What's Up in DC: National Policy News Update

U.S. Capitol Building at Night, by  Glyn Lowe Photoworks .

U.S. Capitol Building at Night, by Glyn Lowe Photoworks.

While Congress has largely turned its attention to moving appropriation bills before leaving town for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions next month, several major pieces of bi-partisan legislation have been approved in both the House and Senate and were signed into law by President Obama. Additionally, activity in the courts is having a significant impact on environmental regulation, including a victory for the clean water rule and a setback for fracking regulation on federal lands. Clean water and environmental issues will continue to be a major focus throughout the remaining months of 2016 with upcoming court decisions, appropriation bills, and authorizing legislation such as the Water Resources Development Act.


Water Resources Development Act

Following a meeting of Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D-CA) of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee with advocacy and industry groups, the Senate has been flooded with support letters for the legislation. According to Environment & Energy Daily, Senate leadership has received letters from a total of 87 organizations urging the upper chamber to consider and pass WRDA, which would authorize $10 billion in water infrastructure projects, including environmental restoration, dams, and flood control projects, among others.

The Congressional Budget Office developed a formal cost estimate for the bill (also known as "scoring"), which is an important step in getting legislation before the full Senate for a vote. Chairman Inhofe and his colleagues on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee have been internally advocating to have WRDA brought up on the floor for a vote in the coming weeks. This comes at a period when floor time is a scarce commodity, with vital appropriation bills, national defense authorization, and other major pieces of legislation demanding attention. (Environment & Energy Daily; account required) 

The Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed was among the 87 groups that submitted a letter in support of WRDA; you can read the letter here.


Clean Water Rule victory in CALIfornia Case

Judge Kimberly Mueller of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California ruled in favor of the Obama Administration's Clean Water Rule on June 10th. The high-profile case was brought by California farmer John Duarte, who received a cease and desist letter from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shortly after plowing a portion of his land in 2013. According to the Army Corps, the activity had disturbed wetlands that qualified as waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act (Greenwire; account required).

Duarte claimed the Army Corps' cease and desist letter violated his property rights. Judge Mueller, however, disagreed, ruling that the letter did not constitute an enforcement action and that regulators were within their right to send such a letter under the Clean Water Act. 

The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers issued a final update to the Clean Water Rule (also known as Waters of the United States) in 2015. Industry groups and states quickly challenged the rule in court and Republican lawmakers have since attempted to block implementation of the rule through legislative action. Implementation of the Clean Water Rule was recently stayed by a federal judge while the court considers the legal challenges brought by several states. More information on the rule can be found here.


Pipeline Safety Act Signed into Law

President Obama signed the Protecting Our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety (PIPES) Act on June 22nd. The PIPES Act reauthorizes the federal pipeline safety program in the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) through FY 2019, provides for $518 million in funding for the agency, and, for the first time, gives the PHSMA authority to halt pipeline operations if it finds certain practices pose an "imminent hazard." The act also directs the Department of Transportation to establish minimum safety standards for underground gas storage facilities. Additionally, the bill mandates the agency prioritize implementation of over 40 rules that have not been finalized since the last authorizing legislation was enacted in 2011 (Energy & Environment News PM; account required). 

The PHMSA is responsible for regulating pipelines; however, the National Transportation Safety Board evaluates the PHMSA's findings and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is responsible for overseeing the location of interstate pipelines and the rates owners charge for transportation.

A major push to advance the pipeline safety legislation came about following a devastating methane leak in Los Angeles, CA. The leak, which began in October last year and continued through February 2016, resulted in 91,700 tons of methane being dumped into the atmosphere. Lawmakers, including Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-CA) praised the PIPES Act as an important step towards protecting the "health and safety of communities and environments across the nation."


Toxic Substances Control Act Signed into Law

President Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act into law on June 22nd after years of negotiation over the chemical safety bill. The legislation is the first major update to the Toxic Substances Control Act since its initial enactment in 1976. Notably, the legislation gives the EPA broader authority to review and regulate chemicals, establish an inventory of existing chemicals, and create a risk evaluation process (Washington Post).

Some of the bill's highlights include:

  • Authorizing the EPA to restrict the use of chemicals deemed unsafe under the conditions of use, including imposing warning labels or banning the substance
  • Establishing that EPA regulations preempt state laws regulating toxic substances
  • Requiring the EPA to develop a screening process for existing chemicals to evaluate risks, including a health-based evaluation
  • Allowing the EPA to require manufacturers and processors to test for toxicity or environmental impacts
  • Authorizing the EPA to collect higher fees

Enactment of the chemical safety law comes just days after a new report from the Environmental Working Group found 420 known or likely cancer-causing chemicals that can be found in people. According to the report, these chemicals come from occupational exposure, consumer products, pesticides, and solvents. The majority of carcinogens found by the Environmental Working Group did not constitute serious health threats; however, nine of the identified substances exceeded EPA safety standards. The report can be found here.


BLM Fracking Regulations Struck Down

U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl cut down the Obama Administration’s regulations on hydraulic fracking on federal lands on June 21st, ruling that the Bureau of Land Management was not granted authority by Congress to institute such rules.  Although fracking has led to an upswing in the nation’s energy production, the practice has raised sharp criticism over its negative impacts on the environment. The rule was part of a larger effort by the Obama Administration to address climate change and promote clean water.

Judge Skavdahl’s opinion centered on whether or not Congress gave “legal authority" to the Department of Interior to manage hydraulic fracking. In a separate quote, Judge Skavdahl remarked that his decision did not reflect an opinion on “whether hydraulic fracturing is good or bad for the environment or the citizens of the United States.” Supporters of the rule plan to appeal the decision (National Public Radio).

This blogpost was produced with help from Katie Tunkavige.