Omnibus rejects big EPA cuts, hikes Energy and Interior funds

By George Cahlink, Geof Koss, Kellie Lunney | 03/22/2018 06:56 AM EDT

Energy and environmental programs would be boosted or escape cuts in a massive fiscal 2018 funding package unveiled late yesterday. The omnibus, which reverses years of mostly austere federal spending, is expected to be voted on today and tomorrow in order to avoid a shutdown.

Late yesterday, congressional negotiators released legislation to fund the federal government for the rest of fiscal 2018.

Late yesterday, congressional negotiators released legislation to fund the federal government for the rest of fiscal 2018. Daniel Huizinga/Flickr

Energy and environmental programs would be boosted or escape cuts in a massive fiscal 2018 funding package that reverses years of mostly austere federal spending.

Congressional leaders announced the accord late yesterday after weeks of arduous negotiations. The House is expected to pass the legislation as soon as today with the Senate likely to follow suit tomorrow in order to avoid a shutdown when current spending expires at midnight tomorrow.

The bipartisan deal also appears to have the backing of the White House, after lawmakers agreed to add $1.6 billion for a U.S.-Mexico border wall and leave out direct spending for the Gateway rail and transit project connecting New York and New Jersey.


Leaders and appropriators hailed the bill as a series of compromises made easier by a budget deal earlier this year that gave Congress a combined $200 billion more in discretionary spending in fiscal 2018 and 2019.

Most of the proposed controversial environmental riders were jettisoned in final talks, although a "fix" for inconsistent wildfire funding was included as were forest management reforms.

Level EPA funding

U.S. EPA is funded at $8.1 billion in the bill, which is equal to current funding levels, despite White House calls to slash it by nearly one-third.

That amount includes $2.9 billion for the Clean Water and Drinking Water state revolving funds, an increase of $600 million, as well as $1.15 billion for the Superfund program, a $66 million boost for a priority of Administrator Scott Pruitt, according to committee summaries.

The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program would receive $63 million, which Republicans said would help finance $6 billion in water infrastructure projects.

The package continues riders barring EPA from regulating lead ammunition, as well as past instructions to consider biomass emissions to be carbon-neutral.

Additionally, the measure includes a reauthorization of the brownfields redevelopment program for toxic waste sites, as well as a bipartisan Senate bill that would exempt farmers from reporting requirements for ammonia and hydrogen sulfide emissions under federal Superfund law (E&E Daily, March 15).

It also contains a provision exempting certain small incinerators in Alaska from Clean Air Act requirements — a rider sought by Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

However, Democrats listed a number of "poison pill" riders they blocked from the final bill.

These include a provision that would have exempted EPA’s rewrite of the Clean Water Rule from administrative legal requirements and a rider that would have blocked an update of ozone air standards.

Other riders that didn’t make the cut include provisions barring payment for legal fees under several federal environmental laws; preventing EPA from enforcing financial assurance rules under Superfund; blocking the agency from enforcing water quality standards for the Chesapeake Bay; and prohibiting funds to implement the social cost of carbon metric used to justify climate rules.

DOE, Army Corps funds boosted

The Energy and Water spending bill, which covers the Energy Department and Army Corps of Engineers, received a major boost in overall spending of $4.7 billion to $43.2 billion for fiscal 2018.

The Energy Department would see across-the-board increases for many programs, including research efforts and energy efficiency programs that the Trump administration has sought to cut deeply.

U.S. Capitol Building grounds. Photo credit: Geof Koss/E&E News
Kids were sledding on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol while efforts to hammer out the spending package continued inside. | Geof Koss/E&E News

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the department’s in-house incubator of promising but high-risk projects, would escape a plan by the White House and House conservatives to eliminate it. Instead, it would see its funding increase by $47 million to $353 million.

DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which President Trump also wanted to slash, would instead get about a $200 million bump to $2.3 billion.

DOE’s Office of Science, which covers much of the basic research done at DOE laboratories, would see its funding increase to a record $6.26 billion, a 16 percent increase over current spending.

The legislation does not contain any dollars for work on developing and building a nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. The House had hoped to provide tens of millions of dollars to begin the project. But Senate opposition, particularly from Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who has a tough re-election this year, prevailed.

The Army Corps of Engineers would see its overall funding rise $789 million to $6.8 billion for fiscal 2018. That includes $3 billion for navigation projects and studies, with about half for Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund projects, a modest increase over current spending.

The deal also excludes a controversial provision from previous bills that would have forced the Army Corps to immediately begin work on a $200 million pumping project on the Mississippi River.

The Yazoo Backwater Area Pumps Project was rejected by the George W. Bush administration for damage to wetlands but revived this winter by soon-to-retire Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

Interior, NOAA funds increased

The omnibus would increase funding for several major Interior Department agencies and programs over current spending levels — even above the administration’s request.

The department’s largest agencies — the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service — all received funding boosts in the omnibus.

BLM would receive $1.3 billion, $79 million more than the 2017 enacted level, including $50 million more to address the maintenance backlog on federal lands.

Appropriators carved out $3.2 billion for NPS, $270 million more than the 2017 enacted level and including a $138 million increase for construction to address the maintenance backlog.

FWS would get $1.6 billion, $75 million more than current spending and including a $53 million increase to address the maintenance backlog at wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries.

The U.S. Geological Survey would receive $1.1 billion under the omnibus.

The popular bipartisan Land and Water Conservation Fund and payments in lieu of taxes program also would get more money under the agreement than both current spending levels and the administration’s recommendation.

The omnibus would fund LWCF at $425 million, $25 million more than the fiscal 2017 level and much more than the $64 million level proposed in the president’s request.

"The Committees believe increasing access to our public lands for hunting, fishing, and other recreational activities is important," the report stated.

The bill would also fully fund PILT at $530 million, $65 million more than the current spending level.

The omnibus would provide $60 million for "greater sage-grouse and related sage-steppe conservation activities," equal to the current spending level. Appropriators encourage BLM "to continue working with states and other interested entities on the existing sage-grouse conservation plans and to improve the condition of the sage-steppe ecosystem."

NOAA also would get a slight boost under the omnibus. The agency would receive $5.9 billion under the legislation, about $234 million more than the fiscal 2017 enacted level. That figure includes $1 billion for the National Weather Service and $883 million for NOAA Fisheries operations, research and facilities.

The omnibus also includes $150 million to kick-start acquisition of a new polar icebreaker, mirroring a provision from the Senate’s defense appropriations bill.

It marks a significant step forward for the Coast Guard as it deals with the rapidly melting Arctic, even if it wouldn’t cover the entire cost of a new vessel. The agency currently operates just two icebreakers and has been asking lawmakers for years to fund a new one to counter Russia’s influence in newly opened shipping lanes.

A ‘jump forward’

Several "poison pill riders" opposed by Democrats and environmental groups also were left out of the omnibus, including provisions that would have affected Endangered Species Act protections for various animals, including gray wolves, lesser prairie chickens and Preble’s meadow jumping mice.

The omnibus also does not include a provision that would prohibit funds from being used to enforce the BLM methane rule, which the White House is trying to roll back administratively. The Obama-era rule reduces the venting and flaring of the greenhouse gas during drilling on public lands.

"The spending bill released by Congress today is more than just a positive step — it is a jump forward for conservation," said Lynn Scarlett, co-chief external affairs officer of the Nature Conservancy. "If enacted, this bill would achieve some of the most pressing conservation goals by providing both resources and processes needed to conserve American lands and waters for future generations."

As for proposed department reorganizations, including the one planned at Interior, appropriators made clear agencies need to stick to certain guidelines.

"No agency shall implement any part of a reorganization that modifies regional or State boundaries for agencies or bureaus that were in effect as of the date of enactment of this Act unless approved consistent with the General Guidelines for Reprogramming procedures specified herein," the report stated.

"Any such reprogramming request submitted to the Committees on Appropriations shall include a description of anticipated benefits, including anticipated efficiencies and cost-savings, as well as a description of anticipated personnel impacts and funding changes anticipated to implement the proposal," the report added.

Reporters Christa Marshall, Nick Sobczyk and Ariel Wittenberg contributed.