to make a decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline within 60 days.

Budget/Appropriations

On 12/17, the Senate voted 67-32 to pass the final version of the Omnibus Appropriations Act (H.R. 2055) one day after the House approved it 296-121. On 12/23, President Obama signed the bill, which contains the nine remaining spending bills for the current fiscal year (which began 10/1/11), including those funding the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The bill funds the Department of Energy at $25.8 billion, which is $1.5 billion less than fiscal year 2011 levels but $1 billion more than the original House version and $200 million more than the Senate version. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy receives $1.8 billion, a $20 million increase from last year, and the ARPA-E program, which helps develop new energy technologies, receives a $95 million increase in funding to $275 million. On the other hand, the Sect. 1705 loan guarantee program for renewable energy projects saw its remaining $181 million rescinded. The bill also decreases funding for research and development of traditional fuels like oil and gas by $51 million, to a total $534 million.

The bill provides $10.3 billion in funding for the Interior Department, which is about $310 million less than current spending, but is $400 million more than the House version proposed. The bill funds the EPA at $8.5 billion, a $240 million decrease from current levels, but $1.3 billion more than the original House version included. (The Senate never set spending levels for the two agencies.) Under the final agreement the EPA's funding for clean air and climate research program was reduced by $14 million, the regulatory development office by $12 million and air regulatory programs by $14 million.

House Republicans also tried to load up the bill with anti-environment "riders," provisions unrelated to overall spending levels, but that would block environmental and health protections. The House version included almost 40 anti-environment riders, but most of these were kept out of the final provisions because of opposition from President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) and House Minority Whip Hoyer (D-MD). Those that survived include a provision to block funding to enforce new light bulb efficiency standards, a provision that will exempt aspects of Arctic oil drilling from Clean Air Act standards and a provision exempting the logging industry from Clean Water Act pollution limits. For a full list of anti-environment riders in the bill, click here.

Air

On 12/8, by a vote of 268-150, the House passed Rep. Noem’s (R-SD) Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act (H.R. 1633). While sponsors’ statements focused on “farm dust,” which the EPA has said it has no intention to regulate, the bill would actually block the EPA's ability to curb large particle pollution (soot) from any source. The Obama administration threatened to veto the legislation.

Energy

On 12/12, the House voted to approve Rep. Shuster's (R-PA) Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act (H.R. 2845). The Senate followed suit the next day and passed the measure by unanimous consent. The bipartisan bill aims to strengthen federal pipeline safety standards, increases civil penalties against pipeline owners that violate safety rules, conditions state-level funding on tougher measures to ensure people learn where certain lines may be before moving earth for construction, and authorizes $107 million for safety inspections.

On 12/17, by a vote of 89-10, the Senate passed legislation (S.Amdt. 1465 to H.R. 3630) for a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut. Included in the bill was a rider, demanded by Republicans, that would require President Obama to decide within 60 days whether to approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. This congressional action is in response to an earlier move by the White House to delay a decision on the pipeline until 2013. Administration officials have indicated that the president would have to reject the 2,000-mile-long pipeline if it only has 60 days to consider it. On 12/23, after a few days of disagreement on the tax provisions in the bill, the House and Senate agreed by unanimous consent to pass a version of the tax bill that includes the rider (H.R. 3765), and the bill was promptly signed into law by President Obama on the same day.

Environmental Regulations

On 12/1, by a vote of 263-159, the House passed H.R. 527, the Regulatory Flexibility Improvements Act. Introduced by Rep. Smith (R-TX), the bill would require additional lengthy reviews of any regulation that could possibly have any indirect impact on small business.

On 12/2, the House passed H.R. 3010, the Regulatory Accountability Act, also introduced by Rep. Smith (R-TX), by a vote of 253-167. The bill, which is more far-reaching than H.R. 527, would slow the process of writing regulations by requiring redundant analyses and allowing more lawsuits. It also would amend numerous statutes, including the Clean Air Act, by preventing agencies from setting standards that are based solely on health. A slightly different version of the bill has been introduced in the Senate by Sens. Portman (R-OH), Pryor (D-AR) and Collins (R-ME).

On 12/7, the House passed H.R. 10, the Regulations from the Executive In Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, introduced by Rep. Davis (R-KY). By far the most radical of the three bills, the bill would alter more than a century of law by requiring congressional approval of every major regulation. The vote was 241-184, with every Republican supporting the measure and just four Democrats, Reps. Barrow (GA), Boren (OK), McIntyre (NC) and Peterson (MN), voting in favor.

Nominations

On 12/13, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee confirmed Rebecca Wodder, former CEO of American Rivers, to be the next Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks at the Interior Department. The post oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and all Interior programs related to conservation, and is responsible for implementing the Endangered Species Act. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee must confirm the nomination before it can receive a vote by the full Senate.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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