Energy Bill Threatens Air, Land, and Water

Earthjustice denounces sellout to corporate interests


Joan Mulhern, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x 223 (cell: 202-329-1552)
David Baron, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x 220 (cell: 202-841-6657)
Randy Moorman, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x 201 (cell: 240-498-1339)

The conference report on the Energy bill, which the conference leadership announced today will be unveiled on Saturday, is expected to be rife with special interest, anti-environmental provisions threatening protections for our nation’s air, water and public lands. The co-leaders of the conference, Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Representative Billy Tauzin (R-LA), have included language that would weaken clean air protections for some of the most polluted cities in the country, exempt certain oil and gas activities from Clean Water Act requirements, and make oil and gas development the dominant use of America’s public lands. These are not the only provisions in the bill that would undermine the country’s long-standing environmental safeguards, but they are among the most egregious.

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Dirty Air Provision Threatens Public Health

The dirty air rider, snuck in behind closed doors during conference, would drastically weaken clean air protections for some of the most polluted cities in the nation, including Washington DC, Dallas, Atlanta, and Baton Rouge. This provision would allow these cities to delay implementation of health-protecting clean air measures already adopted in cities with similar air pollution problems, including New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, and Milwaukee.

“This is a disgraceful sneak attack on the air we breathe,” said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. “There is no excuse for waiving clean air requirements for cities that are already years behind schedule in meeting health standards.”

“The inclusion of this rider in the final energy bill would force millions of Americans to breathe dirty air long past current cleanup deadlines,” Baron added. “It would mean more days when children, senior citizens and others are exposed to dangerous levels of pollution just by stepping outside their front doors.”

Although the House on October 30 voted down a motion to instruct the conferees to delete the dirty air rider, Republicans as well as Democrats supported the motion. Moreover, members were deliberately kept in the dark as to the rider’s full impact, because its backers refused to disclose even a draft of its text. The Senate and House can still reject the Energy conference report because of this and other anti-environmental provisions.

Special Interest Rider Exempts Oil and Gas Industry from the Clean Water Act

Another provision in the bill threatens 30 years of work to clean up the nation’s waters. Oil and gas industry lobbyists got a provision slipped into the House version of the Energy bill that could exempt them from Clean Water Act provisions that limit stormwater pollution from construction sites. Under the Clean Water Act, businesses must take steps to limit polluted runoff from construction sites — runoff that causes excess sediment to build up in streams and rivers, killing fish and other aquatic life. Stormwater runoff from construction sites can even contain toxic chemicals, such as benzene, toluene, and heavy metals that also pollute our nation’s waters, even threatening the safety of drinking water supplies.

“EPA has required all construction activities that disturb more than one acre of land to obtain stormwater permits to protect the safety of the nation’s waters from this serious pollution problem,” said Joan Mulhern, Earthjustice’s senior legislative counsel. “Yet the oil and gas industry thinks it is above the law, that it should not have to comply with the Clean Water Act the way all other businesses have to do. Apparently, this industry thinks oil and water should mix.”

Oil and Gas Development on America’s Public Lands

Over the past 50 years, Congress has mandated a “multiple use” principle for public lands, ensuring that uses such as energy development will be balanced with all other uses and values, including protecting wildlife and habitat, air, watersheds, recreational uses, wildlands, cultural and agricultural sites, and the private property rights of residents who own surface rights but not the mineral rights underneath them. The Energy bill conference report tries to upset the balance of public land usage by making oil and gas development the dominant use of America’s public lands. The conference report seeks to require federal land managers to determine whether programs to protect wildlife, watersheds, wildlands, and recreational activities would have “a significant adverse effect” on energy development before “taking action” to implement such plans.

“Congress always intended that public lands should be managed for all users — not just the energy industry,” said Randy Moorman of Earthjustice. “The House and Senate should stand up for that principle, and reject this damaging bill.”

In addition, Senator Domenici and Congressman Tauzin have inserted language in the draft bill — added without any debate in either the House or the Senate — that opens up more public lands to drilling and expedites the approval of drilling permits. The bill seeks to allow BLM just ten days to review lengthy permit applications that applicants may have taken up to two years to complete. The measure also biases the BLM toward approving completed permit applications by giving the agency just 30 days to either approve an application or offer specific suggestions for “any steps that the applicant could take for the permit to be issued.” Additionally, the conference report attempts to require approval of an application that is deemed “complete,” even if the project is fundamentally flawed because its environmental impacts cannot be mitigated, such as projects sited near sensitive areas including streams or steep slopes. Language was also inserted that seeks to authorize the Secretary of Interior to lease 100 percent of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, without ensuring permanent protections for important conservation areas or regard for wildlife habitat, native hunting and fishing, water quality, or other non-commercial values.

“The special interest give-aways in the energy bill are clearly attempts to place oil and gas development above all other values — including citizens’ rights to clean air, clean water, and recreation on their public lands,” said Moorman.

In addition to the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and public lands give-aways, the Energy bill also contains several other special-interest provisions, including:

  • Language that attempts to exclude drilling fluids — many containing diesel fuels and other potentially toxic chemicals — from being considered drinking water pollutants under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

  • An unprecedented waiver of liability for manufacturers of MTBE, a gasoline additive that has poisoned drinking water wells nationwide.


If you would like more information on these energy bill exemptions that threaten the health of our lakes, streams, rivers, air quality, and communities, please contact:

Clean Water Act: Joan Mulhern, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x 223 (cell: 202-329-1552)

Clean Air Act: David Baron, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x 220 (cell: 202-841-6657)

Energy & Public Lands: Randy Moorman, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x 201 (cell: 240-498-1339)


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Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.