Eye on Washington July 2021

by Dan Sealy

Atmosphere in Washington

The hot, humid, summer weather with the constant hum of 17 year cicadas sets the stage for politics. This is the time of year when pre-air-conditioned Washington once was in recess until autumn arrived. But now, there is no end to the political action and inaction by an increasingly divided congress and American population.

Although most media highlights the gridlock that has come to define this city, there has been, in fact, new legislation introduced, new policies adopted, and progress  slowly being made.

Pollution: Environmental Justice

Rep. McEachin (D-VA) and Sen. Booker (D-NJ) announced they are adding the “Environmental Justice Legacy Pollution Cleanup Act of 2021″ to the existing list of bills that would address environmental justice. 

Legacy pollution refers to the cumulative effects of environmental toxins that plague urban and developed rural areas of the nation resulting in poor air, water and soil pollution as well as aging infrastructure such as lead pipes that contaminate drinking water. 

Congressional supporters realize they may be blocked by the partisan split in the House and Senate but believe they can use the reconciliation legislative maneuver to succeed in passage. 

Revisions to Endangered Species Act 

Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries, who have jurisdiction over the Endangered Species Act, have proposed regulatory changes based upon President Biden’s Executive Order 13990 Executive Order 13990 [federalregister.gov] designed to reverse regulatory changes by the last administration meant to hogtie protection of rare species. This is a welcome change to conservationists after four years of attacks on the basic principles of protecting and restoring rare species and their habitats. 

 “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to working with diverse federal, Tribal, state and industry partners to not only protect and recover America’s imperiled wildlife but to ensure cornerstone laws like the Endangered Species Act are helping us meet 21st century challenges,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Martha Williams. 

Some of Biden’s proposed changes include:  

  • Rescind regulatory definition of critical habitat which was promulgated December 16, 2020 (85 FR 81411 [federalregister.gov]; December 16, 2020). 
  • Revise the final rule of the August 27, 2019 regulations adopted by the previous administration for listing species and designating critical habitat so the agencies are no longer required to  “reference possible economic or other impacts of such determination.” 
  • Revise the August 27, 2019 regulations for interagency cooperation:  (84 FR 44976 [federalregister.gov])  governing section 7 consultation. Though some consider this to be unnecessary, conservation agencies feel it avoids the “fox guarding the henhouse” scenario for analysis of impacts to listed species. 
  • Reinstate protections for species listed as “threatened” vs “endangered” under the Environmental Species Act (ESA) that were changed by the  August 27, 2019 ruling. This reinstates important protective measures to assure threatened species do not become endangered. 

Biden Proposes Budget Increase to Police the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Polluter Policing Ability 

President Biden’s budget proposal would increase the EPA Inspector General’s (IG) budget by 7.8 million more than it had in 2021 and would see an increased staffing in fiscal 2022.  

In addition, the Interior IG would receive an increase of about $20 million for 2022. It will be interesting to see, however, if in light of the recent Department of Interior IG’s unusual finding of no fault by US Park Police in its response to the Black Lives Matter protests at Lafayette Square, this funding increase remains in the final budget. 

Alaska and Indigenous People Get Mixed Messages

Just as the Alaska congressional delegation took a high five on early decisions by the Biden Administration to stop legal actions against petroleum exploration endeavors near the National Petroleum Reserve, Senator Murkowski (R-AK) expressed shock and displeasure when the administration announced it would halt oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR.)  Meanwhile, Senator Menendez (D-NJ) re-energized a bill to outlaw drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. Similar legislation is expected to stop drilling along the Pacific coast.

Surely the most exciting and surprising news of the month was the abandonment of the Keystone XL pipeline that proposed to carry some of the dirtiest carbon-packed tarsands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico ports. Meanwhile, Indigenous tribes and 1,000 protestors engaged in a heated action against the “Line 3” pipeline in Minnesota that would replace an existing pipeline that carries similar tarsands across their lands and across the Mississippi river. The Climate Crisis agenda will be fractured until the nation, including citizens, Congress and the President, come to agreement on a national strategy.