Eye on Washington: March 2021 

by Dan Sealy, NEC Legislative Analyst

 

A New Day in DC

Americans are reminded once again: elections do indeed have consequences. From national to local elections, voters saw swings to both the left and right. Certainly, on the national level, the swing was mostly leftward. Many conservation organizations are breathing a sigh of relief as they look forward to negotiating policies, laws and legislation with more friendly government representatives. But voters are reminded as President Biden writes Executive Orders that future administration can reverse them again. Legislation to back them up will take much more effort to achieve and will test the patience and political savvy of conservationists, from national organizations to individual believers. A quick look at some of the recent Executive and Secretarial Orders: 

US Forest Service Pushes Pause 

On February 1, Acting Agriculture Department Deputy Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, Chris French, sent a memorandum to Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen, saying proposed actions that could impact roadless-area proposals, as well as other pending decisions, will be elevated to higher administrative levels at USDA for review by February 12. This means a temporary halt to road construction and logging in roadless areas of national forests while leaders at the secretary’s level ensure that the proposed work aligns with President Biden’s just-released goals for environmental and climate policy. The review applies to Forest Service actions that were decided before March 31, suggesting it will be applied to  the highly controversial Tongass National Forest protections on lands administered by the USFS.   This is good news for defenders of wilderness and proponents of higher levels of  protection of wilderness and other public lands administered by the USFS. The anticipation of this action may also be the reason behind perceived mixed messages between Washington DC and forest supervisors the past two years.

Oil and Gas 

There was good news for those who expressed concern as the Trump administration and Sec. of the Interior, Zinke, pushed to open up all of the US continental shelf to oil and gas exploration, including California and the US Arctic. In President Biden’s sweeping Executive Order, he banned new drilling on public lands and waters. Although Congressman Huffman and other legislators have previously proposed legislation to make part or all of those bans permanent, it will be the new congress that will debate that legislation and North Coast conservationists are eager to weigh in to assure protection for our clean water, beaches, fishing and tourism.  Republican and Democratic legislators have already signaled the fight will be hard fought. While many Americans were focused on the quick legislative process to move Biden’s big 1.9 trillion dollar COVID-19 and economic stimulus package through the House and Senate,  Sen. Barasso (R-NM) and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Heinrich (D-NM,) supported by other western representatives, passed an amendment to the stimulus bill. The amendment would exempt New Mexico from the ban. Barasso argued “One of the many crushing consequences of the moratorium is eliminating hundreds of millions of dollars for K-12 education for students funding all in these states.”  What is lesser known by most Americans is the large number (perhaps numbering in the thousands) of existing claims that have not been activated. 

Oil Pipelines- Keystone XL

During both the Obama and Trump administrations, the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would bring some of the dirtiest oil from Canada to the U.S. for transportation and refinement, was first banned, then permitted under Executive Orders. Right out of the gate, Biden, began actions to stop the pipeline’s construction. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups, joined by some members of Congress, asked for a broader review of federal permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, arguing that the expanded pipeline will allow further development of the carbon-intensive oil sands in Canada, exacerbating climate change. Once again, a bi-partisan group of Senators with a vote of 52-48 successfully added an amendment to the stimulus package to approve the transboundary permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. 

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)

Rep. Young (R-AK) must surely be upset after President Biden, on his first day in office, signed an Executive Order to place a temporary moratorium on oil and gas development in the ANWR coastal plain region.  Rep. Young, who has spent most of his almost 40 years in Congress pushing for drilling in the refuge, joined Alaska Senators  Murkowski (R-AK) and Sullivan (R-AK) in denouncing the pause.  Readers may recall Sen. Murkowski nudged an amendment into the Trump “Tax Reform Act” to open up the wildlife refuge to oil and gas exploration saying the taxes raised on oil production would offset the taxes lost in the Tax Act. However, when leases were offered for bid, few were received and none for the expected revenue needed.  Democrats took no time in attempting to make the new ban permanent by introducing legislation to make the coastal plain of the refuge a wilderness area. “After a recent failed set of lease sales, it’s clear that Republicans’ promises of a major fiscal windfall from development on the coastal plain were really a major fiscal flop,” wrote Sen. Markey (D-MA).

National Monuments 

The Department of the  Interior will be reviewing the “boundaries and conditions” of Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southwestern Utah. In a relatively rare move, the former President Trump reduced the size of both national monuments to allow exploration of oil, gas and mineral mining within over two million acres of the original monuments borders. 

Biden could issue a new proclamation under the Antiquities Act of 1906, or the administration could opt to undertake a review process for the additional acreage.  Lawsuits were already filed to block Biden’s order and the judge in the case requested a review by March 5.

Climate Change

In addition to re-signing the US into the Paris Climate change Accord, as he promised during his campaign, President Biden also set a clear tone to place climate change and the climate crisis as a priority for his administration. That topic alone is worth a separate article but here is a link to his Executive Order which outlines new policies on electric vehicles, clean electricity and renewable power, and calls for slashing oil methane emissions.  The Order can be read here : https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/

Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad | The White House

California Water Wars Ramp Up Again

As winter precipitation appears to be drastically low with the northern and central valley portions of the state recording “extreme” to “severe” drought conditions as of early February, Rep. Valadao (R-CA) introduced legislation to extend a deadline this year for the Interior secretary to evaluate potential water storage projects for another 10 years, to 2031. The potential drought once again pits big agricultural interests against environmentalists. Building more water storage is a top priority for farming interests in the drought-stricken state, but water storage projects are typically opposed by environmental groups. It is yet to be seen what Sec. of the Interior, Haaland, will do with the large volume water storage issue that requires massive dam building. Through Sec. Haaland is considered friendly to most conservation issues, she is from New Mexico, another state that frequently faces water shortages. The bill, however, requires local matching funding which, for large water storage and transportation projects, has been a limiting factor.  Valadao has placed his flag on the hill, however, and California conservationists will need to continue to find ways to stop the robbing of water from northern California that robs our rovers and, fisheries, to provide more and more water to the arid farmlands of the south. First hurdle is to get the bill passed out of the Democratically- controlled House. 

Recycling

It would be easy to be cynical of any legislation that is led by both industry and, lawmakers but, a sweeping legislative plan, the “Blueprint for America’s Recycling System,“ seems to be headed in a positive direction. During the pandemic, some communities saw recycling efforts grind to a halt as China and other nations decided that US trash was not worth the contamination, while other communities recycling systems remained strong.  The plan encourages greater federal leadership to smooth out some of the underlying disparities but hopefully will leave room for local community. Sen.  Whitehouse (D-RI) stated he backs the legislation paying “particular attention to plastics in this context” and the issue of marine debris. Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) pointed out the recycling operation’s potential to serve as a post-pandemic economic and environmental opportunity. “While much of the world slowed down, we’ve seen large increases in waste collection across the country,” he said. 

At the same time, more than 250 groups released a report  asking Biden and Congress to invest $1.3 billion funding using stimulus or other funding bills to reduce plastic pollution.