House unveils bill attacking Obama energy, water priorities

By Daniel Bush, Annie Snider, Manuel Quiñones | 04/14/2015 01:07 PM EDT

House Republicans today released a spending bill for energy and water programs that would block the Obama administration’s controversial water rule for a year while boosting funding for fossil energy programs and a long-stalled effort to reopen the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository site.

House Republicans today released a spending bill for energy and water programs that would block the Obama administration’s controversial water rule for a year while boosting funding for fossil energy programs and a long-stalled effort to reopen the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository site.

The bill, which would provide fiscal 2016 funding for the Department of Energy, Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies, is scheduled to be marked up tomorrow by the House Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.

The legislation will likely be on the House floor in the coming weeks and is expected to pass the lower chamber by the beginning of next month, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told GOP members last week (E&ENews PM, April 9).


Overall, the bill would provide $35.4 billion to the covered agencies, a $1.2 billion increase from current spending levels but $633 million below President Obama’s budget request for energy and water programs.

The bill includes $5.6 billion for the Army Corps, a $142 million hike over fiscal 2015 spending levels, and $10.3 billion for energy programs under DOE, a $64 million boost over the amount Congress enacted last year, according to a committee summary.

Although the bill would increase overall energy spending, it focuses on boosting funding for fossil energy and nuclear while cutting money for renewable energy programs, setting up a showdown between House Republicans and the White House as Obama races to implement his climate and energy agenda before he leaves office in January 2017.

"This is a responsible bill that prioritizes national security needs and improving our nation’s infrastructure within tight budget caps," said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the energy and water Appropriations subcommittee. "It makes critical investments in the maintenance and safety of our nuclear weapons stockpile, while also funding important infrastructure projects and research that will increase U.S. economic competitiveness and growth."

DOE: Renewables, efficiency cut; fossil sees boost

The House bill would provide $1.7 billion to DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, a $279 million cut from current spending levels and significantly less than the $2.7 billion Obama requested.

House Republicans have used the appropriations process to signal their opposition to increased renewable energy funding and support for spending on fossil fuel programs.

The legislation would fund DOE’s fossil energy research and development efforts at $605 million, an increase of $34 million from fiscal 2015 levels. The goal is to boost funding for research related to coal, natural gas and oil, including carbon capture and sequestration.

The bill would boost nuclear research, development and demonstration activities by $23 million to $936 million. The legislation would also provide $5.9 billion for environmental cleanup efforts, a $39 million increase over current spending levels. A majority of the money, $5.1 billion, would go toward cleaning up former nuclear weapons production and research facilities.

Bill sets up fight over Yucca

The cuts to DOE energy programs would help offset a $150 million boost in nuclear waste disposal funding that House Republicans want to spend on reopening the controversial Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.

The bill also includes $50 million for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to continue reviewing DOE’s application to build a repository under the mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The Obama administration shuttered the project, which is fiercely opposed by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), but GOP lawmakers are continuing to push to have the site reopened.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) led a bipartisan House trip to Yucca Mountain last week to draw attention to the issue (Greenwire, April 10). Simpson has also made reopening the site a top priority.

But Simpson said yesterday that the effort will ultimately be decided in the Senate, where Reid will continue to fight the project until he retires at the end of next year (E&E Daily, April 14).

Army Corps, Reclamation

The House measure offers the next move in the annual dance over Army Corps funding, in which the White House, regardless of party, lowballs funding levels for the water infrastructure agency and Congress goes about plussing them up.

This year the House proposes bumping the Army Corps’ overall budget up to $5.6 billion — $142 million higher than the fiscal 2015 enacted levels and $865 million more than the Obama administration requested.

The measure would raise the corps’ all-important construction account to just over $1.6 billion, a more than $450 million increase over the president’s request but a $9 million dip from fiscal 2015 enacted levels. And it would give the agency’s operations and maintenance account a $149 million bump, up to $3.058 billion.

Navigation interests would be among the bigger beneficiaries of the extra funding, although the $2.4 billion allocated for such projects and studies in the bill is still less than the $2.755 billion that they were asking for (E&E Daily, March 12).

The measure would spend $1.178 billion of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for its intended purpose, a $12 million increase over fiscal 2015 levels but well short of the $1.25 billion target set in last year’s Water Resources Reform and Development Act. The trust fund is fed by a 0.125 percent ad valorem tax on goods that arrive on U.S. docks, but to the frustration of navigation interests, only about half the fund’s revenues have been put to use for their intended purpose in recent years, with the balance being used to offset federal spending elsewhere in the budget.

The Inland Waterways Trust Fund saw more of its wishes granted in the House bill.

After shifting a greater share of the most expensive project on the country’s system of locks and dams last year to federal taxpayers and winning a 9-cent fuel tax increase to fund the trust fund, industry’s pot of money to fund its share of construction project costs is growing. The House bill would put the trust fund’s balance to full use, building new lock and dam projects and undertaking major rehabilitations of aging and failing ones.

For the Bureau of Reclamation and other Interior Department water programs, the measure would appropriate $1.1 billion — $1 million below the president’s request and a $35 million dip from fiscal 2015, which included additional funding to respond to the entrenched drought gripping the western United States.

The measure would fund major environmental restoration programs — namely the Central Valley project restoration fund and the California Bay-Delta restoration program — at roughly the same levels as last year.

Policy riders

With the Obama administration preparing to finalize its "Waters of the U.S." rule — aimed at clearing up years of confusion over which streams and wetlands fall under the protection of the Clean Water Act — Republicans are gearing up to attempt to block its implementation through the appropriations process.

The House measure would prevent the Army Corps, which runs the Clean Water Act permitting program for dredging and filling waters and wetlands that fall under the law, from using funds to implement the new rule. The bill would also turn down the administration’s request for a $5 million increase to the corps’ regulatory program, which Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy has said would be used to implement the new regulation (E&E Daily, Feb. 3).

Meanwhile, the appropriations measure carries forward policy language from the fiscal 2015 spending bill that reiterates Clean Water Act permit exemptions for normal farming practices and maintenance of irrigation ditches and other infrastructure.

The legislation would also bar the Obama administration from changing the definition of fill material under the Clean Water Act. Even though the corps and U.S. EPA have not expressed plans for a change, such a move would limit Appalachian mountaintop-removal mining and hardrock mining activities.

Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has for years made sure the riders remain in place, hoping to prevent increased administration scrutiny of mines in and around his district. Environmentalists have for years been pressing for a new definition of "fill."

The bill also includes a policy rider to allow visitors to campgrounds and hiking trails managed by the Army Corps to carry firearms.

While loaded guns have been allowed in national parks and wildlife refuges since Congress passed a law dictating it in 2009, they are still prohibited at the nearly 12 million acres of land managed by the corps. Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee with jurisdiction over the corps, has introduced a stand-alone measure to allow firearms at such sites, and a similar provision was included in the Senate’s "Bipartisan Sportsman’s Act," S. 405 (Greenwire, March 17).

One regular policy rider is missing from the bill at this point, though — the annual prohibition on the corps implementing new guidelines for weighing federal investments in water projects. The corps currently uses 30-year-old guidelines, but after Hurricane Katrina, Congress mandated that new ones be written to place a greater weight on environmental considerations when planning major water projects.

Those new guidelines, called "principles and requirements," were released by the Obama administration in March 2013, but while other federal agencies are preparing to implement them, Congress has repeatedly blocked the corps from moving forward through policy riders.

In the fiscal 2015 spending bill, appropriators expressed persistent concerns over the issue, so a policy rider carrying forward the prohibition could still surface as the appropriations process moves forward.