Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick

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Overnight Energy: House passes major conservation bill, sending to Trump | EPA finalizes rule to speed up review of industry permits

Jul 23, 2020
In The News

GET OUT: The House on Wednesday approved a major public lands conservation bill, sending it to the White House where President Trump is expected to sign it into law.

The bill, known as the Great American Outdoors Act, would provide $900 million in federal oil and gas revenues for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which helps secure land for trails and parks.

The bipartisan legislation would also put billions toward addressing a maintenance backlog at national parks over a five-year period.

"For too long we have allowed our national parks to fall into disrepair," Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said on the House floor. "At the same time, we have failed to meet the full promise of the Land and Water Conservation fund...today we take the opportunity to remedy both of those failures."

Though it had bipartisan support, the bill met resistance from some Republicans who argued that funds from oil and gas revenues could be put to other uses.

"'Quick. There's a global pandemic. Let's spend billions of dollars repairing fences, putting up new signs, fixing toilets at our wildlife refuges, parks and forests,' said no one ever," Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) said Wednesday before the vote. "What this legislation does is it takes everything else and it puts it on the back burner."

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) this week also expressed concern that funding could dry up at times when there are fewer oil and gas revenues.

"It would be ludicrous for House Democrats to move forward with this bill without amendment," he said in a statement, citing a report that showed that the government had taken in less money from offshore oil and gas drilling amid the pandemic.

Bishop, the top Republican on the Natural Resources panel, said he supports the national parks portion of the legislation but opposes its LWCF provisions. On Wednesday, he criticized the measure as putting money for new parks ahead of taking care of existing national parks since only the LWCF funding is mandatory.

"Now we are also saying in this bill the billion dollars of money to buy more land is now also a priority above and beyond what's happening for the parks," he said.

The House legislation was spearheaded by a bipartisan group of 12 lawmakers and is popular among environmentalists. If the bill becomes law, it will end a years-long effort to ensure funding to preserve vast stretches of wilderness for recreation.

"This bill will have a positive impact on nearly every single congressional district in this country," said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), one of the bill's co-sponsors. "Hundreds of businesses, recreation, and environmental groups have come together to endorse our legislation."

The LWCF, which also provides money to protect endangered species habitats, develop parks and outdoor recreation sites and protect sensitive forests, was permanently authorized last year, but its funding was never guaranteed.

The bill would also provide $1.9 billion annually for five years for national park maintenance. As of 2018, the maintenance backlog consisted of nearly $12 billion worth of deferred repairs. The repairs have been delayed because of budget constraints.

The Great American Outdoors Act previously passed the Senate in a 73-25 vote after Trump called on Congress to "send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks" in March.

Read more on the bill here.

REAL APPEAL: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday finalized a rule that will speed up the process for reviewing industry permits in a move critics say will limit communities' ability to fight them.

Disputes between industries seeking air, water and hazardous waste permits and communities challenging them typically go before the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board (EAB).

"Over the years, the scope of responsibilities for EPA's EAB has changed and the permitting appeal has become too lengthy," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a release. "Making the reviews more streamlined and the judicial review more prompt will lead to better certainty and a fairer process for both those applying for EPA permits and for the public."

But opponents argue the new process will prevent communities from getting a fair shake and could ultimately funnel more cases into lengthy and expensive court challenges.

The policy change has already faced significant opposition from Democratic lawmakers, and those critiques were raised again Wednesday.

"Far from 'modernizing' EPA's air, water and hazardous waste permit appeals process, this rule would take us backwards - back to a time when industries could pollute without consequence and when Americans had little say over the projects built in their own backyard," Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee wrote in a letter to the agency shortly before the final rule was released.

"This proposed rule is yet another short-sighted attack on the ability of communities, including low-income communities and communities of color, to have a meaningful voice in projects that impact their health," he added.

The new rule would give the EAB 60 days to make decisions on challenged permits, and allow the board to give itself a one-time 60-day extension for issues that it decides need more time.

It would also get rid of the EAB's ability to review regional permits on its own, though the agency says this option is rarely used and creates 12-year term limits for EAB judges. It allows the EPA administrator to weigh in on any matter before the board.

The rule was first proposed in December, although the finalized version contained significant differences.

That proposal would have let parties challenge permits through either an EAB hearing or an alternative dispute resolution (ADR), but if the groups couldn't agree, the permit would be automatically approved but subject to a federal court challenge. This provision did not make it into the final rule.

Read more here.

READY FOR TAKEOFF: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday proposed new regulations to hinder emissions from air travel, prompting criticism the agency is codifying standards many aircraft makers have already met.

The proposal from the EPA would adopt 2017 emissions standards from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations's top aviation authority, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new aircraft by 4 percent over 12 years.

But both critics and the EPA found the standards would do little to improve emissions as they mirror advancements the industry is already making.

"EPA is not projecting emission reductions associated with today's proposed GHG regulations," the agency wrote in the proposal.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said he thought the standards would withstand legal scrutiny better than some previous EPA policies.

"This proposal today is really based upon the technology and where this technology is today," he said.

Those comments angered environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, which previously threatened to sue the agency if it did not set standards as required by an earlier ruling under the Obama administration.

"They are literally just anti-backsliding provisions. They don't require anyone to improve, they just say, 'When doing stuff don't make it worse,'" Clare Lakewood, climate legal director for the center, said of the standards, which she described as "technology following rather than technology forcing."

"It's really smoke and mirrors. They get the credit for having done something when this rule is not worth the paper it's written on when it comes to protecting us from greenhouse gas emissions," she added.

An analysis from the International Council on Clean Transportation found that most airlines in the United States, covering more than three-quarters of aviation demand, already meet the ICAO standards.

Air travel is a notable contributor to climate change. If the EPA's standards are finalized, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) will adopt its own set of new rules to comply with the regulation. The regulations would apply to any aircraft designed after January 2020 and all aircraft in production by 2028. Aircraft currently in use would not be affected.

Read more on the proposal here.

ON TAP TOMORROW:

The Senate Energy and Environment Committee will hold a hearing on how the coronavirus has impacted parks.

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

New York Wants to Buy Enough Clean Power for 1.5 Million Homes, Bloomberg reports

Student files first climate change lawsuit against Australian government, Reuters reports

Massachusetts town moved to ban oil and gas pipes in new buildings. State AG says they can't, Boston.com reports

FirstEnergy was relentless in quest to have Ohio legislature bail out the utility's nuclear plants, Cleveland.com reports

ICYMI: Stories from Wednesday...

McDonald's, Pepsi call on Congress to include renewable energy in COVID-19 relief

EPA proposes mild first-ever aircraft emissions standards

Sierra Club to remove monuments of founder John Muir over his racist history

Climate study suggests more severe temperature scenario