The House this week is scheduled to take up a bill to fund the Department of Energy, the Army Corps of Engineers and related agencies that proposes steep spending cuts to clean energy and research programs.
The bill's passage is almost guaranteed in the GOP-controlled lower chamber, but it remains to be seen whether the House and Senate will be able to agree on a unified vision to fund energy and water programs -- or any other parts of the federal government -- before the next fiscal year begins Oct. 1. If they cannot agree, which seems likely, the federal government would shut down or be funded through a continuing resolution that maintains current spending levels.
There is a more than $4 billion gap between the two chambers' energy and water bills, a reflection of a larger split over how or whether to account for automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. The $30.4 billion House bill will be before the Rules Committee this evening, setting it up for consideration on the House floor as soon as tomorrow. Appropriations bills typically are considered under open rules, allowing members to offer an unlimited number of germane amendments, and debate is likely to last at least a day or two.
In a report accompanying the bill, House Republicans blast President Obama's budget request for its preference toward funding renewable energy, efficiency and research while proposing cuts for fossil and nuclear programs. The House spending bill takes the opposite approach.
"Unfortunately, this budget request once again fails to reflect a coherent energy policy or plan for this country," the report says, adding that the president's request "seems more ideological than practical."
Beyond the overarching split over whether renewables or fossil energy should receive preference, the House bill also focuses spending within fossil programs away from the administration's goals.
For example, DOE, along with U.S. EPA and others, has been participating in an ongoing interagency study into the environmental and safety consequences of natural gas hydraulic fracturing. It is part of the administration's goal of reducing the potential air and water pollution that has driven local opposition to the relatively novel extraction technique.
That study would receive no new funding under the House bill. Spending on natural gas technologies would fall to $7.2 million -- less than half its current level -- and nearly 70 percent of that funding would be directed to research into extracting methane hydrates, ice-like crystals located in massive undersea deposits that contain potentially huge quantities of natural gas but that are currently inaccessible.
The House measure also includes millions of dollars to support the operation of two federal facilities that have triggered concern on both sides of the aisle.
The House bill seeks more than $265 million for continued support of a gaseous diffusion plant in Paducah, Ky., which is strongly backed by Kentucky Republicans but is closing under Obama administration plans. The House request is more than $183 million above fiscal 2013 spending levels and $3 million more than the Obama administration's request.
The Energy Department decided to close the plant and eliminate 1,200 jobs there, a step that drew the ire of key Kentucky Republicans: House Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul (Greenwire, May 28).
Plant operator U.S. Enrichment Corp. said in May it was unable to strike a short-term deal with the agency, and the company is now in the process of shuttering enrichment activities at the plant.
USEC, which makes fuel for U.S. reactors, leases the plant from DOE. The facility is the only federally owned and operated uranium enrichment facility in the United States. It houses a large amount of uranium "tails," or material left over after uranium is enriched for use in power plants, and Republicans had fought to keep the plant open to support jobs there.
The House measure also would provide more than $93 million for continued operation of USEC's controversial American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio, seen as a more modern and efficient process for enriching uranium. USEC, notably, is currently vying for a $2 billion federal loan guarantee to commercialize centrifuge technology at the plant.
The House request is almost $97 million below fiscal 2013 and about $1.8 million above the Obama administration's request.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal 2014 energy and water spending bill this summer that included $48 million to complete the research, development and demonstration at the Ohio plant, funding that the House measure would match.
The House bill also contains several hot-button policy riders related to the Army Corps of Engineers.
New guidelines for selecting and designing federal water projects would not move forward under the House bill, although unlike in previous appropriations bills, the current legislation lacks a provision specifically blocking the so-called principles and requirements.
The corps' investment policy has long been based solely on economic considerations, but following Hurricane Katrina, concern grew that levees and dams could in some cases worsen floods and leave a trail of environmental problems. In 2007, Congress directed the corps to revise its planning guidelines to elevate environmental considerations during the planning and design of locks, dams and flood control projects.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration released its proposed update to the guidelines, but the corps was blocked from beginning work on the policy because of a provision in the 2012 omnibus appropriations package that got carried forward through continuing resolutions (Greenwire, March 26). Some industry groups have opposed the new policy, fearing it will divert too much funding to ecosystem restoration and nonstructural projects.
The year's House report says the bill does not include a prohibition on the use of funds for implementing the policy because the administration did not include a line item in its budget request specifically to fund implementation. The committee deliberately did not add in funding for implementation, the report says, directing the corps to continue use of the previous guidelines rather than the new ones.
A provision to block any use of funds for work on guidance or regulations aimed at clarifying convoluted oversight of wetlands under the Clean Water Act also remains in the bill after Rep. Jim Moran's (D-Va.) effort to strip it during committee markup failed.
A pair of muddled Supreme Court decisions has left regulators, as well as industry and environmental groups, unclear on the scope of the federal government's authority to regulate bogs, marshes and intermittent streams. The Obama administration proposed guidance more than a year ago that would increase the number of waters, streams and wetlands under the jurisdiction of the 1972 law. The guidance, which stalled at the White House Office of Management and Budget, is a top target of Republicans who see it as federal regulatory overreach.
The House measure also contains language to prohibit the corps from changing the definition of fill material under the Clean Water Act to prevent the inclusion of waste, a major priority of environmental groups fighting mountaintop-removal mining and Western hardrock mining projects. The Obama administration has said it is not working on a new fill rule, but GOP lawmakers remain unconvinced.
Also included in the House report is a provision aimed at requiring ecosystem restoration projects to meet a minimum cost-benefit ratio. Currently, projects to construct locks, dams, levees and other hard structures must provide a greater return in economic benefit than they cost to build, but no such requirement exists for the corps' ecosystems work. The House report recognizes "the difficulties of monetizing the benefits" of ecosystems projects but directs the corps to report to Congress on potential measure or metrics for evaluating the benefits of projects within 120 days.
Schedule: The Rules Committee markup is today at 5 p.m. in the Capitol, H-313.
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