Appropriations Bill Advances With Cuts for EPA, Interior

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By Alan Kovski and Tiffany Stecker

A spending bill with cuts for environmental and public lands agencies was approved July 12 by a House subcommittee, over Democratic objections that the cuts were too big.

The proposed legislation from House appropriators would cut the EPA budget by about 7 percent, which was less than what was proposed by President Donald Trump.

The fiscal year 2018 spending bill for the Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency, and related agencies was approved by voice vote of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. Democrats on the panel signaled their dissatisfaction over the cuts through their silence during the vote and their criticisms beforehand.

“The cuts are just, in my opinion, too deep,” said Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), ranking member of the committee. She was especially bothered by the reduction in EPA funding.

The bill would reduce funding to $31.4 billion from $32.37 billion for Interior, the EPA, and some other agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service. That funding level is $4.3 billion above what was included in Trump’s budget request.

The bill set EPA spending at $7.5 billion, or $528 million less than current spending levels. That would leave $1.9 billion more for the EPA than what the Trump budget request proposed, however.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee, stressed bipartisan aspects of the bill, notably elements that would ignore or minimize reductions the administration proposed.

The expectation on Capitol Hill is appropriations bills are headed toward an omnibus bill rolling them up together later in the year.

Water Funding Cuts Sought

The bill would provide $1.14 billion for the clean water state revolving fund, an 18 percent cut from the current fiscal year. Funding for the drinking water state revolving fund would remain roughly flat at $863.2 million.

The two funds provide for state-run loans for communities to fix sewers, water treatment plants, and other infrastructure. For the fledgling Water Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act program, which supplements the revolving funds, the bill would appropriate $25 million.

The proposed budget by the White House sought $2.3 billion for the state revolving funds, about $300 million, or 13 percent, more than the funding House appropriators proposed. For WIFIA, the White House sought $20 million.

For geographic programs, such as the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, Congress did not support the White House’s request to zero out funding. House appropriators proposed $397 million for geographic programs, including $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, unchanged from fiscal 2017.

In the current and prior fiscal years, Congress has supported $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and about $73 million for the Chesapeake Bay program.

Cuts Spread Through Interior

The bill would cut spending in many Interior agencies, but the reductions would be far less than what the Trump administration requested.

The Bureau of Land Management would receive $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2018, a cut of $46 million or 4 percent from the current year, including a $20 million cut for land acquisition.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would receive $1.5 billion, a $38 million or 2 percent decrease. The legislation prioritizes funding to reduce the endangered species delisting backlog and to fight invasive species, among other things.

The bill provides $275 million for Land and Water Conservation Fund programs, down $125 million or 31 percent from the current level despite the fact that many Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress are reluctant to reduce spending from the fund.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, regulating surface coal mining, would receive $213 million, down $40 million or 16 percent. That would include $75 million to continue a pilot program to accelerate the reclamation of abandoned mine lands—a program the Trump administration had proposed zeroing out.

Fighting Fires, Conserving Land

Overall, the Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service would receive $3.4 billion for wildfire fighting and prevention. It would match the 10-year average for wildland fire suppression costs.

The legislation includes $575 million for hazardous fuels management, which is $5 million above the fiscal year 2017 level. Fuels management—including timber harvests and controlled burns—is where the sticking points arise as environmental activists fight logging.

The bill would make a big cut in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses money from offshore oil and gas development to pay for conservation activities.

Spending from the fund would be set at $275 million, a $125 million or 31 percent reduction from current spending levels, despite the fact that many Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress support the fund’s work. The primary disagreements come over federal acquisition of additional land.

EPA Regulations Targeted

McCollum objected to what she described as 16 partisan riders in the bill that, in her view, threatened to undermine environmental protections and benefit polluters.

The bill contains language identical to what is in an energy-water spending measure that would allow the Trump administration to accelerate the withdrawal of the 2015 stayed Clean Water Rule, also known as the “waters of the U.S.” rule.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the full committee, singled out the Clean Water Rule rider as a “poison pill.”

The administration would be allowed to roll back the rule “without regard to any provision of statute or regulation that establishes a requirement for such withdrawal.” The administration would be allowed to expedite the process by skipping the public notice and comment period normally required under the Administrative Procedure Act for a federal rulemaking.

Another rider would maintain exemptions from Clean Water Act dredge-and-fill permitting for farming and forestry when adjoining wetlands or streams are drained or filled.

The spending measure also would further delay the next step in implementing the 2015 ozone standards. The Trump administration already delayed its decision on what areas do and don’t meet the 70 parts per billion standards, originally scheduled to be done this fall, until October 2018. The ozone language in the appropriations bill would bar the EPA from making those decisions, which would trigger additional pollution-control planning and permitting requirements in areas that don’t meet the 70 ppb limits, until 2025.

Mining Finance Rule Hit

The bill would eliminate funding for the EPA to implement a financial assurance rule under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as Superfund.

The proposed financial assurance rule (RIN:2050-AG61) would require hardrock mining operations to prove that they could finance cleanup in the event of an environmental disaster involving contaminants from their facilities.

In the agency’s perspective, the rule would reduce the amount of federal funds spent at Superfund sites by ensuring responsible parties can pay for cleanup themselves. The bill specifies that “none of the funds made available by this or any other act” may be used to finish, implement, or enforce the proposed rule. The EPA is still under a court order to issue a final rule on the matter by Dec. 1.

The bill would prohibit spending on any proposal to list the greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and it would bar the use of funds to treat the gray wolf as an endangered or threatened species anywhere in the 48 contiguous states.

The bill includes a provision that would define energy from forest biomass as carbon-neutral. The forest industry has long pushed to establish wood burning as carbon neutral, saying that trees that provide plant matter for energy reabsorb the carbon emissions that are released in the burning of the vegetation.

—With assistance from Amena Saiyid, Patrick Ambrosio, and Sylvia Carignan.

To contact the reporters on this story: Alan Kovski in Washington at akovski@bna.com; Tiffany Stecker in Washington at tstecker@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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