Iowa Congressional voting catch-up thread: Energy and environment

This summer the U.S. House has approved several energy-related bills, which could affect public health and the environment as well as corporations in the oil, gas and coal sectors. As we saw last year, Iowa’s four U.S. representatives don’t consistently split on party lines when such bills come to the House floor.

Follow me after the jump for details on the latest energy legislation approved in the lower chamber. None of these bills are likely to pass the current U.S. Senate, but they would have better prospects if Republicans won a Senate majority in the 2014 elections.

Last week the House moved to undercut potential Environmental Protection Agency regulations on coal ash. Research has documented the health impacts of toxic chemicals in coal ash, and leaking from coal ash storage sites threatens groundwater in Iowa and elsewhere. The non-profit organization Earth Justice explained what’s at stake:

The “Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act of 2013, (H.R. 2218)” sponsored by Rep. David McKinley (R-WV), purports to establish a framework for state coal ash permit programs. However, critics of the bill, including the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, have determined that the bill does not guarantee protection of health and the environment or mandate minimum national standards to control toxic coal ash pollution. […]

The bill will release hundreds of coal plants from a critical requirement because H.R. 2218 exempts plants that do not currently have space onsite to build another coal ash dump from the requirement to close leaking impoundments. According to H.R. 2218, these plants could just continue filling and expanding existing impoundments. Data recently released by the Environmental Protection Agency in a recent proposal to curb toxic water pollution from power plants show that almost three-quarters of the plants currently operating unlined coal ash impoundments do not have sufficient acreage on which to build an average-sized coal ash landfill. Thus most polluting plants could dump more toxic waste indefinitely into their existing unlined basins-even when those impoundments are exceeding groundwater protection standards.

According to the EPA’s newly released data, which is comprised of information submitted by utility companies pursuant to an Information Collection Request, 300 coal plants dump toxic waste into unlined impoundments. However, the EPA data also reveal that 220 of the 300 plants (73 percent) would not be subject to the requirement to close these polluting lagoons.

House Democrats proposed some amendments to mitigate the harm done by this bill.

Rep. Tonko – Requires the EPA Administrator to find a state coal ash permit program deficient if the implementation of the program threatens human health or the environment in any other state. Any state may request that the EPA Administrator review another state’s coal ash permit program for deficiency.

Rep. Waxman – Requires that state coal ash permit programs protect human health and the environment.

Those amendments failed on mostly party-line votes. Democrats Bruce Braley (IA-01) and Dave Loebsack (IA-02) supported both the Tonko and the Waxman amendments, while Republicans Tom Latham (IA-03) and Steve King (IA-04) joined the majority to vote them down.

During the floor debate on H.R. 2218, Republicans depicted the bill as a way to promote recycling of coal ash, while Democrats warned of the impact on public health.

“What the Republicans … are suggesting is that we remove public health protections in order to allow polluting disposal sites to continue with business as usual,” House Energy & Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said.

“This debate is about whether or not we’re going to allow coal ash disposal sites to contaminate our water supplies and threaten human health,” he added. “If this bill is enacted, coal ash disposal sites will continue to pollute our groundwater, and once contamination is confirmed, well this bill would allow them to continue for another 10 years.”

But Republicans noted that the bill includes a minimum set of federal standards that states would have to meet for regulating coal ash, including groundwater monitoring. The legislation would let states adopt coal ash permit programs, and would have to notify those standards to the EPA.

When the bill came up for final passage, 39 House Democrats including Loebsack voted with almost all the Republicans to approve it. To his credit, Braley was among the majority of House Democrats who voted no.

Earlier this month, the House approved an appropriations bill affecting energy and water programs, containing a long list of penny-wise and pound-foolish cuts. For example,

The DOE [Department of Energy] Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) budget is slashed to $746 million, which is 73 percent (or $2 billion) below what the administration requested in the FY 2014 Budget request.

The bill seeks to consolidate DOE offices including EERE and the DOE Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (EDER). The budget allocation for the consolidated office would be almost a billion dollars less than the combined FY 2013 allocations of these offices.

The U.S. would have to give up on trying to replicate past success at doubling renewable energy from wind and solar.

Funding for building efficiency would be reduced by more than two-thirds, bringing R&D in new technologies and improved appliance standards that reduce electricity usage to a screeching halt.

The U.S. would be shutting down offices that assist low-income households reduce their energy bills, and would no longer be able to devote resources for oversight of investments, grants and contracts that have already been approved.

H.R. 2609 slashes the budget of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which funds transformative energy research, by 81 percent compared to the FY2013 allocation.

Climate change also gets the boot, with funding for Weatherization Assistance Program authorizations permanently blocked. The Corps of Engineers get $50 million less than requested for civil works, with no allocation for flood risk evaluation studies that would be used to develop programmatic enhancement plans of civil works infrastructure to deal with increased risk of extreme weather.

The bill prevents implementation of certain sections of the Clean Water Act that protect aquatic resources while supporting economic development.

The White House warned that advisors would urge the president to veto this appropriations bill because of the cuts to renewable energy programs.

House Republicans rejected a series of amendments that would have reduced spending on the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and shifted funding towards energy programs. The Week In Congress blog published a good summary of the amendments considered to the energy and water appropriations bill. You can find links to all the roll call votes here.

Iowa’s delegation split on party lines on some but not all of these amendment votes. For instance, Braley and Loebsack supported an effort to increase renewable energy funding by $245 million, reducing the Weapons Activities account by the same amount. Latham and King opposed that amendment. But when a different amendment proposed cutting the Department of Energy’s administration account by $31 million in order to increase renewable energy funding by the same amount, Braley and King voted yes, while Loebsack and Latham voted no. A separate Democratic attempt “to increase the Renewable Energy, Energy Reliability, and Efficiency account by 50 million and reduce the Weapons Activities account by a similar amount” failed but drew yes votes from Latham as well as Braley and Loebsack, while King voted no. And all four Iowans opposed a failed Republican amendment that would have cut approximately $4.75 million from renewable energy programs to reduce the deficit. Click here for descriptions of many other amendments offered to this appropriations bill.

On final passage, the Iowans split on party lines, with King and Latham supporting the energy and water appropriations bill, while Braley and Loebsack joined most House Democrats to vote no.

Late last month, the House moved again to promote offshore oil drilling. In the past, Iowa’s Democrats have occasionally supported similar legislation, but both Braley and Loebsack voted against H.R. 2231, the so-called Offshore Energy and Jobs Act. Latham and King joined most of the House Republicans to approve this bill on final passage. Pete Kasperowicz reported for The Hill,

The bill is similar to GOP legislation passed by the House last year, and responds to a five-year oil and gas lease sales plan that Republicans say shuts out potentially productive areas off the Atlantic and Pacific coastline. In Thursday debate, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said the president had a chance to expand lease sales, but instead put forward a restrictive plan that will hurt U.S. energy development. […]

Democrats argued that energy companies have access to enough offshore areas right now, and that President Obama’s plan has not limited energy production or led to higher gas prices, as Republicans have claimed.

“[T]he premise that somehow by putting more leases out there – with no requirement for them to perform – the price of gas will drop is absolutely untrue,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). “We all know that’s untrue. The American consumers know it’s untrue.”

Obama has warned he would veto the bill, and the Democratic Senate is not expected to touch it.

If Republicans gain control of the U.S. Senate, bills like this one could reach the president’s desk in 2015 and 2016. We may get a chance to see whether Obama follows through on his veto threat.

Speaking of Congress carrying water for the oil industry, in late May the House passed its latest attempt to force construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Bleeding Heartland has criticized Loebsack and Braley for their past support of this project; in fact, Braley voted for the latest Keystone bill when it cleared the House Energy and Commerce Committee. However, neither Braley nor Loebsack were among the 19 House Democrats who supported final passage of H.R. 3, the Northern Route Approval Act. Pete Kasperowicz explained the GOP language that drove many Democratic supporters of the pipeline away.

A big reason for the drop in Democratic support is the GOP’s new approach to the pipeline, which would move tar sands oil from Canada to the United States to be refined. Legislation in the last Congress set a deadline by which Obama had to decide on approving the project and passed with 47 Democrats in 2011.

Today’s bill would remove any need for presidential approval of TransCanada Corp.’s proposed pipeline and deem it approved, which many Democrats saw as going too far. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), who supports the construction of the pipeline, said Republicans lost his support because of this change.

“Last Congress, I voted for every piece of pro-Keystone pipeline legislation that was brought before this body,” Rahall said. “Something’s happened along the way between then and now. And that something is called a hijacking of this bill by the right wing.”

Rahall and other Democrats added that they don’t support a congressional grant of any permit to any company.

“It waives a permit, and it deems a permit application by a foreign company … for a major undertaking in the United States to be approved,” he said of the bill. “We don’t even do that for our domestic companies.”

Leaving aside other substantive arguments against KeystoneXL, Latham and King should be embarrassed to have voted for a Congressional grant of a permit to a foreign company. While I’m pleased that Braley and Loebsack opposed this bill, they still are on record supporting construction of the pipeline, in part because organized labor backs the project.

Incidentally, President Obama gave me new hope over the weekend that his administration may kill Keystone XL after all. Echoing what independent analysts have been saying for years, the president challenged Republican claims that Keystone would be a big job creator.

Republicans have said that this would be a big jobs generator. There is no evidence that that’s true. And my hope would be that any reporter who is looking at the facts would take the time to confirm that the most realistic estimates are this might create maybe 2,000 jobs during the construction of the pipeline — which might take a year or two — and then after that we’re talking about somewhere between 50 and 100 [chuckles] jobs in a economy of 150 million working people.

NYT: Yet there are a number of unions who want you to approve this.

MR. OBAMA: Well, look, they might like to see 2,000 jobs initially. But that is a blip relative to the need.

So what we also know is, is that that oil is going to be piped down to the Gulf to be sold on the world oil markets, so it does not bring down gas prices here in the United States. In fact, it might actually cause some gas prices in the Midwest to go up where currently they can’t ship some of that oil to world markets.

Now, having said that, there is a potential benefit for us integrating further with a reliable ally to the north our energy supplies. But I meant what I said; I’m going to evaluate this based on whether or not this is going to significantly contribute to carbon in our atmosphere. And there is no doubt that Canada at the source in those tar sands could potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release.

NYT: And if they did, could that offset the concerns about the pipeline itself?

MR. OBAMA: We haven’t seen specific ideas or plans. But all of that will go into the mix in terms of [Secretary of State] John Kerry’s decision or recommendation on this issue.

Kerry had an outstanding lifetime voting record on environmental issues, and as a former precinct captain for his presidential campaign, I would be devastated to see him back Keystone XL.

The New York Times asked newly confirmed EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy about Keystone recently:

She declined to take a position on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, even though the E.P.A. has submitted two harsh critiques of the environmental impact statements produced by the State Department, which must rule on the pipeline project because it would span the border with Canada.

“That’s a matter for the Department of State, and I’m going to leave it there,” she said.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

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