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U.S. House Boosts Spending for Environment, Conservation

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, June 28, 2007 (ENS) - The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday approved legislation to increase funding for environmental protection, national parks and conservation by some $1.2 billion. The White House and Republican leaders called the bill fiscally irresponsible, but Democrats insisted that the increases are critical to bolster programs that have been neglected by the Bush administration.

The $27.6 billion spending bill, which passed by a vote of 272-155, includes funding for the Interior Department, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Forest Service, Indian Health Service and other agencies. The bill is more than four percent above this year's appropriations and some nine percent above the White House request.

BP's Thunder Horse is the world's largest floating oil platform, now located 150 southeast of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo courtesy BP)
The Senate has yet to finalize its appropriations bill for the Interior Department and related agencies. The Bush administration is already on record as opposing the House bill, calling it "irresponsible" and threatening to veto the measure because of its price tag.

The White House also said it strongly objects to several provisions in the bill, in particular one that aims to force oil companies to renegotiate deep water drilling leases for the Gulf of Mexico already issued.

The leases were issued in 1998 and 1999 by the U.S. Interior Department's Mineral Management Service, which failed to include language triggering royalty payments once oil prices reached a threshold of about $34 a barrel. The error has already cost the government some $1 billion in lost royalties and could cost more than $10 billion over 25 years.

The language in the spending bill requires companies to either renegotiate the flawed leases or pay fees on production from those leases or be banned from purchasing new leases in the gulf.

The administration argues the provision will delay future lease sales and favors voluntary renegotiation efforts.

Congressman Todd Tiahrt of Kansas (Photo courtesy Rep. Tiahrt)
Much of the two day debate over the bill centered on the overall funding levels, as Republicans sought to pare down spending and remove specific earmarks.

Representative Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican, called the legislation "overly generous" and urged members to limit spending closer to existing levels.

"While we have an obligation to be good stewards of our nation's environment and public lands for future generations, we also have an obligation to be good stewards of our tax dollars," he said. "In that respect, I believe this legislation falls short."

Democrats defeated efforts to cut spending in the bill and blamed the Bush administration for shortfalls they contend have undermined federal environment and land management agencies.

"The Bush administration has cut the Interior Department budget over the last six to seven years by 16 percent," Representative Norman Dicks, a Washington Democrat and chair of the appropriations subcommittee that crafted the bill.

Congressman Norman Dicks of Washington (Photo courtesy Rep. Dicks)
"It has cut EPA by 29 percent. It has cut the Forest Service by 35 percent. It has devastated these agencies," said Dicks. "We are trying to turn the corner, to bring these agencies back."

The spending bill includes an 11 percent increase for the National Park Service, $26 million more to clean up Superfund toxic waste sites as well a $56 million increase for national wildlife refuges and an $8 million boost for the endangered species program.

The legislation nearly doubles the Bush administration’s request for federal funding of loans for water infrastructure improvements and requires the EPA hire more criminal investigators to beef up its enforcement efforts.

It also ramps up spending by the relevant agencies for climate change programs and sets up a new commission to identify lingering scientific questions about the science behind global warming.

"The message of this bill with respect to climate change is it is time to quit talking about the problem and start doing something about it," Dicks said.

Oil shale emerged as a hot topic Wednesday, with Democrats narrowly passing an amendment to slow federal development of the resource in the Rocky Mountains.

Congressman Mark Udall of Colorado (Photo courtesy Rep. Udall)
The language blocks the Interior Department from issuing oil shale regulations or offering leases in 2008 until it has further studied the environmental impacts of commercial oil shale production.

"The question here is not whether to develop oil shale but how and when," said Representative Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat and author of the amendment.

Udall said his provision would not stop oil shale development "in its tracks" but direct it onto "a gentler and more sustainable route."

Western Republicans said delaying oil shale production undermines the goal of energy independence and will hurt local economies keen to develop the resource.

"Any program that would retard the leases or the royalties that would come from those will harm education in western states," said Representative Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican.

The amendment passed by a vote of 219-215, but only after Democrats held the vote open several minutes longer than scheduled to assure its passage. That irked Republicans, who failed with a measure to exempt Utah and Wyoming from the Udall amendment to Colorado.

Democrats also defeated Republican attempts to expand offshore oil and gas production and to end the reintroduction of wolves in Arizona and New Mexico.

The House agreed to an amendment prohibiting the EPA from finalizing a controversial air toxics rule, authored by Texas Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson.

The proposed regulation would change how industrial plants are classified for purposes of regulating hazardous pollutants, allowing sources of pollutants formerly classified as "major sources," which are beholden to stricter oversight, to be considered lesser regulated "area sources."

Under the current policy, once a facility is a major source, it is always to be considered a major source.

"EPA has done very little to justify such a dramatic shift in congressional intent or the agency's own long-standing interpretation," said Johnson, whose amendment passed by a vote of 252-178.

A bid by Representative Jay Inslee to block the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from allowing American hunters to import the heads and hides of polar bears killed in Canada failed Wednesday by a vote of 188-242.

This hunter shot a polar bear in the Canadian Arctic. (Photo courtesy Fred Webb & Sons)
Inslee, a Washington Democrat, argued the policy makes little sense at a time when the U.S. government is considering placing the polar bear on the endangered species list.

"This creature is dependent on ice, and the ice is disappearing," he said. "If we don't get serious about recovering polar bears, we will not be able to hunt anything because they will not exist."

Critics said the amendment would actually harm conservation efforts, as funds generated by the polar bear hunts and import permits are funneled into programs to protect the species. Individuals pay upwards of $30,000 for the right to hunt Canadian polar bears as well as a $1,000 fee to the U.S. government to import a carcass.

The ban would risk "crucial conservation funding streams and habitat protections for the very polar bears that we're all interested in protecting," said Representative Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat.

Representative Dan Boren, an Oklahoma Republican, questioned the motives behind the proposal, calling it "one step further in the campaign to ban hunting."

Inslee rejected that premise. "There is nothing wrong with hunting or any suggestion of that in this amendment," he said. "But the truth is this – at this moment of risk to these bears, polar bear cubs need their parents in their dens more than we need their skins in our dens."

Environmentalists hailed the addition of a bipartisan amendment to block federally funded road building in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the planet's largest remaining temperate rainforest.

Proponents said the federal timber program in the Tongass is a dead loss for taxpayers, costing some $30 million annually, and noted that the Forest Service faces an estimated $900 million road maintenance backlog in the forest.

Alaska Republican Don Young said the amendment would harm his state's economy and blamed "radical environmental groups" for driving up the costs of the timber program by filing lawsuits to block logging in the forest.

Congressman Don Young of Alaska (Photo courtesy Rep. Young)
The amendment will cause further job losses to the logging industry that has shrunk from 15,000 jobs to less than 200 in the past two decades, Young added.

"The timber industry supports the best paying, year-around jobs in Southeast Alaska, and even though environmentalists have already succeeded locking up over 96 percent of the Tongass and eliminating most of these jobs, they're now after the remaining four percent and the last few hundred jobs," Young said. "This is nothing less than economic terrorism."

But among the organizations critical of this amendment is Republicans for Environmental Protection, REP, hardly a radical group, who called the measure "a great step forward for conservation and fiscal responsibility."

"For too long, the American people have been subsidizing wanton mismanagement of our largest and wildest national forest, which this year is celebrating the centennial of its establishment by Theodore Roosevelt," said REP Government Affairs Director David Jenkins. "We're proud of the 72 Republicans who remembered what true conservatism means and supported this important amendment."

The amendment passed by a vote of 283-145 and some proponents questioned Young's criticism of environmental groups.

Federal studies have found that only two percent of the cost of the Tongass timber program is related to litigation, according to Representative Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican who sponsored the amendment.

"I am not opposed to logging when it's done on the timber company's dime," Chabot said. "But in this case, they are using the American taxpayer to subsidize these 200 jobs at the tune of $200,000 per job. That just makes no sense."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.



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