Hidden In The Budget: The End Of Almost Every Major Environmental Regulation

As Congress gears up for another budget fight, environmental protections—from endangered species to clean water to pollution rules for power plants—are all on the chopping block.


Once the debt ceiling debate is settled, Congress is going to have to re-focus on the budget that almost shut down the government a few months ago. As part of that process, members of Congress have attached various provisions to the appropriations bills. One bill includes policy riders that deal with longstanding environmental rules—things like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. It's called the 2012 Interior and Environmental Appropriations bill and as currently written, it would scale back or reverse decades of environmental protections, including:

Removing Clean Air Act protections

One rider on the bill would nix the EPA's funding to enforce the Clean Air Act’s upcoming Mercury and Air Toxics standards for power plants, which are intended to cut soot and smog pollution. The same rider would stop the EPA from enacting the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (aka the "good neighbor policy"), which limits power plant pollution that drifts into other states.

Most of the regulations being targeted are Clean Air Act rules put on the books in 1990 (signed by the first President Bush). "These are things people have been aware of," says Tony Kreindler, director of strategic communications at the Environmental Defense Fund. "Most companies out there that are affected have been preparing for a long time." But Kreindler explains that some companies—such as American Electric Power—have been bitterly fighting the rules, saying they haven't had enough time to prepare, "while all along everyone else has known somehow that the day has been coming for 20 years."

If funding for the Mercury and Air Toxics rule is upheld, Kreindler estimates that it could prevent 17,000 premature deaths. Another 17,000 could be saved by the good neighbor policy. So if these policies are not upheld, well, do the math.

Restoring $55 million in oil and gas subsidies

The more the oil and gas industry is subsidized, the less cash there is for renewables. The fossil fuel industry provides fewer jobs, too—clean energy creates 17 jobs for every $1 million spent, while the oil and gas industry generates only five jobs for every $1 million.

Preventing new species from being listed under the Endangered Species Act

This so-called "extinction rider" to the bill would kill a recent agreement between the Center for Biological Diversity and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that brings protection for 757 new endangered species—including the walrus (pictured above), wolverine, Mexican grey wolf, and the scarlet Hawaiian Honeycreeper—closer to reality. Even species already covered under the act would be threatened—the new bill would take away money to protect endangered species' habitats. Update: This rider was overturned last night. Animals can still be endangered.

Removing water protections

The bill would limit the EPA's ability to protect our water. One loophole would allow pesticide applicators to spray toxic chemicals into waterways (without complying with specific permit conditions like they currently have to do). Another would stop the EPA from updating stormwater discharge regulations and permits to safely manage runoff from construction sites. This could increase the amount of sewage and polluted water that ends up in rivers, potentially putting human health at risk. Perhaps most disturbingly, the bill would stop the EPA from developing standards for the use of cooling water at power plants, which are the largest users of water in the country.

Opening up of lands next to the Grand Canyon for uranium mining

The mining measure was attached to the bill after President Obama extended for six months a moratorium on uranium mining on the one million acres of land surrounding the Grand Canyon. If mining is allowed, accompanying toxic wastes could pollute the Colorado River, which provides drinking water for 27 million people in California and the Southwest.

Does any of this have a chance of happening? The bill might pass the House, but it will have a harder time in the Senate. And during the last budget process, a similarly aggressive anti-regulation bill was stripped of most of its provisions during the negotiations. Even if the appropriations bill does pass in its current form, many power companies will probably go ahead with their Clean Air Act retrofits and modifications (though endangered species and clean water might still be threatened). "In the power sector in particular, capital investments are both huge and long-lived," says Kreindler, "It costs hundreds of millions of dollars to build a power plant."

[Image: Wikipedia]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • Robert Chapman

    In response to article in general the cut, cap and balance buget that moved out of the House of Representatives last week demonstrated malign neglect toward legitimate and badly needed government functions such reducing the bad effects of pollution.

    The Right's willingness to pass extrinsic costs, such as pollution, on to the public is the difficulty here.

    Since we have yet to devise a legal framework to calculate and include the costs of pollution into the financial analysis, we must  rely on the government to police polluters.

  • Robert Chapman

    It's time for the left to put its own money where it's mouth is and spend it on enforcement through civil actions, instead of expecting every taxpayer to foot the bill for their pet causes.

    This quote from Andrew Krause, is indicative of the sort of misinformational nonsense that the right presents as "reasoned" arguments. 

    Andrew, how can you keep a straight face while offering civil actions as the remedy for enforcement when the Right has been pushing tort reform that eliminate that possibility since the Reagan Administration?

    As it happens, adminstratively law is probably the best avenue for amelioration of environmental degradation available in our system.

    Through the passage and enforcement of administrative law measurers we would:

    * debate all measures would be held in forums that are not subject to  jurisdictional rules on standing;
    *  public interest and ameliorative measures would be defined through a public interplay between interested parties, government and other experts on the matters, and the John Q. Public, instead of in a courtroom under rules limited by arcane court procedures and obscurely related precedents;
    * clearly  unmeritiorious measures would be quckly ruled out, instead of being enforced by the power and prestige of the judiciary; and perhaps most importantly;
    * administrative law matters are adjudicated by the only judges in the whole judicial system who are appointed by merit and legal qualifications instead of political processes.

    If the interests are transparency, innovation and solutuions of difficult and multi-facetted problems, the inflexibility and unrpredictability of civil proceedings are counter-indicated.  The more open and flexible institutions arising from administrative law are better.

  • Phillie G

    I really think that we (you know..."we the people") need to look past this partisan nonsense that prevents anything positive from happening and start to look at the consequences of abusing the planet which we call home. I happen to live in NY State which is battling the issues of hydro-fracking. Just the idea of pumping toxic chemicals into the ground where it CAN get into the ground water is ridiculous. Why do they even consider this? We need to get as far away from fossil fuels as we can and we CAN do it if we stop the special interests from dictating policy. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that it will happen any time soon since money makes the world go around. Everything is profit driven. If there was money to be made in protecting the environment you can bet that everyone would hop on board for it. But there's no money to be made so who cares about this species or that species, clear water or polluted water. We can just buy water from the conglomerates that are buying up all of the world's water rights. 

  • Andrew Krause

    It's endemic of the left wing mindset to assume that government spending is the path to improving society. It's also endemic to make up for a lack of evidence by creating fear, uncertainty and doubt. It's time for the left to put its own money where it's mouth is and spend it on enforcement through civil actions, instead of expecting every taxpayer to foot the bill for their pet causes. Let's try doing some real journalism by (a) digging up the alleged riders and linking to them, then (b) providing figures concerning the spending patterns of the affected agencies to show how effective that spending really is. (Hint: The NRDC already did half the work for you.)

  • Peter Rives

    Unfortunately, in stating that Congressional budget cuts are environmentally unfriendly failed to eaxamine exactly what the  "oil subsidies" actually are before concluding that reinstating them will somehow harm the environment.  Parroting Democratic talking points has its price - in truthfulness.  So-called oil subsidies are not payments to oil companies at all (as the word implies) but tax breaks allowing oil companies to deduct extra expenses when they use more environmentally friendly drilling/exploration and refining methods.  They also can deduct taxes paid to foreign governments for oil (look up the original law - its hard to find!).  Of course, removing these tax incentives may make foreign crude oil more expensive for US refineries and create more incentive to drill in the US as well.  So, ironically, not renewing oil subsidies would be "bad for the environment" and not "good" as your article seems to imply.

  • Robert Chapman

     So-called oil subsidies are not payments to oil companies at all (as the word implies) but tax breaks allowing oil companies to deduct extra expenses when they use more environmentally friendly drilling/exploration and refining methods

    Peter, the rationale behind the oil company subsidies is to allow them to pass the savings on the the public in their prices at the gas pump.

    If you believe the oil companies are living up that justiffication I have a Bridge for sale in Brooklyn that I want to show you.

  • Pebbles

    The entire oil and gas industry is environmentally harmful, we need to use other forms of energy.  And big corporations don't need tax breaks, regardless of the environment.  You criticize the article for "parroting Democratic talking points" but you sound like someone on the payroll of the GOP so that's not an argument that will win anyone over.