U.S. Legislative Update (On All Things Water)

It’s tough staying on top of what’s happening in Washington D.C., let alone know what proposed Congressional bills mean for waterways and Montana. For this reason we’ve compiled a Fall 2017 Legislative Update on all things water.

Take a look at the bill tracking summaries below and, if you are concerned, remember to call your elected officials! It is government for and by, we the people!

Budget Update
The House of Representatives advanced the Senate budget resolution, including provisions that will allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

S. 1844, the “Coordinating Interagency Review of Natural Gas Infrastructure Act of 2017,” is very similar to H.R. 2910, which passed the House of Representatives in July.

S. 1535, the “FUTURE Act” and H.R. 1379, the “Carbon Capture Act,” propose to extend and expand the Section 45Q tax credit for carbon capture and sequestration and carbon dioxide-enhanced oil recovery. Oil Change International wrote a report explaining how this could be the largest subsidy given to the fossil fuel industry by the United States government.

Passed the House
H.R. 469 would make it harder for federal agencies to settle with groups that sue when an agency misses a deadline or fails to do any other mandatory statutory duty. For example, if an organization brings a case against EPA, agency staff could be forced to litigate the case instead of settling, wasting resources and delaying the implementation of regulations.

H.R. 732, called the “Settlement Slush Funds Act,” is slated for a House vote next week. This legislation would prohibit government officials from entering into or enforcing a settlement agreement on behalf of the United States that provides for a payment or a loan to any person or entity other than the United States. This means polluters would be prevented from making mitigation payments or water quality restoration funds payments to nonprofits in lieu of penalties.

H.R. 2936 would promote irresponsible logging, including allowing for the clear-cutting of up to 10,000 acres for any purpose. It would threaten endangered species living in our national forests by eliminating the requirement for consultation under the Endangered Species Act prior to allowing logging. The bill would also empower the Forest Service to let logging companies ignore stream buffer rules intended to protect waterways from the impacts of logging. The bill also seeks to cut the public out of the decision-making process for managing national forests. It would prevent the public from taking the federal government to court when it violates the law by forcing the proceedings into arbitration and stopping citizens from being able to recover attorney’s fees when they win a lawsuit.

On top of allowing harmful, irresponsible logging and taking away the public’s rights, it is not clear that this bill will actually do much to combat wildfires. Instead, proponents of H.R. 2936, like sponsor Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, who received over $100,000 in campaign contributions from the timber industry, are trying to capitalize on the disastrous fires in California by selling off our public forests to loggers.

H.R. 3043, which makes the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) lead agency for all federal authorities related to dams, passed the House of Representatives. To see how your representative voted on this bill, see the vote breakdown here.

This bill gives FERC the power to set a schedule for state, federal, and tribal resource managers to exercise their sovereign or statutory authority—something FERC has previously tried to do, only to be rebuffed by the courts. H.R. 3043 further empowers FERC to allow amendments to licenses to circumvent the current process and to reject conditions from states that would conform project operations to current law if FERC doesn’t deem them “economically feasible.” The changes to the Federal Power Act (FPA) proposed by this bill would constrain the ability of resource agencies to protect public resources such as fish, wildlife, recreation, and rivers from the unnecessary negative impacts of hydropower projects.

Coming up for a vote:

H.R. 3043, the Hydropower Policy Modernization Act, would make FERC the lead agency for all federal authorities related to dams including CWA 401, Endangered Species Act, and NEPA. It gives unprecedented power to FERC to set schedule for federal, state, and tribal resource managers to fulfill their statutory responsibilities, and alters the definition of renewable energy to include all hydropower, regardless of impact on sustainable water flows or the hydrology of a specific, impacted river system.

H.R. 4239, aka the “SECURE American Energy Act,” was marked up in House Natural Resources Committee, could come up for a vote as early as Wednesday. This bill would transfer management authority for the permitting of federal oil and gas resources to states, encourage offshore oil drilling while limiting commonplace safeguards, and weaken protections for marine mammals. The bill includes the “Opportunities for the Nation and States to Harness Onshore Resources for Energy” (ONSHORE) Act, which hands control of federal lands over to states, and the “Accessing Strategic Resources Offshore” (ASTRO) Act, which would alter the management of our offshore resources to give industry more power and eliminate common-sense drilling protections. This bill reflects an effort to make oil and gas development the “dominant” use of public lands and waters. Waterkeeper Alliance and partners issued this statement on November 8, the day of the committee vote, and sent this letter to the House Natural Resources Committee outlining our concerns and opposition to the bill.

There is still a possibility that S. 1129 – the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2017 that contains the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA) – could come up for a vote. VIDA strips the Environmental Protection Agency of its Clean Water Act authority to protect against ballast water pollution from ships, limiting the Clean Water Act’s ability to protect aquatic ecosystems from invasive species. It would transfer authority to the Coast Guard and preclude states from taking action as well as prevent citizens from challenging weak protections in court.

Hearings being held:
H.R. 848 would amend RCRA to shield CAFOs from responsibility for polluting waterways and would also bar citizens from taking action to address the imminent and substantial endangerment of their health and environment caused by this pollution. The House Energy & Commerce Committee, Environment Subcommittee will be holding hearings on this bill on Thursday, November 9th.

Moving to Committee:
The “Accessing Strategic Resources Offshore” (ASTRO) Act would give the Secretary of the Interior the authority to conduct a lease sale outside of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act mandated 5-year planning process managed by BOEM, sidestepping public engagement. It also rolls back Arctic exploratory drilling safety protections and eliminates presidential authority to establish marine national monuments. This bill is moving forward to the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, November 8th.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee could take up H.R. 465, the “Water Quality Improvement Act of 2017,” which allows utilities to not take the steps necessary to comply with Clean Water Act by claiming that the cost of cleaning up pollution is too great. The bill makes it more likely that wealthy areas will have clean water, while poor areas are left behind.