Senate plan envisions extensive action on energy, resource issues

By Nick Juliano | 03/19/2015 07:27 AM EDT

The Senate Republican budget released yesterday envisions action this year on a wide range of energy and natural resource issues, including nuclear waste management, mineral rights, environmental regulations and payments to regions with abundant federal lands.

The Senate Republican budget released yesterday envisions action this year on a wide range of energy and natural resource issues, including nuclear waste management, mineral rights, environmental regulations and payments to regions with abundant federal lands.

Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi’s blueprint came a day after House Republicans outlined their own proposal to guide tax collection, spending and other policy development this year. The House committee adjourned after midnight without approving its budget resolution; the Senate panel will take its up today.

Budget leaders hope to reconcile the plans and deliver spending targets to the Appropriations committees by next month. But securing approval of the documents will be difficult amid internal disagreements among Republicans over defense spending and Democratic objections to domestic spending cuts, among other issues.


The budget is nonbinding but sets a road map for the coming year and establishes caps for the Appropriations subcommittees as they begin to craft this year’s annual spending bills. In the Senate, consideration of the budget also will likely end with a marathon "vote-a-rama" to close out next week, during which senators from both parties will offer amendments covering a variety of politically charged policies.

Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, included in the budget language calling for action on a wide variety of issues important to his home state. It includes "spending-neutral reserve funds" to pay for various pieces of legislation that could come forward later this year, including those related to energy policy, environmental regulations, water resources, mining, forestry and the needs of rural communities.

The budget also sets up potential action on areas of possible bipartisan agreement between the Republican Congress and President Obama, such as tax reform or trade policy. But it includes no shortage of conservative red meat, calling for a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act among other goals that stand little chance of becoming law as long as a Democrat is in the White House.

Details of the proposals would have to be filled in later by authorizing committees, but Enzi provides some broad guidance in the legislative text. For example, energy legislation could include "reform of the management of civilian and defense nuclear waste," expansion of energy production, and "reform of the permitting and siting process" among its provisions.

Enzi separately includes a reserve fund welcoming efforts to "reform environmental statutes." Another fund welcomes "water resources legislation" to address flood control, navigation and environmental restoration projects. The navigation industry and other stakeholders have been urging additional funding after policy reforms were enacted in last year’s Water Resources Reform and Development Act (E&E Daily, March 12).

Two provisions in the budget relate to potential mining legislation. One envisions a bill on "mineral security and mineral rights" that could include measures to reduce mineral imports and address "the authority to deduct certain amounts from mineral revenues payable to States." The provision makes room for legislation to address U.S. dependence on imports for a number of metals and minerals, including rare earth elements.

Another provision contemplates reforming the Abandoned Mine Lands program, which uses fees collected from coal companies to clean up historical damage from extraction. Obama’s budget request includes a proposal to speed up the spending of $1 billion from the AML fund to help boost the Appalachian economy, plus a measure to shore up the United Mine Workers of America benefits program, which has ties to the AML fund.

Enzi has been keen on getting back more of the AML payments his state lost during the 2012 transportation bill negotiations, when lawmakers used funds originally meant for Wyoming as an offset to the bill. Even though the state is certified to have finished cleaning up its priority sites, it gets Treasury payments, according to a 2006 formula.

Western priorities also get spotlighted in the budget, which includes a reserve fund anticipating forestry legislation that could increase timber production and reform how the government budgets for wildfire suppression.

The Forest Service in recent years has increasingly had to borrow from other accounts to cover wildfire costs. The Obama administration this year proposed allowing partial reliance on disaster funds outside the Forest Service’s budget, and the idea has won some early support from key appropriators on both sides of the aisle (E&E Daily, March 4).

Also in the budget is a provision welcoming reauthorization of funding for the payments in lieu of taxes (PILT) program, which is key to Western counties that feature broad swaths of federal land. The payments help make up for lost property taxes that counties cannot collect from the federal government. A bipartisan trio last month introduced legislation to restore mandatory PILT funding, among other proposals (E&E Daily, Feb. 13).

Enzi’s budget also encompasses legislation from Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) to require the Congressional Budget Office to look more favorably at certain types of energy efficiency contracts. Proponents say the change would fix a defect in CBO’s previous approach that prevented it from considering the cost savings such contracts can deliver (Greenwire, March 18).

Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) recommended many of the policies in the views-and-estimates letter she sent Enzi last month, ENR spokesman Robert Dillon said, but he declined to release the full document. Murkowski’s committee has jurisdiction over energy exploration, Department of Energy programs, nuclear waste management and natural resources policies, among other areas.

Murkowski has said she hopes to produce a comprehensive energy bill later this year that would address areas including infrastructure needs, energy efficiency and increased supplies.

"The chairman has been clear on her plans to move broad energy legislation; there’s a lot of good ideas out there, and the energy landscape is fundamentally different than it was in 2007, the last time Congress attempted a major energy bill," Dillon said. "I’d say we’re excited to get to work, but we’re already working."

Reporters Manuel Quiñones and Annie Snider contributed.