What's Up in DC: National Policy News Update

The U.S. Capitol Building, by  Glyn Lowe Photoworks .

The U.S. Capitol Building, by Glyn Lowe Photoworks.

Keeping up with policy decisions being made at the national level isn't always easy, so we thought it would be helpful to periodically provides some updates on important news coming out of Washington, DC that could impact the Delaware River Watershed. With appropriations season in full-swing, lawmakers in the nation's capital are beginning to slog through the annual process of deciding where the federal government will spend it's money in the coming fiscal year. Though we have faced continuing resolutions, omnibus spending bills, and a government shutdown over the past several years, the appropriations process is nevertheless important to keep an eye on as important policy and funding decisions are made that end up in the final budget. Equally important are the Obama Administration's various actions and spending decisions. While he may be in his final year in office, President Obama has continued pushing forward his agenda to combat climate change and protect and improve water quality.


Energy & Water Development Appropriations

The typically noncontroversial Energy & Water Development Appropriations Act was passed on May 12th by the Senate. There was some delay in getting the bill up for a vote in the upper chamber due to negotiations over extra funding for Flint, MI in the wake of its water crisis and an amendment to block the Clean Water Rule, but those were overcome fairly quickly. Here some of the important pieces that affect or could affect the Delaware River Watershed:

For a second year in a row, the Senate has included language in its committee report that "urges the Secretary to follow through on the direction provided by Congress in WRRDA section 4001 to find and implement the means necessary to financially support the Susquehanna, Delaware, and Potomac River Basin Commission" (bold added). Back in 2014, Congress directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide its portion of funding for the Delaware River Basin Commission, which was already mandated by law in the 1961 Delaware River Basin Commission Compact. The backstory here is that the federal government has failed to meet its funding obligation for the DRBC since 1996. For the past several years, the DRBC and the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed have submitted appropriations requests to Congress to provide the federal portion of $715,000 (pennies in the Army Corps' $5.5 billion budget). The act referred to by the Senate committee report directed the Army Corps to fund these river basin commission and if it failed to do so, deliver a report to Congress explaining why. Unfortunately, none of these actions by the Army Corps have taken place. Nevertheless, it is promising to have the language included in the Senate committee report for the Energy & Water Appropriations bill for a second year in a row.

Other items of note in the committee report include funding for Army Corps projects throughout the Watershed. Notably, there's $23.3 million appropriated for the Corps' Delaware River Main Channel Deepening project located in the Delaware Estuary - you can read more about that project here - and $5.4 million for the Philadelphia to Trenton Maintenance Dredging project, which provides a safe channel for maritime navigation - more information here. More broadly, the Senate included an additional $40 million for Environmental Restoration, $60 million for Environmental Infrastructure Projects, $24 million for Damn Safety, and $2 million for Restoration of Abandoned Mines. Now that the Senate has passed the Energy & Water Development Appropriations Act, the House and Senate will reconcile the two versions, likely in conference, and send the legislation to President Obama for his signature. If you'd like to get really into the weeds and read the Senate Committee Report, you can do so here.


Clean Water Rule

Last month, the Senate narrowly defeated an amendment submitted by Senator Hoeven (R-ND) that would have stripped funding for the Clean Water Rule by a vote of 56-42. There was strong support from the Delaware River Watershed's Senators, with all except Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) opposing the amendment. Source: USA Today

It appears that the failed amendment is one of the last, if not the last legislative attempt to block the EPA's clean water rule. The rule, however, has been challenged in the courts and awaits consideration by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court blocked the rule from taking effect last year. On Monday, May 9th, the appeals court ordered dockets consolidated to streamline briefing for the the nearly two dozen petitions from states, businesses, and environmental groups. Source: Reuters


Dept. of Agriculture Boots Conservation, Climate Efforts

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced an additional $72.3 million for its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for conservation efforts to help reduce carbon emissions from agriculture. The Secretary, who announced the enhanced funding during a speech at the Center for American Progress on Thursday, May 12th, explained the investment is part of a 10-point plan the USDA has dubbed "10 building blocks." The goal of the plan is to encourage the use of agriculture and forestry methods to cut up to 18 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions through healthier soil by 2025. "We're excited about the future," said Vilsack. The Secretary predicted that better agricultural practices could contribute a 2 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions towards the administration's goal of a 26-28 percent drop over 15 years. The USDA says it will spend a total of $300 million on EQIP program practices with climate change benefits. Source: Greenwire (account required)


New Methane Leak Rules

The Environmental Protection Agency released its finalized regulations on methane emissions on Thursday, May 12th. The final version of the rule would require oil and gas companies to plug and capture leaks of methane from new and modified drilling wells and storage tanks, but not from older or existing wells. The EPA says the regulations will lower methane emissions by 510,000 tons in 2025 and estimates that the rules could cost companies $530 million. The regulations, like many other EPA rules aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, will likely face years of litigation before they can be enforced. Source: New York Times