What's Up in DC: National Policy News

"Washington Monument, Washington, D.C." by  Carol M Highsmith .

"Washington Monument, Washington, D.C." by Carol M Highsmith.

Congress is back in session following the July 4th break and will be in town for the next two weeks before leaving again on July 15th for the national political conventions. The frequent breaks, however, have not slowed down many legislators who are trying to get important work done before the election and end of this session. Before leaving the nation’s capitol, Senator Inhofe (R-OK) once again advocated for a vote on the Water Resources Development Act, and the Senate Appropriations committee advanced its Interior Appropriations bill. While the House took an extended recess following a sit-in staged by Democrats, the Watershed’s very own Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) introduced legislation to reform the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Now that Congress is back in session, members have gotten back to work quickly with the House passing several land management bills just this week.


Interior, Environment & Related Agencies Appropriations Act

The full Senate Appropriations Committee marked up its version of the Interior Appropriations bill. Like the House bill, the Senate legislation provides approximately $32 billion in spending and contains some of the same harmful policy riders as for the House version, which we outlined back in May. Some of the controversial policy riders in the Senate bill include:

  • Blocking implementation of the Clean Water Rule
  • Blocking a law requiring industry to make financial plans to clean up potential future hazardous waste contamination
  • Preempting a stream protection rule from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement

In an additional blow, the Senate bill does not include funding for the Highlands Conservation Act, despite the House fully funding the grants program at $10 million. The Senate version also provides only $30 million for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which is $5 million less than what the House appropriated.

That being said, the Senate allocated more funding than the House for several key programs, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The Senate appropriations bill includes $400 million for LWCF, which is $78 million more than the House version; however, it still represents less than half of the authorized spending level for the fund, as well as a $50 million decrease from the 2016 budget.

The Senate bill also provides increased funding over the House appropriations legislation for the following programs:

  • $1.35 billion for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and $1.02 billion for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund
  • $117 million for the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund


Water Resources Development Act

Senate Environment & Public Works Committee leadership continued to advocate for the Water Resources Development Act to be considered by the full Senate before Congress breaks for the political conventions on July 15th. Senator Inhofe made a statement in support of the legislation on the Senate floor on June 29th. Additionally, the Chairman sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell requesting the bill be considered within the next few weeks. The letter highlights the bill’s reforms and authorizations that “create mechanisms to provide affordable clean water and safe drinking water infrastructure,” as well as WRDA’s bi-partisan support.


Abandoned Mine Reclamation Bill

On July 5th, the House of Representatives passed the Energy and Minerals Reclamation Foundation Establishment Act (H.R. 3844), which would establish the Energy and Minerals Reclamation Foundation. The nonprofit organization would “encourage, obtain, and use gifts, devises, and bequests of property” for abandoned mine reclamation and abandoned oil and gas well sites. The foundation in the bill is based on similar entities associated with the National Park Service and Forest Service that solicit and accept donations. Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze expressed support for creating of the foundation (E&E Daily, account required).


SAFER Pipelines Act

Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) introduced legislation last month aimed at reforming the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The SAFER Pipelines Act of 2016 would require the agency to:

  • conduct an evidentiary hearing and/or cumulative review of major energy infrastructure projects
  • consider cumulative environmental impacts from other pipelines within 100 miles of the proposed project
  • monitor all approved and constructed projects for five years to confirm the environmental impacts have been mitigated.

“Unfortunately, due to an inadequate review process, FERC has no clear framework to initiative a more comprehensive analysis that considers duplicative, competing, or contiguous natural gas pipelines; no-build options; or potential renewable energy efficiency alternatives,” said Rep. Watson Coleman during a press conference on June 29th. According to a fact sheet from the Congresswoman's office, FERC has approved over 250 natural gas pipelines and denied only three projects in 42 states in the past 10 years, with 90% of those approvals awarded within one year of application (E&E Daily; account required). The fact sheet on the bill can be downloaded here.


Delaware Riverkeeper Network Defends DRBC Moratorium

On July 5th, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network filed to intervene in the defense of the Delaware River Basin Commission’s (DRBC) moratorium on natural gas drilling in the Delaware River Watershed. The case brought by Wayne Land and Mineral Group (WLMG) in May accuses the DRBC of acting outside of its jurisdiction when it established the moratorium in 2010. The ban was put in place by the commission while it decides if drilling activities will negatively impact water quality in the Delaware River Basin. WLMG claims, however, that the DRBC’s authority over the 13,539-square-miles of the watershed does not extend to oil and gas operations (Dover Post).

Delaware Riverkeeper Network told the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania that allowing gas drilling in the Delaware River Watershed could “undermine in whole or part the Special Protection Waters regulations…and cause a real and substantial threat,” to the river, which provides drinking water to nearly 16 million people (Energy Daily; account required). The DRBC’s website says the agency is reviewing the claims in the lawsuit and it “intends to defend its authority under the Delaware River Basin Compact,” which established the multi-state commission and authorized it to manage the river basin’s water resources.


EPA Won’t Regulate Forest Road Discharge

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a notice on June 27th in the Federal Register with it's final decision to not require Clean Water Act regulations for forest road runoff. The decision, which goes into effect on July 11th, states that other water quality programs cover sediment-filled runoff in these cases and that local and regional programs allow forest owners to use best management practices to prevent soil erosion and protect waterways that are appropriate for their geographic area. The notice comes in response to an order by the 9th Circuit Court in its decision Environmental Defense Center, Inc. v. U.S. EPA, requiring the EPA to consider whether the Clean Water Act covers stormwater discharges from forest roads. In a separate case in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the EPA's position that logging roads are not industrial pollution point sources and consequently do not require Clean Water Act permits.

In its final decision last month, the EPA determined that “efforts to help strengthen existing programs would be more effective in further addressing forest road discharges than superimposing an additional federal regulatory layer over them” (Greenwire; account required).