Senate appropriators finally unveiled their 2012 proposal to fund the Interior Department and U.S. EPA late Friday afternoon but hinted that it will not receive a Senate vote and instead will form the basis for negotiations with the House.
"We believe that this proposal constitutes a starting point for further discussions with our Senate colleagues and serves as a solid foundation for future negotiations with the House," Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a joint statement accompanying the draft.
The Interior-EPA bill would be the only fiscal 2012 spending bill not to receive a committee vote. The Senate Appropriations Committee has already approved all 11 of the other bills to fund federal agencies for the year that began Oct. 1.
Asked earlier last week about his subcommittee's progress, Reed sidestepped questions about why his bill has not followed the normal process. "We've been working with Senator Murkowski and the staff to try to come up with what we think is a good starting point," he said.
Republicans in the House and Senate have said Democrats are trying to avoid giving the GOP an opportunity to attach language to the bill limiting EPA's authorities under the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and other laws for the duration of the bill.
The draft as written would provide $10.2 billion for the Interior Department in fiscal 2012, down $287 million compared with fiscal 2011 levels. EPA would receive $8.62 billion, down $61 million from enacted levels.
GOP members in the House have weighed down that chamber's bill (H.R. 2584) with amendments that would place a one-year stay on EPA rules related to carbon dioxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, among many others.
Republicans in the Senate have said that similar riders should be part of their chamber's bill, but Democrats have pledged to fight them tooth and nail. Reed and Murkowski did not include EPA riders in their draft released Friday, but votes in committee or on the floor would provide an opening for them to be offered as amendments.
Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said last week that the EPA spending bill would be a natural home for his amendment to prevent EPA from formulating new coarse particle restrictions that would include farm dust.
"Ultimately what you need to do is have an impact on EPA," Johanns said. He added that the Senate Agriculture appropriations bill might also be an opportunity to offer his amendment, but the Interior-EPA bill "would be more ideal."
But Johanns said Democrats were unlikely to bring it to the floor precisely because it would be subject to amendments.
"I'll bet the chances of them bringing EPA to the floor are somewhere between zero and zero, because I think there would be so many senators on both sides of the aisle who would want amendments to what they are doing," Johanns said.
"I think they'll try to do that in a different sort of way," he said.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) likewise has said he believes Senate Democrats have opted not to hold votes on the EPA spending bill in order to avoid a debate on policy riders.
He said last week that while House and Senate negotiators may reach agreement on levels of spending for programs at EPA and Interior, he expects the question of riders to be more controversial.
"I think once we get some common numbers, that we could come to an agreement on the numbers in the bill. I don't think that would be too hard," he said. "The debate is going to be over what riders stay, what riders go."
While he does not expect every House-approved rider to be part of the final bill, Simpson said, "there are some that we're going to fight for."
He said House leaders would ultimately decide which of the bill's many policy provisions are "we going to fall on our swords for."
The federal government is currently operating on a stopgap spending bill that is set to expire on Nov. 18.
Bill maintains Interior conservation
The draft would maintain roughly level funding for key Interior conservation programs that were slashed under the House's fiscal 2012 plan, including land acquisition, species protections and wetlands preservation.
It also contains language to support Obama administration requests to bolster oversight of offshore drilling and force oil and gas operators to pay a share of their inspections. The bill would triple the length of time the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) can review exploration plans, a move that last year drew fire from Republicans and oil-state Democrats (E&ENews PM, Dec. 7, 2010).
Michael Bromwich, director of BOEM, has repeatedly said he believes a month is not enough time to adequately review exploration plans, particularly in light of new safety regulations established following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year.
The draft would allow Interior to charge operators up to $32,000 for inspections of offshore facilities and up to $5,700 for onshore wells, depending on the size and type of facilities.
The Appropriation Committee's failed omnibus funding bill for fiscal 2011 sought to raise an additional $50 million for offshore safety by raising inspection fees to between $12,000 to $36,000 depending on the type of platform and number of operating wells (E&E Daily, Dec. 15, 2010).
In what may be seen as a victory for conservation groups, the fiscal 2012 draft funding bill roughly maintains funding for key programs to acquire and protect new federal lands, protect species and preserve wetlands.
The draft would provide $338 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which allows land management agencies to buy new federal lands, purchase easements on private lands and assist states in promoting urban recreation. The funding is a slight increase from fiscal 2011 levels and more than five times the levels originally proposed by the House.
Yet it is still just over one-third of the $900 million requested in the Obama budget.
The Fish and Wildlife Service would receive $25 million for its endangered species listing program, about par with what the administration requested. That is a major break from the House plan, which originally barred the agency from listing new species or designating critical habitat before a bipartisan vote to remove the provision.
Other key conservation marks include $36 million for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, $48 million for cooperative endangered species conservation and $61 million in state and tribal wildlife grants. Each are roughly even with current funding but far short of the Obama proposal.
The bill does not appear to contain a provision barring groups from challenging a proposed delisting of wolves in Wyoming, as was included in the House bill. It also does not appear to prevent Interior from reducing managing bighorn sheep in such a way to reduce domestic sheep grazing on public lands, another House provision that drew the ire of wildlife groups.
Draft would boost Mont. wilderness
In what could be a major victory for conservationists and Montana timber companies, the bill contains a sweeping proposal from Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to designate nearly 700,000 acres of wilderness and mandate timber harvests on about 100,000 more acres.
The inclusion of Tester's "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act" marks the second time the freshman senator's keystone lands bill has been included in a must-pass funding measure. The bill, which carries the support of a major environmental coalition and key timber groups in the state, was included in the Senate's 2011 omnibus funding bill that died last December amid partisan rancor.
Tester's office did not provide a statement on the bill, saying he will wait to see if it advances in the chamber and the House, where it is strongly opposed by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who is vying for Tester's Senate seat in 2012.
"I'm glad to see that Senator Tester is continuing to follow through with his promise ... to us that he would push this," said Sherm Anderson, owner of Sun Mountain Lumber Inc. in Deer Lodge, Mont., and a former Republican state senator.
"We've worked pretty hard on this for five years or more through collaborative efforts with environmental groups," Anderson said. "We think it's a win-win for both of us, and I'm glad to see he's trying to move it any way he can."
The bill would pair a large wilderness designation with mandatory timber harvests, something that has drawn the scorn of some environmentalists and concern from the Forest Service that it would set a precedent of managing from Washington. However, the agency said it supports the bill's aims and that its harvest levels are achievable (Greenwire, Sept. 14).
When it comes to mining, the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) would see its budget cut by $21.6 million compared to the 2011 appropriated amount. The $141 million recommendation in the Senate proposal is lower than both the president's request and the House plan. All sides appear to agree on cutting the abandoned mine reclamation fund, a move that has alarmed states.
The new Senate blueprint mirrors the House and the White House in suggesting roughly $27 million for the program, an $8 million cut. However, the president's idea to focus only on high-priority sites and stop payments to states that have finished cleaning up abandoned coal mines has failed to get traction in the past on Capitol Hill.
Click here to read the proposal.
Reporter Manuel Quinones contributed.