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Legislative Watch March 23, 2012

Legislative Watch

Posted March 22, 2012 in U.S. Law and Policy

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The 2nd session of the 112th Congress convened on 1/17. During negotiations concerning extensions of the payroll tax cut and transportation programs, Republican lawmakers repeatedly pressed to include unrelated anti-environment provisions, such as approving the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and blocking EPA pollution reduction standards. On 3/14 the Senate passed a bipartisan version of the transportation bill after defeating efforts to add unrelated anti-environment provisions, while many anti-environment provisions are in still in play in the House version. Other congressional work is focusing on reviewing President Obama's fiscal year 2013 budget request.

Budget

On 2/13, President Obama released his budget for FY 2013, which begins 10/1. The budget would reduce the Environmental Protection Agency's budget by $105 million, to $8.3 billion, with cuts mainly in programs to help states fund water infrastructure projects. On the plus side, a five percent increase would be given to research, enforcement and regulatory programs.

The president's budget also would increase funding by 25 percent for key programs at the Department of Energy that promote clean energy. The budget calls for increasing funding for the DOE Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Program to $2.3 billion, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to $350 million and the DOE Office of Science to $5 billion, as well as extending the Production Tax Credit, which helps underwrite renewable energy projects, and the Treasury Department's cash grant program, which funds renewable projects. The budget also would cut fossil fuel subsidies by $40 billion over 10 years.

The budget also calls for an increase in funding for high speed passenger rail to $47 billion over six years, and would increase the Land and Water Conservation Fund to $450 million. Read more about the president's budget request from NRDC experts.

Air

On 2/16 the EPA officially published the final version of its regulation designed to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants. In response, Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) filed a resolution of disapproval to repeal the rule (S.J.Res 37). As authorized by the Congressional Review Act, the resolution will need 40 co-sponsors to be brought to the floor of the Senate and then needs a simple majority vote to be approved; it is not expected to pass. NRDC's John Walke has more analysis on his blog.

Energy

On 1/18, President Obama denied a presidential permit for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The State Department recommended the rejection citing “insufficient time to obtain the information necessary to assess whether the project, in its current state, is in the national interest.” The president was forced to make the decision because of a provision Republicans added to the temporary payroll tax cut extension in December that required him to decide on Keystone XL within 60 days or the pipeline would have been automatically approved. Following the rejection, Republican leaders immediately began pushing for legislation to require approval of the pipeline. The main House approach, sponsored by Rep. Terry (R-NE), would require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to grant a permit or the pipeline would be considered approved. Republican leaders also tried to add the provision onto the must-pass, full-year payroll tax extension, but eventually gave up in the face of White House and Senate opposition. The House then passed the language as part of its transportation bill (H.R. 3408). While that bill is currently stalled for unrelated reasons (see more below), inclusion of language approving the pipeline remains a top priority for Republican leaders.

In the Senate, Republicans led by Sen. Hoeven (R-ND) attempted to attach a similar provision approving the pipeline to the Senate version of the surface transportation bill. The amendment would have simply approved the pipeline directly without involving any federal agency, but the vote failed to meet the Senate's 60-vote threshold, 56-42. Read more about the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline at Switchboard, NRDC's staff blog.

Transportation

After weeks of delay, and with current authorization running out at the end of March, the Senate voted to pass a two-year transportation bill (S. 1813) on 3/14. The bipartisan bill passed by a vote of 74-22 and has been sent to the House for consideration. Senate Republican leaders had pressed for votes on several non-transportation items, but those efforts ultimately failed to meet the 60-vote threshold. An amendment by Sen. Hoeven (R-ND) to approve the Keystone XL pipeline failed 56-42, an amendment by Sen. Collins (R-ME) to block the EPA's pollution reduction standards for industrial boiler and incinerators failed 52- 46, an amendment from Sen. DeMint (R-SC) to end tax incentives for renewable energy failed 26-72, and Sen. Vitter's (R-LA) amendment to increase offshore permitting for oil and gas drilling failed 43-55. The Senate did pass, by a vote of 76-22, an amendment by Sen. Nelson (D-FL) designed to allow environmental improvements. The amendment would give most of the fines paid to the federal government as a result of the BP oil spill to Gulf coast states for ecosystem and economic restoration efforts. The amendment also includes authorization and dedicated funding for a National Endowment for the Oceans, which would set aside money for coastal improvements automatically each year. Finally, the Senate also voted on an amendment by Sen. Stabenow (D-MI) to extend critical tax incentives for energy efficiency and renewable energy, but that vote failed 49-49.

Meanwhile, despite Speaker Boehner (R-OH) announcing that passage of a five-year surface transportation reauthorization package was one of his top priorities, the House remains deadlocked on the issue due to splits among Republicans and fairly united opposition from Democrats. In an effort to move the bill, Speaker Boehner split the package into three separate bills that would be re-combined if they passed. On 2/16 the House passed the first part of the package, H.R. 3408, which would open vast parts of the country to oil drilling and approve the Keystone XL pipeline. The bill attempts to close the shortfall in transportation funding with royalties from increasing drilling by opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, mandating new drilling leases off the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts, including more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and opening millions of acres in the western United States to oil shale development. The Congressional Budget Office has calculated that the royalties and lease sale profits from expanded drilling would not raise enough funds to close the shortfall for our nation's transportation needs. The bill passed by a vote of 237-187, with 21 Democrats voting in favor of and 21 Republicans voting against the measure. The remaining parts of the overall transportation package still do not have enough support to pass, so work on it has been postponed while House leaders regroup. One particularly controversial provision, which Republicans have since said they would drop, would eliminate guaranteed funding for mass transit. The House will likely return to the issue in mid-April. See NRDC staff experts' Switchboard blogs to read about the issues being debated in the transportation bill.

Water

On 2/29 the House, by a vote of 246-175, passed H.R. 1837, a bill by Rep. Nunes (R-CA) that would preempt state environmental laws, prohibiting California from protecting its rivers, the Bay-Delta estuary and their wildlife and fisheries. It would also prohibit implementation of the bipartisan package of water policy reform legislation adopted by California in 2009, which mandates the development of a comprehensive Delta plan and established co-equal goals of improving water supply reliability and restoring the Bay-Delta estuary. NRDC's Doug Obegi has more information on H.R. 1837 in his blog.

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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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