Lawmakers Gird for 2018 Fight as Budget Bill Retains EPA Funds

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By Brian Dabbs

A more aggressive funding war looms over the incoming fiscal year following the relative continuation of environment funding levels in the fiscal 2017 appropriations package, lawmakers and advocates said May 1.

The Environmental Protection Agency would receive a modest 1-percent cut in the sprawling bill, which tops off at nearly 1,700 pages. And the Interior Department would get an overall bump based on significant upticks to the National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies.

But both sides are now girding for the fiscal 2018 fight, the first full-year budget in the Trump administration.

“It’s like most omnibus appropriations bills; it’s status quo,” Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told Bloomberg BNA. “If President Trump is going to convince Congress to reduce the budget of EPA and other agencies, it isn’t going to be through a [continuing resolution] and omnibus. It’s going to be through stand-alone appropriations bills fully debated on the floor of each chamber, where the administration can actually influence the outcome.”

Other stalwart conservative organizations pounced on the bill.

“The omnibus bill is lacking in conservative gumption,” Katie Tubb, an economic analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told Bloomberg BNA. “It irresponsibly increases budgets in the Department of Interior—the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs among them, along with continuing to fund the problematic Land and Water Conservation Fund for more federal land purchases.”

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses federal revenues from offshore oil and gas development, would get $400 million, a $50 million cut.

Bump for Broad Environment Bill

The EPA, Interior and related agencies bill, one of 12 appropriations bills to fund the federal government, would get a total $121 million bump over 2016. That tops those agencies off at $32.28 billion, according to a memo from House Appropriations Committee ranking member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).

Despite the need to scramble for fiscal 2018 funding in the coming weeks and months, Democrats and environmental groups lauded the bill. Republicans touted increased military and defense spending. Even President Donald Trump, a fierce EPA critic who proposes nearly a one-third reduction to the agency budget for fiscal 2018, called the deal a win for both sides of the aisle.

Trump will have to sign the bill into law before current authorization lapses May 5 at midnight.

‘Protects 99 Percent of Budget’

The legislation boosts Superfund appropriations by $7.5 million, even though the White House recommended reductions of that portfolio for the remainder of this fiscal year.

“The omnibus protects 99 percent of EPA’s budget, despite Republicans’ hopes to gut it,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.

The bill would maintain the EPA’s current staffing capacity of roughly 15,000. But, the Trump administration is urging massive staff cuts for fiscal year 2018, one preference put forth in the administration’s “skinny budget” earlier this year. That document called for a more than 31 percent cut to EPA over the annualized fiscal 2017 levels.

The agency will have to contend with some cuts to its funding, however. The bill would cut the EPA’s science and technology appropriations to $706.4 million, a $28.1 million reduction from its fiscal year 2016 enacted level of $734.6 million. Overall, the measure would cut the agency’s “research and regulatory programs” by $52 million, the office of House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said in a memo.

House appropriators on both sides of the aisle didn’t respond to requests for more specifics on the EPA cuts, which news releases said total $81 million below fiscal 2016 levels.

2018 in the Crosshairs

Budget law instructs lawmakers to agree on a budget, which provides a framework for appropriations bills, by April 15 of each year. Lawmakers have not taken on the budget document with any real interest this year.

“They’ve already started to behave this year in the same way they have in past years,” said Ebell, who served as Trump’s EPA transition team leader. “They ought to get going immediately. First they should pass a budget and then agree on spending. It’s discouraging that they seem to think following the law is optional.”

Meanwhile, Scott Slesinger, legislative director at the National Resources Defense Council, said his organization is already digging in to repel budget cuts and policy riders.

“We think the president’s skinny budget for FY18 is something congress needs to reject, and hopefully the FY17 experience shows some reluctance to go that far,” Slesinger said. “But we’re not naive to think the full year budget won’t be a much harder slog.”

Still, Congress’ most influential Democrat struck a more optimistic tone.

“This bodes well for the 2018 budget. It bodes well for working together,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Interior Agencies Get Increases

Interior Department funding for fiscal 2017 would total almost $12.2 billion, up $235 million from the fiscal 2016 enacted level. Several agencies would receive modest increases, with larger boosts targeted to wildfire management and national parks.

The bill includes $1.2 billion in discretionary funding for the Bureau of Land Management, up more than $15 million from fiscal 2016.

The BLM funding includes an $8.9 million increase to $68.9 million for conservation of the greater sage grouse, a bird found in 15 Western states and the subject of extensive conservation efforts and litigation. The funding bill would continue a prohibition on any proposed rule on the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

The bill also would continue a provision barring implementation of Interior Secretarial Order 3310, an order issued in 2010 by then-Secretary Ken Salazar requiring BLM to make it a high priority to protect “wilderness characteristics” on land outside the areas designated by Congress as wilderness.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would receive $1.5 billion, an $11 million increase. The National Park Service would receive $2.9 billion, an $81 million boost, and the U.S. Geological Survey would receive $1.1 billion, a $23 million boost.

More for Fighting Fires

Wildland fire management, a shared responsibility of Interior and the U.S. Forest Service, would get $4.2 billion, most of it for the Forest Service. Interior would get $943 million in regular appropriations and $65 million in emergency funding, adding up to an increase of $14 million over 2016.

Wildfires are subject of great worry primarily in the West, where fire seasons have grown longer and have involved larger and more severe fires over the last few decades. The subject becomes entangled with arguments over logging and prescribed burns.

“Fuel management” activities can reduce fire risk but often draw opposition from environmental activists and others. Interior would receive $180 million for fuel management, up $10 million.

The two regulators of offshore energy development would see little change in funding. The bill would provide $75 million in direct funding for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, about level with year-earlier funding, plus $95 million from fees and rental receipts. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement would get $83 million in direct funding, down $5 million, plus $96.5 million from fees and rental receipts.

The Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement would receive $253 million, up more than $12 million from fiscal 2016. The office regulates surface coal mining and serves as a channel for fund to reclaim abandoned mines.

Meanwhile, appropriators increased the Agriculture Department’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service funding by $51.8 million. That delivers a total $949 million for the agency, which aims to ensure crops and animals are protected from invasive pests.

Retention of Water Funds

Appropriations for the clean water and drinking water revolving funds will remain at the fiscal 2016 level of $2.5 billion. Lawmakers ignored the Obama administration’s request to reduce funding for the clean water fund and provide more for its drinking water counterpart in response to the crisis in Flint, Mich., whose drinking water was found to be contaminated with high levels of lead.

The omnibus bill also provides $10 million for the fledgling Water Infrastructure and Financing Innovation Act (WIFIA) as the program is getting off the ground this year. This fund leverages Treasury-backed credit for water infrastructure projects that cost at least $20 million.

Among categorical grants, funding for state water pollution programs under Section 106 of the Clean Water Act, remains at $230 million, the same level as the prior current fiscal year. Likewise, nonpoint source funds remain flush at $170.9 million, as do the beach protection programs at $9.5 million.

For geographic programs, such as the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, Congress sent a clear message to the White House that it won’t support zeroing out their funding.

For the remainder of this year, the spending remains essentially flat at $435.8 million, including $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, $73 million for the Chesapeake Bay and $28 million for Puget Sound. Congress appropriated $427.7 million in fiscal 2016 for these programs, but the Trump administration has said states should shoulder the expense of cleaning up these impaired regional water bodies.

Chemical Board Off the Chopping Block

The Chemical Safety Board will see its budget stay flat as congressional appropriators declined to cut its funding.

While lawmakers included a few provisions placing restrictions on CSB spending, the result falls short of the White House’s threat to close the agency. The plan shows that despite Trump’s proposals, companies are likely to continue interacting with the board if incidents under the agency’s jurisdiction occur at their facilities.

The omnibus keeps the funding level at $11 million through Sept. 30. It indicates that—despite the White House budget proposal’s message to agencies about aggressively reducing the federal government’s size—even federal lawmakers sometimes skeptical of the board’s management are reluctant to shut down the small agency.

Bump to Energy Technology Research

The omnibus deal preserves the Energy Department’s Advanced Projects Research Energy Agency-Energy office. ARPA-E invests in early-stage technologies that potential to make transformative changes in the energy system.

The Trump administration proposed cutting it in its fiscal 2018 budget request. The 2017 omnibus funds it at $306 million, which is $15 million more than the fiscal 2016 enacted level.

Clean energy planning also gets spared the cuts Trump has proposed for next year. The omnibus provides $2.1 billion for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which is nearly the same as fiscal 2016—$17 million more in 2017. The Trump budget blueprint placed that office and other DOE applied sciences offices into a category along with a weatherization assistance program and State Energy Program and produced funding reductions that it said would be $2 billion less than the 2017 level.

Other Energy Department programs that would be eliminated in the fiscal 2018 proposal, but which get an extension for the rest of the current fiscal year, include the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program ($5 million), which provides loans for fuel-efficient technologies, and the Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program ($37 million), which funds technology that would avoid, reduce or sequester air pollution or greenhouse gases.

The DOE’s Office of Science gets $5.39 billion in the omnibus, which is $41.8 million more than the fiscal 2016 enacted level. The Office of Science oversees national energy laboratories and supports scientific research for energy through six offices: advanced scientific computing research, basic energy sciences, biological and environmental research, fusion energy sciences, high energy physics and nuclear physics. The Trump budget blueprint calls for cutting its funding by $900 million compared to the 2017 level.

There is no funding set aside to restart licensing activities for a nuclear waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in the omnibus. The president’s budget blueprint provided $120 million for Yucca Mountain.

—With assistance from Alan Kovski, Amena H. Saiyid, Renee Schoof, Tiffany Stecker, Pat Rizzuto and Sam Pearson.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Dabbs in Washington at bdabbs@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

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