APPROPRIATIONS:

House eyes steep cuts and policy riders for EPA, Interior

House appropriators today unveiled a spending bill for U.S. EPA and the Interior Department that would give the agencies less money than they received during the George W. Bush administration and stop some of the Obama administration's signature initiatives on climate change, water pollution and public lands.

The bill, which will be marked up at a Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee hearing tomorrow, suggests the simmering fight over environmental programs will return to the front burner this summer as lawmakers try to reach a spending deal with President Obama for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

This time, Republicans want steeper cuts than in H.R. 1, the spending bill that laid out their priorities before a budget deal was struck to keep the government running through the fall.

The bill also includes a lengthy list of policy riders, many of which mirror proposals that have moved through the House but gotten little traction in the Senate. They include provisions to block U.S. EPA from ordering companies to report their greenhouse gas emissions, stop limits on greenhouse gases from power plants and other industrial facilities for one year, and pre-empt proposed rules for coal ash and cooling water at power plants.

"Our government can't afford to continue on its recent spending binge with its head in the sand when it comes to our fiscal challenges," Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said in a statement. "In this bill we face those challenges head on, setting priorities and distinguishing between what is necessary and what would just be nice to do -- something American families do every day. The bill reins in out-of-control regulation and provides the certainty that our economy needs to make a strong recovery."

U.S. EPA would receive $7.1 billion, about $1.5 billion below this year's levels and $1.8 billion less than the president wants. Most of it would come from deeper cuts to state and local water infrastructure grants that also were slashed earlier this year, but nearly $500 million would come straight from the agency's own operations and rulemaking efforts.

The new bill would provide the Interior Department $9.9 billion, which is $720 million below the agency's current budget and $1.2 billion below the president's request.

Tacked onto the bill is H.R. 2021, which would expedite air permits for offshore drilling in federal waters such as the Arctic Ocean. The bill, which was prompted by Royal Dutch Shell PLC's struggle to get an EPA air permit to drill off Alaska's northern coast this summer, passed the House last month over an objection from the White House, but it has not moved in the Senate.

Also included is H.R. 872, which would exempt pesticide users from having to obtain a new Clean Water Act permit if they spray over water. That legislation already passed the House, but Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) placed a hold on the bill in the Senate after it cleared the Senate Agriculture Committee by a voice vote.

The bill would also stop environmental groups from challenging any future deal between Interior and the state of Wyoming to strip Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the state. The agreement for the current year included a rider that delisted the wolf in Montana and Idaho -- but not Wyoming -- and riled up environmental groups by blocking their lawsuits.

Today's proposal would also slash funding by nearly 80 percent for land acquisitions at Interior agencies and the Forest Service, nearly emptying out the Land and Water Conservation Fund in a move meant to stop the administration from expanding public lands.

Altogether, the bill infuriated environmental and conservation groups, which said it would weaken government programs that are meant to keep the air, water and land clean.

"This is a contract on America masquerading as a spending bill," said Scott Slesinger, legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's nothing short of a declaration of war on our most basic health protections."

EPA climate programs

Under the bill, EPA would get about $468 million less than the agency received in 2006, the latest in a series of proposed cuts for an agency that has borne the brunt of Republican anger over the regulations that have been put in place by the Obama administration.

Simpson criticized EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson earlier this year for shielding federal programs from the deepest cuts, and his bill would take away $422 million from EPA operations and $76 million from regulatory programs. State, local and tribal governments that put the federal rules in place would lose $102 million in assistance grants.

His bill would also block several new rules that have been targeted by industry groups on Capitol Hill. Chief among them are the agency's new greenhouse gas rules, which would lose $46 million.

The rider blocking upcoming rules for power plants and refineries is just the latest in a string of attempts by House Republicans to stop EPA from regulating carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions. The chamber passed similar language as part of its fiscal 2011 stopgap spending bill, though it was later stripped from the final bill after negotiations with the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The House also passed a stand-alone bill to permanently stop EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, but it has also stalled in the Senate.

Last year, when Democrats still controlled the House, appropriators in the House narrowly defeated a similar amendment. But by adding the language to the underlying bill, Simpson has made a vote unnecessary, unless another member offers an amendment that would permanently prevent EPA from regulating carbon dioxide.

The bill would also block climate change lawsuits based on common law, such as the one that was rejected by the Supreme Court last month because EPA had already started to act.

Water

The largest cut in the entire bill -- $967 million -- would fall to the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, which make up a third of EPA's budget and help states finance federally mandated upgrades to aging, outdated and frequently overwhelmed drinking water and wastewater systems. That cut brings the programs back to 2008 funding levels.

The nation's largely century-old water infrastructure has a funding gap approaching a trillion dollars, but committee Republicans said the cuts were justified, noting that they received $6 billion in the federal stimulus. Supporters of the program weren't convinced.

"This bill is an assault on Americans' water," said Piper Crowell, clean water advocate at Environment America, adding that the bill "clearly puts the interests of polluters over those of the public."

Other water programs also took big hits: EPA programs to restore the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound would face cuts of $49 million, $4 million and $8 million, respectively. Money for wetlands conservation would continue to shrink to 40 percent of 2010 levels.

GOP authors also targeted the administration's controversial new guidance on how to interpret the Clean Water Act, which would expand federal jurisdiction over new wetlands and streams across the country.

Proponents say the policy, which is now up for public comment, would restore needed federal protections that were rolled back in the wake of two muddled Supreme Court decisions and subsequent guidance from the George W. Bush administration. But critics in the agriculture, homebuilding, mining and oil industries say the policy is an unconstitutional power grab by the federal government.

Language in the bill would block EPA from using any money "to carry out, implement, administer, or enforce" any changes to Clean Water Act jurisdiction enacted after the most recent Bush-era guidance.

Similarly, language would block expansion of EPA's stormwater discharge program in advance of anticipated rules to force better cleanup of runoff at construction sites and elsewhere.

One kernel of news was included that pleased Florida greens: The bill would authorize raising another 5.5 miles of Tamiami Trail, the highway that cuts across the Everglades and blocks its flow of water. Construction only recently got underway on the first mile of that bridge, a breakthrough that followed two decades of legal warfare.

"It's time to go ahead and finish the whole thing," said Julie Hill-Gabriel, director of Everglades policy for Audubon of Florida.

Chemicals

Republicans also targeted EPA's Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, which assesses how substances affect human health and the environment. Its reports are typically used as the underpinnings for stricter regulations.

The appropriations bill directs EPA to improve the IRIS program as outlined in a National Academy of Sciences' review of EPA's assessment of formaldehyde. The review said EPA supported its conclusion that formaldehyde exposure causes cancer in the upper throat and nose, but it was highly critical of the methodologies used to get there.

"Overall, the committee found that EPA's draft assessment was not prepared in a logically consistent fashion, lacks clear links to an underlying conceptual framework and does not sufficiently document methods and criteria used to identify evidence for selecting and evaluating studies," the report said (Greenwire, April 8).

The spending measure would require EPA to implement recommendations outlined in the report and would require the agency to provide a report to Congress on those improvements by Dec. 1. It would also prevent EPA from taking any action on any IRIS assessment that does not follow the science panel's advice.

Republicans also targeted specific IRIS assessments. The legislation would prohibit EPA from setting a new standard below "background concentration levels" based on an IRIS assessment issued after May 21, 2009. That appears to target IRIS's controversial assessment of dioxin, a naturally occurring chemical that is also a byproduct of paper production, waste incineration and other industries.

EPA's recommended contamination plan, released on May 26, 2009, has been strongly opposed by industry, which has questioned the science behind EPA's assessment (Greenwire, June 7).

Interior and Forest Service

The bill includes a $315 million cut for the Fish and Wildlife Service, a $129 million cut for the National Park Service and a $63 million cut for the Bureau of Land Management below current levels.

For land management agencies, the House proposal would limit legal challenges of endangered species delistings and Bureau of Land Management grazing decisions, curtail the Interior secretary's use of the Endangered Species Act and prevent Interior from enforcing boating regulations on an Alaskan preserve.

The House proposal also rejects Obama's request to raise fees for onshore oil and gas inspection fees by $38 million and offshore drilling fees by $55 million.

And the measure would forbid legal challenges of any future agreement to delist the wolf in Wyoming and the Great Lakes region, a provision likely to anger environmentalists and animal rights groups.

Interior and Wyoming officials are set to meet this week to continue discussing a potential management plan for the state's more than 300 wolves. The sides appear in agreement on the number of wolves to maintain, but they have yet to agree on precisely where and when the animals should be protected as "trophy game."

Similar to a provision by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) in the 2011 funding bill, the agreement would be immune from lawsuits.

"The far right feeding frenzy continues," said Bill Snape, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which fought delisting decisions in Montana and Idaho and calls for maintaining genetic diversity for wolves.

The bill would also forbid Interior from enforcing regulations over boating and other activities on waters in Alaska's Yukon-Charley National Preserve after accusations of harassment last year by National Park Service law enforcement officials of local boaters.

The provision was added by Alaska Rep. Don Young (R) to prevent the agency's "abuse of power," spokeswoman Meredith Kenny said.

In a disappointment to conservation groups, the bill cuts nearly 80 percent from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is used to fund land acquisitions, link habitats and assist states in promoting recreation.

The $61 million is the same funding as proposed in H.R. 1 and would allow funding mostly for staff and land appraisals rather than actual projects, said Alan Rowsome, director of conservation funding for the Wilderness Society.

"Obviously at that level, you are practically eviscerating the program," Rowsome said. "Hopefully we can work with the chairman and Senate and White House to increase that number."

Other major provisions include a $129 million cut in NPS funding below last year's level, although operation of the national park system would fall $7 million below enacted levels, allowing parks to remain open without furloughs or employee layoffs.

The bill would also provide $4.5 billion for the Forest Service, a reduction of $164 million from last year's level and $412 million below the president's request.

Mining

The legislation also includes provisions to roll back the Obama administration's expanded oversight of mining.

The measure blocks the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement from pursuing a stream protection rule, which is expected to be released in draft form later this year despite opposition from mining companies and their allies on Capitol Hill.

It also aims to stop implementation of an agreement between EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, which set aside some coal-mining permits for "enhanced review," and would pull funding for implementation of draft guidance that EPA says is needed to prevent water pollution from Appalachian mountaintop removal mining projects.

In another issue that is key to coal-industry supporters in Congress, the legislation would prevent EPA from regulating coal-combustion ash as a hazardous substance. The proposal comes as Republicans prepare to mark up a bill with a regulatory program for coal ash, which would also prohibit it from being treated as hazardous waste.

The bill also stops the administration from withdrawing about 1 million acres of federal land from new hardrock mining claims around the Grand Canyon. Many Arizona Republicans oppose the move, and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of the Appropriations Committee, had signaled his intention to use the appropriations process to block the administration from enacting a long-term withdrawal.

Click here to read the spending bill.

Reporters Jean Chemnick, Jeremy P. Jacobs, Paul Quinlan and Manuel Quinones contributed.