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Nature Is Up For A Vote Today In Congress

Forty years of environmental progress is under attack today by a vote in the House of Representative on a stop-gap funding measure to keep the federal government running.

Unfortunately, that measure—called a continuing resolution—is loaded with amendments and provisions that would slash the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, and seeks to override the rule of law at every turn.

These so-called  “riders” could not pass on their own merits, so their sponsors hope they will ride the coat-tails of this must-pass budget bill. Like fleas, they come with the dog, only these are far more than irritants. They would overturn court decisions that we have obtained to stop illegal behavior and force federal agencies to comply with the law.

Greenhouse gas regulations top the list. House Republicans would deny funding of EPA efforts to limit global warming pollution from new power plants and factories. EPA finally put these regulations into place this January nearly four years after the Supreme Court held that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The naysayers claim it is the province of Congress to craft legislative solutions to this most far-reaching threat of our time. Never mind that Congress failed to pass climate legislation and that the naysayers have no intention of doing so in this Congress. 

The good news is President Obama has threatened to veto legislation that strips EPA of authority to regulate greenhouse gases. And  when asked whether this rider would have any traction in the Senate, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) replied, “About like 20 degrees below zero, trying to walk across an icy pond.” 

Another rider would take Northern Rockies gray wolves from the endangered species list. Last year, a federal district judge threw out the delisting of gray wolves in Idaho and Montana because the population extends into Wyoming and wolves do not respect state boundaries. The issue is no longer whether the wolves still need protection or whether delisting is illegal.

Another rider would over-ride mitigation measures written by scientists to keep enough water in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to support salmon. We are entering dangerous terrain when raw politics can so easily trump scientific assessments of what species need to survive.

The current fervor is a slap in the face to President Nixon, who signed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 to give the federal government “needed authority to protect an irreplaceable part of our natural heritage—threatened wildlife.” As he said:

Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.

The promise of the Clean Air Act is also in jeopardy. When the first President Bush signed strengthening amendments in 1990, he expressed his “demonstration to the American people of my determination that each and every American shall breathe clean air,” and he promised that the “result of this new Clean Air Act will be that cancer risk, respiratory disease, heart ailments, and reproductive disorders will be reduced.”

The Clean Air Act has been achieving its promise. More than a decade of litigation spurred EPA to adopt a rule last year that will reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution from cement kilns by more than 90 percent and will save 2,500 lives each year.

Now a rider seeks to block those health protections. And EPA is due to finalize new limits on toxic air pollution from on-site power plants at industrial facilities. This rule will save 5,000 lives each year. Thirty-six million Americans who live within three miles of these facilities can breathe easier if this rule goes into effect.

The anti-environment zeal has also surfaced in Florida, where Rep. Tom Rooney is using a ride to attack popular, much-needed standards that would lessen the run-off that has slimed state waterways with toxic algae growth explosions.

This is just a sampling of the mischief underway as I write this. Other riders would perpetuate devastating mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia, rush offshore oil drilling approvals without compliance with environmental and safety measures, and prevent protection of wild lands that could become wilderness.

The silver lining is that Congress is not supposed to legislate on spending bills. That is why most of these riders prevent spending funds to take specified actions over the next seven months. But other must-pass bills will follow and be magnets (this is the first) for riders, and many of the anti-environmental measures have also been introduced in free-standing bills. It’s going to be a long Congress.