Congress Returns: A Road Map for Environmental Progress

Congress returns from its August recess next week with a historic opportunity to make real progress on the nation’s environment and health.  Lawmakers will face critical choices on whether to advance a common-sense agenda that can help to protect our water, clean our air, make our farms more resilient, cut energy waste and protect future generations from climate chaos.   Lawmakers should not squander time on the destructive path that has been set by the House Republican Leadership, rolling back protections and preventing progress on pressing problems.

To better serve the American people, Congress should start by advancing pending environment bills that put more money in our pockets and improve our health – to say nothing of reviving its abysmal approval ratings.

In the Senate, several pieces of important environment-related legislation are ready for action—along with some dangerous clunkers that need to be stopped.  It’s an agenda that serious lawmakers could tackle and achieve in the next few months, especially if freed from partisan grandstanding.

Below is a simple road map for achieving practical, achievable progress this fall on issues that touch the lives of Americans everywhere.  

Support President Obama’s National Plan for Action on Climate Change

Climate change is the central environmental challenge of our time.  It is imposing large and growing costs on our country, threatening our welfare and imperiling our future. Last year alone, we spent, in this country, some $140 billion to cover the costs of crop losses, hurricanes, floods and other disasters related to extreme weather made worse by climate change.  The federal government picked up the lion’s share of the tab – to the tune of $1,100 per taxpayer, on average.

We can’t afford to ignore this widening scourge.  President Obama has laid out a comprehensive plan to do something about it.  That starts by reducing the carbon pollution that is driving climate change, by cutting carbon pollution from our single greatest source: the power plants that account for 40 percent of our national carbon footprint.

Unfortunately, some congressional extremists would rather protect fossil fuel profits than stand up for our future.  No Congressional action is needed to put the key elements of the plan into effect, but some Republicans in Congress are trying to block it.  Efforts to legislate roadblocks to the president’s needed plan must be defeated.

Keep the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act Clean   

Also known as Shaheen-Portman, for its co-sponsors, this is a bi-partisan bill, already on the Senate floor, which is supported by everyone from the National Association of Manufacturers to the Christian Coalition to environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council.  The fossil fuel industry and its congressional allies are poised to torpedo the bill by adding politically motivated poison pills, such as attacks on President Obama’s climate plan.

As drafted, the bill would spur improvements to help our homes, office buildings and industrial plants waste less energy, keeping money in consumers’ pockets—up to $1 trillion in energy savings from buildings alone over the next decade, according to some estimates.  And it would foster jobs that can’t be exported. 

Both Republicans and Democrats support moving Shaheen-Portman forward, but that won’t happen unless Senators resist loading it with killer amendments that undermine energy efficiency or block climate action.

Pass the Senate Version of the Farm Bill

The Senate approved a new Farm Bill, with bi-partisan support, that continues to invest in long-standing agriculture conservation programs.  It also protects our soil and environment by respecting the 30-year bargain between taxpayers and farmers by requiring that farmers who receive federal crop insurance assistance comply with basic conservation/environmental practices.  The House bill breaks this longstanding link and allows taxpayers to subsidize destructive farming practices. 

Perhaps most importantly, the Senate bill does not include the House’s litany of egregious anti-environmental provisions designed to overturn basic health and environmental protection.  The House bill would shield pesticide manufacturers from oversight, overturn rules to prevent the spraying of pesticides into lakes and streams, and gut important conservation programs that help restore wetlands and prairies and reduce fertilizer and pesticide pollution.

The House bill also blocks states from enacting their own food and farm production standards, which could invalidate more than 150 state laws on health, animal welfare, and food safety. Oddly, the House GOP majority pushed through a bill that negates the principle of state action.

At the end of the day, Congress has strong incentive to act: without a new Farm Bill by Sept. 30, the U.S. reverts back to 1940s agricultural policies.

Pass a Budget that Protects Public Health, Our Drinking Water, and the Air We Breathe

Congress faces an Oct. 1 deadline for approving the federal budget for fiscal year 2014. Soon after, it must address the debt ceiling.  In the Republican-controlled House, GOP firebrands are threatening a government shutdown.  That would suspend enforcement of laws that protect our health and environment, close our national parks, delay funding of important new energy-saving, job-creating technologies and halt work on infrastructure projects urgently needed to prepare for flooding and other consequences of climate change.

A House subcommittee approved a spending bill for the coming year that slashed the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by a third, down to the levels not seen since 1990 (and, adjusted for inflation, to the level in 1976), making it next to impossible for the agency to enforce the environmental laws Congress has passed.

Included is a provision to reduce the funds for fixing the nation’s aging sewage systems to just $250 million from $1.44 billion, a cut one local water official called “shocking.”  Also included are numerous legislative riders to prevent government agencies from doing their jobs to protect our air, water and health, such as one barring EPA from enforcing rules to limit kids’ exposure to lead paint, or another that prevents the agency from cutting sulfur in gasoline to reduce asthma attacks.  These riders have no impact on spending levels, they just tell EPA that it can’t protect the public as required by law.

In contrast, the Senate’s draft proposal calls for a slight increase in EPA’s budget, holds clean water funds steady, and contains none of the health-threatening riders.

“First Do No Harm”

Congress can make significant progress by simply blocking all efforts—whether in stand-alone bills or language tucked into larger legislation--to undermine our basic right to participate in environmental reviews on major projects that can affect our communities, and to tie the hands of regulators charged with protecting our families and our environment. 

One of our foundational environmental laws, the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, is facing a backdoor assault from industry and its Congressional allies.  NEPA promotes responsible policies by requiring public input on major government projects and consideration of alternatives.

The Senate-passed $12-billion Water Resources Development Act contains anti-NEPA provisions that would rush through major infrastructure projects, regardless of their environmental impact.

The House, acting as if the calamitous Deepwater Horizon oil spill never happened, passed a bill that would prevent the Interior Department from conducting thorough NEPA reviews of offshore oil leases, including oil spill response capacity.  House committees have passed similar bills to bypass NEPA reviews for oil and gas drilling and mining on public lands. This anti-NEPA language should be stripped out of all legislation.

Don’t Undermine the Ability to Protect Our Air, Water, Land and Food.

Through imaginatively named bills like the REINS Act (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny), which passed the House, the GOP is seeking to unravel the entire system through which public safeguards are put in place.  These bills would literally make it next to impossible to put in place new health, safety, food and water protections we rely on if corporate lobbyists had any objections.

REINS, for example, an unprecedented attack on our long-standing regulatory system, would allow a single house of Congress to block any major agency-proposed standard affecting health, safety, the environment or the economy.

In both the House and Senate, numerous bills and amendments put forward by climate change deniers would slash funds for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects and research, and bar the government from trying to limit climate-altering carbon pollution from power plants and other sources.

The House passed the so-called Energy Consumers Relief Act that would subject any significant EPA standard affecting an energy industry to a veto by the Energy Department, allowing vital health and environmental safeguards to be nullified. 

The RAPID Act (Responsibly and Professionally Invigorating Development), passed by a House committee, is designed to ram through construction of major projects, such as oil refineries, power plants, nuclear waste dumps, big flood control projects and the like, without adequate safety and environmental safeguards.

There are more. They all should be stopped.

As Congress gets back to work next week, the first order of business must be progress for all Americans. This is not the time for political posturing and partisan point-scoring.  There is important environmental work to be done for the good of this and future generations.