GOP taking aim at key Obama environmental priorities with markups on tap

By Jean Chemnick, Phil Taylor | 06/15/2015 07:20 AM EDT

Article updated at 4:25 p.m. EDT.

Funding for U.S. EPA and the Interior Department will be on the agenda on both sides of Capitol Hill tomorrow, with EPA’s Clean Power Plan, ozone proposal and the newly finalized Waters of the U.S. rule all likely targets.

The House Appropriations Committee will mark up its fiscal 2016 measure in the morning, followed by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies in the afternoon. The House markup is likely to be long and filled with votes on amendments, many of them aimed at President Obama’s top-tier environmental priorities.

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The Senate markup will probably be less eventful. Interior and Environment Subcommittee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said last week that she was focused on seeing her panel’s bill progress through regular order. The threat of contentious riders have prevented that from happening in the past.

"I can’t speak to the direction the House may go," she said. "I think we traditionally have seen they’ve been a little more aggressive with riders than you’ve seen on the Senate side."

The House bill as approved by the subcommittee last week is already aggressive (Greenwire, June 10). It funds Interior and EPA at a level $3 billion below Obama’s budget request for the two agencies combined.

Besides trimming EPA’s allocation by 9 percent to $7.4 billion, the House measure would prevent EPA from implementing a new rule to expand the number of water bodies in the United States that get automatic protection under the Clean Water Act. It also would bar EPA from enforcing an existing permitting requirement for large producers of greenhouse gases, taking steps to phase out heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons, or incorporating the administration’s controversial social cost of carbon estimate into any regulations.

The latter is an estimate for the cost to society of each ton of carbon dioxide added to the Earth’s atmosphere, and Republicans on Capitol Hill and elsewhere complain that it was crafted with no input from the public despite playing a role in the cost-benefit analyses for numerous rulemakings by EPA, the Energy Department and other agencies.

At the subcommittee markup of the bill last week, Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said EPA’s Waters of the U.S. rule and Clean Power Plan were likely candidates for policy riders again this year. The committee did not respond Friday to inquiries about possible amendments that may be offered tomorrow.

There is already language in the bill that would bar EPA from moving ahead with the Clean Water Act rule and from promulgating carbon dioxide rules for new, modified and existing power plants. The policy rider pertaining to the new plant rule bars the agency from basing any such regulation on projects that benefited from federal financial backing. EPA is set to finalize rules for new, modified and existing power plants this summer.

A spokesman for House Appropriations Committee ranking member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said the Democratic amendments would target "insufficient funding levels and damaging and ideological policy riders."

Interior, Forest Service

The House bill also contains a bevy of policy riders designed to hamstring the Obama administration’s wildlife policies and would significantly cut funding for land acquisitions.

Tomorrow’s full committee markup will likely feature debate over GOP provisions to extend a ban on the Fish and Wildlife Service listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act and to reissue rules to delist wolves in Wyoming and the Great Lakes that were recently tossed by a federal court. Both provisions have sparked a backlash from wildlife groups that oppose congressional meddling in ESA.

The House bill would also reduce funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund from just over $300 million to $248 million and shift funding away from federal land purchases, a goal of Republicans in both chambers who argue that federal agencies are struggling to manage the lands they already own.

The House bill also rejects key Obama administration proposals to impose new fees on oil and gas drillers and public lands ranchers and to shift some wildfire funding to a disaster pot designed to prevent the Forest Service from having to deplete funds from non-fire accounts.

Public lands stakeholders, including energy developers, ranchers, sportsmen and environmentalists, will be watching closely for amendments affecting Interior and the Forest Service.

One area that could see action is the Bureau of Land Management’s handling of the greater sage grouse. While the bill would already block Fish and Wildlife from preparing a listing rule for the bird, it does not block BLM plans to enhance habitat protections across more than 50 million acres of the West that are designed to prevent the bird from going extinct.

Some Western governors and industry officials say the BLM plans are overly restrictive. Republicans have already attached language to the House’s defense authorization package to roll back the BLM plans, and similar language has been proposed as an amendment to the Senate defense package. Appropriations bills could offer an additional legislative vehicle to block or amend the BLM plans if Republicans so choose.

On the Senate side, Murkowski’s spending bill is expected to follow the House’s lead in slashing spending on land acquisitions and rejecting the administration’s proposed drilling and grazing fees.

Murkowski is a top critic of using the Land and Water Conservation Fund for federal land purchases, so her bill may also seek to shift funding to states to invest in local recreation projects.

A big question is whether Murkowski’s bill will break from the House measure and authorize disaster funding for wildfires. Murkowski has yet to endorse the administration’s disaster funding proposal, though she has acknowledged the need to prevent fire borrowing and has pledged to seek national forestry reforms to reduce long-term wildfire costs. The Senate panel last year endorsed Obama’s disaster funding proposal while it was under Democratic leadership.

Another unknown is whether Murkowski’s bill will include money for payments in lieu of taxes (PILT), which compensate rural counties with federal lands that pay no property taxes. PILT has historically been funded with mandatory dollars, but those payments have expired. The House bill includes $452 million in discretionary funding for PILT, which reduced the pot of money available for other Interior, Forest Service and EPA programs. Appropriators would prefer to see PILT funded outside of the discretionary budget.

Schedule:The House markup is Tuesday, June 16, at 10:15 a.m. in 2359 Rayburn.

Schedule: The Senate markup is Tuesday, June 16, at 2:30 p.m. in 124 Dirksen.

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