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This NRDC policy paper, issued in early 2005, summarizes the top environmental priorities NRDC sees ahead for the 109th Congress.

Clean Air/Climate Change
Public Lands / Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Energy Legislation
Endangered Species
Environmental Exemptions
Judicial Nominees
Regulatory Rollback
Oceans and Coastal Management
Budgetary Battles


For more than three decades, America's landmark environmental laws have dramatically improved the quality of our nation's natural resources, as well as our quality of life. These protections, which continue to safeguard public health, defend wildlife and preserve our magnificent natural heritage, are widely supported by most Americans. What follows is a list of some of the highest priority environmental issues in the coming Congress.

Clean Air/Climate Change

No element of the natural world is more essential to life than air, and no task more critical than keeping it clean. The harmful effects of this pollution include lung damage, acid rain and global warming. The 109th Congress should resist Bush administration and industry initiatives that will weaken current restrictions and allow big polluters to keep polluting.

One of the most contentious and high-profile environmental battles in Congress will revolve around the Bush administration's effort to fundamentally rewrite and weaken the Clean Air Act. The leading edge of this initiative will be the administration's proposal to weaken the law's new source review program -- a program that requires the oldest and most polluting power plants to replace outdated pollution controls with new technology.

Another major battle involves the administration's efforts to enact a legislative proposal, misleadingly dubbed "Clear Skies," that would undermine the Clean Air Act by setting insufficient mercury pollution reduction targets for coal-fired power plants while delaying and diluting cuts in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution. In addition, the bill would weaken numerous other Clean Air Act safeguards, including those protecting local air quality, curbing pollution from upwind states and improving the visibility in national parks. Another major weakness of the bill is its failure to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, a major cause of global warming.

Power plants and automobiles together generate the vast majority of air pollution in this country. Power plants, in particular, are responsible for much of our acid rain and smog problems, about 40 percent of global warming pollution and one-third of the emissions that cause the build-up of toxic mercury contamination in bodies of water. Particulate pollution from power plants causes an estimated 30,000 deaths and 600,000 asthma attacks each year.

In addition, there are more heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere that cause global warming than at any time in the last half-million years. Higher temperatures mean increased smog, asthma attacks and deaths from heat stress. Warmer temperatures have already begun to allow tropical diseases to spread into new areas. And the hotter it gets the more extreme the weather will become, causing heat waves, wildfires, droughts, storms and floods. The Congress may have the chance to vote on the Climate Stewardship Act, a bill sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT). If enacted, the bill would cap and reduce carbon dioxide and five other heat-trapping pollutants emitted by power plants, refineries and other industries -- a positive step for the reduction of greenhouse gasses.

Public Lands / Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The people of the United States own more than 726 million acres of land, including parks, forests, grasslands and wilderness. This rich natural heritage is under assault from Bush administration proposals to open sensitive public lands to logging, oil and gas drilling, mining and grazing and other damaging activities.

The poster child for the administration's pro-industry agenda is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. President Bush has once again included a provision for drilling in the budget he submitted to Congress. In the wake of the 2004 elections, the vote count has significantly shifted in favor of Republican proponents of drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Opening the Refuge would forever ruin this national treasure, while doing little or nothing to ensure America's energy security. Government estimates confirm that any oil that could be extracted from beneath the refuge would be a drop in the bucket -- supplying U.S. demand for less than one year at most -- and it would not reach gas pumps for a decade or so. On the contrary, a more diverse and stable energy supply can be ensured, and more and better jobs created in communities across the country, by investing in innovative clean technologies and alternatives to fossil fuels. NRDC strongly opposes efforts to open up America's Arctic Refuge and other remaining special places to reckless energy development.

Energy Legislation

Energy will be an early but prolonged battle in the 109th Congress. Once again House Republicans plan to reintroduce and pass a controversial, pro-polluter energy bill, in hopes of forcing action in the Senate. Within the next few months, the House is expected to again pass H.R. 6 -- an early version of the administration's bill -- with many of the same anti-environmental provisions as last year. It appears that the battle will again come down to the Senate, where the legislation was successfully stopped with a filibuster in 2003. Some version of the administration's energy bill likely will be brought to the Senate floor in the coming months.

Endangered Species

One of the earliest environmental battles in the 109th Congress may involve efforts to weaken the nation's premier wildlife protection law, the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under the guise of reforming the law, ESA opponents are promoting a broad range of weakening changes. Possible changes include proposals that would make it harder to add new species to the list of endangered and threatened wildlife, eliminate protection for critical habitat, and weaken the legal tools environmental advocates have relied on to ensure protection for imperiled wildlife. NRDC will fight to preserve this bedrock environmental law that has saved hundreds of species from becoming extinct and continues to protect hundreds more.

Environmental Exemptions

Having recently secured exemptions from the Marine Mammal Protection Act and key provisions of the ESA, the Department of Defense (DOD) will again pursue blanket exemptions from the Clean Air Act, the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Superfund statute. Each of these laws already has a special provision allowing the DOD to escape any requirement that might hinder national security, although the DOD has never made an effort to utilize these provisions. This battle appears likely to occur as part of the DOD authorization bill, which the Armed Services committees have vowed to move quickly in 2005.

Judicial Nominees

In the last Congress, NRDC took an active role in opposing five of President Bush's nominees based on their environmental records. Bush has re-nominated some of the most controversial of those candidates whose nominations were filibustered last Congress, and Senate Republicans are weighing changes to the filibuster process ("the nuclear option") to prohibit such blocks. It is essential that Congress reject confirmation of judges whose poor record of environmental protection is so drastically out of step with the views of most Americans.

Regulatory Rollback

The White House and its allies in Congress are set to consider proposals that would weaken environmental protections by overhauling the regulatory review process. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) within the Bush White House Office of Management and Budget reportedly is pursuing a legislative package with industry that could include proposals to let industry tie up rulemakings with legal challenges, promote lawsuits over data quality issues, and sunset some regulatory protections.

Oceans and Coastal Management

Our vast oceans may seem indestructible, but pollution, ocean dumping of dredged material, sand and gravel mining, oil and gas development, shipping, habitat destruction and overfishing have taken a serious toll. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA) as a comprehensive reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The SFA requires fishery managers to enforce new conservation measures in response to collapsing fisheries in dire need of protection. The law required that fishermen reduce bycatch of unwanted fish and other species trapped inadvertently in their nets, stop harmful fishing practices, abide by new protections to rebuild many of the overfished stocks, and protect and restore key habitat that fish need to survive. The Magnuson Stevens law is now up for reauthorization, and some shortsighted fishing interests are seeking changes that would dramatically weaken the law. Congress must ensure that any reauthorization of fisheries laws builds on the progress made in 1996.

In the 109th Congress, NRDC will work toward implementation of other key recommendations of the independent Pew Oceans Commission and the federally established and appointed U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. We will focus our resources most heavily on legislation to improve the government's fractured approach to ocean management. Today, 140 different mandates are on the books pertaining to our oceans and coasts and these are implemented by 6 federal agencies and dozens of departments. Without a clear purpose, specifically that Federal actions must collectively promote the protection, maintenance, and restoration of ocean health, and without a clear coordinating mechanism, the government will remain incapable of addressing staggering declines in ocean productivity and function.

Budgetary Battles

Environmental protections face two major dangers in the budget process. In recent years, the federal budget process has been used to undermine environmental protections when members of Congress attach unrelated legislative provisions to funding bills, called "riders," that weaken existing environmental safeguards. Environmental protections should not be compromised by provisions that are secretly added to "must pass" spending bills without public hearings, open debates, and votes. In the past, these stealth provisions have weakened our drinking water and clean air protections, imposed new roadblocks to cleaning up polluted lakes, rivers, and streams, and resulted in a steady erosion of public lands protections.

More fundamentally, core funding for natural resources and public health protections is under attack. Without adequate funding, vital environmental laws lose credibility and relevance as air and water pollution permit reviews lapse, drinking water treatment is delayed, wild lands are despoiled, and public transportation projects are starved. The proposed budget for FY 2006 slashed overall discretionary spending for environmental and natural resources agencies by an astounding $3.3 billion (or 10.4 percent).

The 109th Congress must ensure adequate funding for enforcement and operation of environmental and public health programs. It also should uphold the principles of democratic policymaking by rejecting environmentally destructive riders on budget bills. And, to help restore to environmental issues the fundamental safeguards of democratic law-making -- open debate, hearings and public votes -- Congress should enact the Defense of the Environment Act that would expressly require a separate vote and public debate on any provision that would reduce protection of the environment.

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