BUDGET:

Senate plan calls for energy investments, climate preparation

The budget released last night by Senate Democrats calls for substantial investments in energy infrastructure and research as mechanisms to boost the economy and address the effects of climate change.

The plan is heavy on calls for infrastructure investments, including transmission lines, "smart grid" technology, water management and mass transit. The document is not binding on lawmakers but presents Democrats' priorities for the coming years.

The budget also highlights climate change as a key challenge and dedicates continued funds to U.S. EPA and other agencies fighting it.

"It prevents big polluters from putting profits ahead of the health and safety of our families and communities. It keeps our promise to future generations by increasing funding for vital conservation programs," the document says. "And it takes steps to increase funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, science research and development programs across the country, and programs within the Department of Energy in order to continue the push to lower emissions of dangerous greenhouse gases."

Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) unveiled the document last night, ahead of a planned markup this morning. It presents a sharp contrast with the competing plan from House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which calls for cuts to clean energy funding, expanded oil drilling and approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline among its top energy priorities (Greenwire, March 12).

The Senate document won quick praise from environmental groups.

League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski called it a "common-sense plan that recognizes the importance of the EPA to help fight climate change and land conservation programs that protect our open spaces."

Murray's budget focuses heavily on long-standing Democratic priorities to transform the energy sector by expanding the use of renewable sources like wind and solar, improving the grid and moving away from a reliance on fossil fuels. It does recognize that oil and gas will remain key providers of energy for years, but it emphasizes the need to regulate new techniques like hydraulic fracturing that have unlocked massive new supplies.

"Questions remain about new extraction technologies and their impacts on methane emissions and groundwater contamination, as well as on wastewater disposal techniques and chemicals used in the extraction process," the budget says. "Agencies implementing leasing plans must have the resources necessary to make sure that our public lands are developed, where appropriate, without harming public health or the environment."

The Murray budget would also ensure full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a cornerstone of the Obama administration's conservation agenda and a top priority for Democrats, conservationists and sportsmen.

The proposal mirrors legislation introduced earlier this year by Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) that would fund LWCF at its maximum $900 million, a level it has rarely reached. The fund, which uses offshore oil and gas royalties to acquire new federal lands, secure conservation easements and promote urban recreation, has hovered at just above $300 million in recent years.

"This budget understands the importance of access to public lands for all recreation users, from bikers to birders to hunters and anglers," the Democratic budget states. "An estimated 90 million Americans, or more than a quarter of the U.S. population, participated in wildlife-related recreation in 2011."

The LWCF Coalition, which includes conservation, recreation, business and sportsmen's groups, called the proposal a "major victory," arguing it would fulfill a 40-year-old promise to the American people.

The Murray budget would also reauthorize the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act, a popular bipartisan measure that allows revenues from the sale of federal lands to be used for the acquisition of priority landscapes. It also would increase funding for wildland firefighting and watershed recovery programs and for the removal of harmful Forest Service roads and maintenance of trails, and would ensure the continued operation of national parks.

The budget's lands agenda contrasts sharply with a Republican budget unveiled earlier this week that would eliminate an existing requirement that proceeds from land sales be used to purchase other lands and instead would direct 70 percent of those proceeds to deficit reduction. Interior could keep no more than $60 million per year raised through land sales.

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