Eye on Washington: Summertime, Expectations are Low

Eye on Washington logoMembers of Congress will be out of D.C. and back in their home districts for the week of July 4 and again from August 5 – September 6. There will be plenty of time for bills to move through the legislative machinery but, in reality, the primary activity over summer months is posturing. Every seat in the House of Representatives will be up for grabs in 2020, while 34 seats in the Senate are up for filling.  Therefore, the summer of 2019 will be steeped in election fundraising—especially with the presidential campaigns ramping up.  Members of both chambers will try to please their home constituents and funders with popular legislation, regardless of whether or not those bills have real potential for passage. Some legislation will be introduced and debated to force vulnerable members to take a public position on controversial matters, also whether it is likely to pass both chambers or not. Conservation organizations and members of the public must consider whether or not to expend effort on that posturing when so much time and energy are already being taxed by the daily onslaught of disturbing headlines.

How will legislation get passed? Consider the recently passed “Public Lands” package (see EcoNews April-May 2019). The bill was a compromise that included significant victories for conservation such as new wilderness designations and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The bill avoided, however, some of the most important and controversial issues put on hold by this administration, such as climate change, the shrinking of National Monuments, and weakening laws and policies that protect the environmental health of our public lands. Congress tacks unrelated legislation onto “must pass” legislation, such as the upcoming budget authorizations and deficit ceiling. The foundational budget bill may end up with riders or “ornaments” on topics such as gun laws and education as well as new wilderness areas and clean water measures. This “Christmas tree” effect can result in a tree that could be beautiful or scary.

Of particular interest is the budget for the Department of the Interior (DOI), which includes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA—which enforces the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS—which administers most of the Endangered Species Act), the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (both agencies permit oil and gas leasing on public lands in coastal waters), and the National Park Service.  The back-and-forth negotiations between the President’s budget versus the more generous congressional budget has begun.  Newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior Barnhardt has started off on the wrong foot with an embarrassing portfolio of corporate conflicts of interest. As Bernhardt’s House hearing to support Trump’s weak conservation budget approached in May, Congressman Huffman (our North Coast representative), assured the Secretary disagreements regarding focus and mission would be on the hearing table. “With [former Interior Secretary] Ryan Zinke, we could certainly talk about policy disagreements, but he didn’t bring with him an entire professional career loaded with conflicts of interest and all of these red flags about ethical violations after he came back into public service.” Huffman said.  The DOI appropriation bill proposed by Congress would increase the Interior budget by $833 million over the current 2019 budget and would devote more funds to conservation, public lands, and wildfire management. Congress would give the DOI $13.8 billion in fiscal 2020, which is $1.2 billion more than the Trump administration requested.

New Offshore Oil Deflected for Now

Thanks to a court hearing that indefinitely delayed the proposed offshore oil and gas exploration in the U.S. portion of the Arctic Ocean and a portion of the Atlantic coast, the Trump administration decided to withdraw new offshore oil exploration leasing activities for now. These leases could have opened more than 90 percent of all federal waters to offshore drilling. “Given the recent court decision, the department is simply evaluating all of its options to determine the best pathway to accomplish the mission entrusted to it by the president,” wrote an Interior spokeswoman. With the new DOI Secretary’s strong ties to the oil and gas industry, this will not be the end of this battle and if President Trump is re-elected in 2020 a second go at offshore oil exploration would not be a surprise. A potential firewall to stop oil and gas exploration off the coast of California and other parts of the U.S. are the two bills introduced by Congressman Huffman prohibiting new drilling off U.S. coasts by this or future administrations.  Passage and signature of the bill will require loud and unrelenting opposition to counter the big-dollar lobby for the industry.

In related news, just after the ninth anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the Trump administration in May dismantled  Obama-era offshore oil drilling safety regulations intended to help prevent such disasters. The oil industry had criticized the regulations as too costly to comply with.