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."