Interior-Environment: EPA Stays Level, Avoid WOTUS Rider

Interior-Environment: EPA Stays Level, Avoids WOTUS Rider

By Ed Felker, CQ Roll Call


Republicans largely backed down in their push to use the appropriations process to stop major environmental regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department in the $1.15 trillion fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill announced late Tuesday, leaving out a policy rider to halt the controversial Waters of the United States wetlands and streams pollution rule.

Also left out of the bill were riders sought by Republicans that would have stopped the EPA’s Clean Power Plan carbon emissions rule on existing plants and a related rule for new plants. Another rider that they abandoned would have halted a new, tougher ground level ozone rule.

Overall, the omnibus bill (HR 2029<>) provides $32.2 billion for the Interior-Environment title, according to a House majority staff summary, an increase of $1.7 billion above fiscal 2015 levels but $1.1 billion below the budget request by President Barack Obama.

Much of the increase will go for funding to fight wildfires and to provide full funding for the Payments in Lieu of Taxes the federal government makes to state and local governments.

The bill would provide level funding for the EPA, compared to fiscal 2015, at $8.1 billion, some $451 million less than Obama’s budget request.

The total is higher, however, than the $7.4 billion that House Republicans approved for the agency in their draft Interior-Environment appropriations bill (HR 2822<>) that advanced out of committee earlier this year.

The Senate version of the bill reported by appropriators (S 1645<>) provided $7.6 billion to the EPA.

The Interior Department would get more than $12 billion under the bill, about level with Obama’s budget request.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is to be reauthorized for three years under the overall deal, would get $450 million in fiscal 2016, up about $144 million over fiscal 2015 levels.

Riders Left Behind

Democrats noted that Republicans dropped a number of other riders, though not all that they had sought.

Among those not included was one requiring the EPA to treat forest biomass as carbon-neutral when used as a fuel source, and another to prohibit the Interior Department from enforcing new standards for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of oil and gas wells on public lands.

Language requiring the department to allow the construction of an emergency access road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, sought by Sen. Lisa Murkowski<>, R-Alaska, was also deleted in the final bill.

Still, Republicans got in other riders and held off proposed Obama spending increases.

They stressed the bill stopped a plan by the administration to spend $138 million at the EPA on new programs, and another by Interior to raise $48 million through new fees imposed on onshore oil and gas producers.

The administration would also have to report to Congress on spending on climate change work by EPA, Interior and other agencies funded by the bill.

The Interior Department, while not blocked from finalizing its proposed stream buffer rule that would limit pollution from mountaintop coal mining into nearby streams, would be required to consult with states.

EPA would continue to be prohibited from regulating lead in ammunition and fishing tackle.

And the bill includes a continuation of a prohibition on the listing of the greater sage grouse for protections under the Endangered Species Act, which the Interior Department this fall said would not happen while new habitat conservation programs in western states are pursued.

“A lot of good riders didn’t make it,” said Rep. Tom Cole<>, R-Okla., a House Appropriations Committee subcommittee chairman, after the highlights of the package were revealed to Republican House members late Tuesday.

As late as last week, he has said the waters rider, known as WOTUS, should be in the final appropriations package, because it was already put on hold by a federal appeals court.

Policy riders to block WOTUS and other Obama regulations were the subject of intense, secretive negotiations in recent days among lawmakers and the White House over the final spending bill and a year-end tax breaks bill.

Democrats, and the White House, had held out for the removal of policy riders in return for allowing a repeal of the 1975-era crude oil export ban, which was included in the bill and represented a major victory for the GOP.

Democrats also held out for reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and for five-year extensions to wind and solar energy tax incentives, which were included elsewhere in the ominbus package.

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