Fight over riders returns with bicameral Interior-EPA action

By Sean Reilly, Phil Taylor, Tiffany Stecker | 06/13/2016 06:54 AM EDT

This week, both House and Senate appropriators are voting on their respective drafts of next year’s spending legislation for U.S. EPA, the Interior Department and the Forest Service.

This week, both House and Senate appropriators are voting on their respective drafts of next year’s spending legislation for U.S. EPA, the Interior Department and the Forest Service.

While the two camps are likely to be relatively close on overall funding allocations for fiscal 2017, they could take dramatically different paths in their approach to policy issues.

The full House Appropriations Committee, for example, will be taking up a subcommittee-passed bill that keeps total spending near this year’s $32 billion level.


But the measure is again studded with riders seeking to stymie a host of administration priorities, from regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions to endangered species reviews for the sage grouse.

Pushing policy riders was a strategy that Senate Republicans also enthusiastically embraced last year. This year, perhaps, not so much.

The Senate Appropriations Committee plans to release a summary of its latest spending bill and hold a subcommittee markup tomorrow. The full panel will take up the language Thursday.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a member of the Interior and Environment Subcommittee, last year claimed credit for key riders, a spokesman declined to say Friday whether he intends to follow a similar route in this round.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) hedged last week, telling E&E Daily that she was striving to craft a bipartisan bill but was unsure whether contentious issues would arise during the markup (E&E Daily, June 10).

But both the subcommittee’s top Democrat, Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, and another senior member, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said they knew of no controversial riders in the base bill.

Outside players with a stake in the outcome will be watching closely. The House bill, for example, would block EPA from implementing its Clean Power Plan and using the social cost of carbon calculation.

The legislation would also bar EPA from using any money next year to pursue new limits on methane emissions from oil and gas facilities.

On Friday, the Center for Methane Emissions Solutions, which describes itself as a voice for businesses involved in efforts to curb methane releases, issued a news release that stopped short of taking a stance on the EPA regulations, but said work on curbing leaks of the potent greenhouse gas could be "a win-win-win for the industry, economy and environment."

A spokesman for Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group that champions the use of appropriations riders to battle the administration, could not be reached for comment Friday.

This week’s twin markups are only early steps in a long, grinding march that will almost certainly last past the beginning of fiscal 2017 in October.

The House version of the Interior-EPA bill, which also covers agencies like the Smithsonian Institution, would carve out $32.1 billion in funding for 2017, about $1 billion below the White House’s request but close to this year’s threshold.

The top-line number for the Senate measure will probably not be much different, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a spending watchdog group.

EPA, water

Under the House bill, EPA would receive $7.98 billion next year, about a 2 percent cut from the current level and well below the administration’s $8.26 billion request.

One target is the agency’s regulatory programs, which would be cut by $43 million from this year’s level and $187 million below the White House proposal.

Some initiatives would buck the downward trend. Spending for two relatively small grant programs — one to reduce diesel emissions and the other to improve air quality in particularly polluted locales — would double under the House bill (E&E Daily, May 25).

Also getting slightly more money than the president requested are the Clean Water and Drinking Water state revolving funds, which would receive $2.07 billion under the House bill.

House appropriators would set aside $1 billion for the Clean Water SRF, which helps fund upgrades to stormwater and sewage treatment systems.

The number is slightly more than the $979.5 million in Obama’s budget request and just below the current spending level of $1.018 billion.

The drinking water fund, which pays for state-run loan programs for water system repairs, would receive $1.07 billion, a 24 percent increase from the $863 million appropriated for fiscal 2016.

Even though clean water projects are typically more expensive than drinking water projects, the ongoing lead contamination crisis in Flint, Mich., has shifted the attention to the latter.

The bill would fund the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) at $50 million, marking the first time the loan program would be funded since it was enacted in 2014.

WIFIA creates a pilot program to use Treasury bonds for multimillion-dollar projects. The president’s budget requested only $20 million — $15 million for loans and $5 million for administration..

In addition, the House legislation would allocate $109.7 million for state grants to improve operations and oversight of drinking water programs, a $7.7 million increase above current spending levels.

It would also set aside $6.5 million for integrated planning activities, agreements between communities and EPA to help bring communities into compliance with the Clean Water Act.

House appropriators added a number of water policy riders, similar to provisions in the fiscal 2017 energy and water spending bill. The most prominent one would block EPA from making changes to the definition of "navigable waters" under the Clean Water Act.

Interior, Forest Service

Members of the House and Senate spending panels will wrestle with key questions over the funding and management of federal lands controlled by Interior and the Forest Service, with likely partisan flare-ups over energy development, roads, conservation and wildfires.

Much of the attention will focus on the forthcoming Senate bill, particularly how it would fund wildfires and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Last year’s Senate Interior-EPA spending legislation would have provided a first-ever fire cap adjustment to prevent the practice of fire borrowing in severe wildfire years.

The language was a partial victory for the Obama administration and logging and conservation groups that have sought to prevent borrowing to spend more on tree harvests and restoration.

But House appropriators did not follow suit, and the year-end omnibus spending measure contained no structural reforms to how wildfires are funded.

This year’s appropriation effort comes weeks after Murkowski and a bipartisan cadre of Western senators released the draft "Wildfire Budgeting, Response and Forest Management Act," which would seek to both end fire borrowing and streamline permitting for logging projects that mitigate wildfire severity (E&E Daily, May 26).

It remains unclear which wildfire and logging reform language the Senate spending bill will adopt, if any.

Conservation and sportsmen’s groups will be watching closely for how appropriations fund LWCF, the government’s main program for acquiring new lands, preserving private lands and helping states fund local recreation projects.

Last year’s omnibus provided $450 million for LWCF, a nearly 50 percent boost over the previous year. The House bill would cut funding to $322 million and shift more money to states, a policy direction Murkowski favors. The White House has asked for $475 million in discretionary funding for LWCF in fiscal 2017.

Senate appropriators will find it a challenge to maintain current LWCF funding levels given that the panel’s overall spending allowance is $134 million less than fiscal 2016. Advocates also expect the Senate to fund payments in lieu of taxes, a roughly $450 million county assistance program, in its bill.

Murkowski in March balked at the Obama administration’s request for $425 million in mandatory spending for LWCF and $1.5 billion in mandatory spending over three years for the National Park Service centennial.

"Don’t get me wrong — I will work with the administration and my colleagues on a responsible, bipartisan National Park Service centennial bill, but the $1.5 billion proposal put forward here is simply unrealistic," Murkowski said in March.

Land riders

While it’s unclear how many policy riders the panel will include in its bill, a top priority for Murkowski is undoubtedly the approval of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which she successfully slipped into her 2016 spending bill but failed to pass in the omnibus.

Murkowski has made construction of the 10-mile gravel road a central plank of her public lands platform, calling it a critical lifeline for residents in the remote community of King Cove, Alaska, to access medical care in emergencies.

Critics including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell — who officially rejected it in December 2013 — say there are better transportation solutions than slicing a road through designated wilderness that provides key habitat for migratory birds.

The House bill, as it stands, would block a major Bureau of Land Management rule to curb the escape of natural gas from drilling operations on federal lands in the West and would prevent the agency from hiking royalty rates for oil, gas or coal.

It would also require the Fish and Wildlife Service to reissue rules removing Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Wyoming and the Great Lakes, among other policy riders.

One key authority the bill has not touched is the president’s ability to designate national monuments under the Antiquities Act. Republicans have long complained that the 1906 law vests too much power in the White House to permanently ban activities like drilling, mining and road building on federal lands.

As President Obama considers designating additional monuments in or near Republican congressional districts in Utah, Arizona, Nevada and Oregon, it’s likely the issue will arise as the House spending bill advances.

Last summer, the full House voted 222-206 for a Republican amendment to the 2016 spending bill that would restrict agencies from implementing a presidential monument designation in several Western states. Negotiators nixed the language from the omnibus.

Another issue is the sage grouse. While the House panel’s bill would bar FWS from listing the bird under ESA, many Western Republicans would like the bill also to roll back sage grouse land-use plans by the BLM and Forest Service that industry groups have criticized as overly restrictive. The full committee markup or House floor action may offer an opportunity to pass such an amendment.

Separately, the House bill would block the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement from pushing ahead with its stream protection rule.

Schedule: The House Appropriations Committee markup is Wednesday, June 15, at 9:30 a.m. in 2359 Rayburn.

Schedule: The Senate subcommittee markup is Tuesday, June 14, at 9:30 a.m. in 124 Dirksen.

Schedule: The Senate full committee markup is Thursday, June 16, at 10:30 a.m. in 106 Dirksen.