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Congress stuck a few anti-environmental measures in the 'CRomnibus' spending bill

Congress blocked potential protections for this strange-looking bird, the greater sage grouse, in its spending bill.
Congress blocked potential protections for this strange-looking bird, the greater sage grouse, in its spending bill.
(Bureau of Land Management/Flickr)

Congress is debating a $1.01-trillion spending bill — dubbed the "CRomnibus" — to fund the federal government until next September. The 1,603-page bill is packed with all sorts of provisions that would alter bank regulationcampaign finance, and even environmental policy.

On the environment, perhaps the most significant aspect of the bill is what it doesn't do. Over the past few years, the Environmental Protection Agency has been proposing a flurry of new rules to address climate change and regulate air pollution from coal-fired power plants. And congressional Republicans have long vowed to rein in the EPA. But this spending bill doesn't really touch any of those major rules. That fight has been pushed back for another time.

That's why many Democrats were happy with the bill. Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) claimed that they blocked the biggest changes that Republicans wanted to make to environmental policy: "There were 26 riders that were extreme and would have devastated the Environmental Protection Agency in terms of the Clean Water and Clean Air Act administration; all of those were dropped."

Still, GOP lawmakers did manage to weaken a few environmental rules — like blocking protections for the threatened sage grouse. Some of those changes could have a real impact, others less so. Here's a look at 7 key environmental provisions in the bill:

1) Blocking protection for the sage grouse

The greater sage grouse in Eastern Oregon. (Bureau of Land Management)

The Greater sage grouse and the Gunnison sage grouse are odd, pheasant-like birds that live out West and have seen a dramatic decline in numbers over time — threatened by farming, development, and wildfires.

In November, the Department of Interior officially listed the Gunnison sage grouse as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act (there are only about 5,000 birds left). And the agency has been working on a possible similar listing for the Greater sage grouse.

The problem? Energy companies have long argued that giving these birds stricter protections could hinder oil and gas drilling in places like Colorado and Utah (not to mention the development of wind turbines and renewable energy). At a recent auction in Nevada, many firms were reluctant to bid for oil and gas leases on public lands for fear that stricter sage grouse protections might make it difficult to drill. So Republicans like Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) have called on the Department of Interior to slow down its work until all sides can find a compromise.

So the new spending bill essentially bars the Interior Department from finalizing or proposing Endangered Species Act listings for four species of sage grouse until at least next September. Instead, it sets aside $15 million for sage-grouse habitat protection on public lands. Conservation groups are furious, arguing that this isn't enough to protect the bird, which is seen as a keystone species in certain Western habitats.

2) Allowing financing for overseas coal plants again

An Indian labourer adjusts coal being loaded onto a truck at the Kankaria Railway Yard in Ahmedabad on September 5, 2012. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

Since 2007, the US Export-Import Bank has loaned out some $2.2 billion to help build overseas coal power plants and $5.2 billion to finance coal-mining projects abroad.

Then, last year, amid concerns that all this coal funding was exacerbating climate change, President Obama announced new restrictions on the practice: "I'm calling for an end to public financing for new coal plants overseas unless they deploy carbon-capture technologies, or there's no other viable way for the poorest countries to generate electricity."

Supporters of coal, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) as well as a variety of Republicans, have criticized Obama's decision. And they've now inserted a provision in the new spending bill to block both the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation from using federal funds to enforce these restrictions on coal financing.

It's unclear what difference this new policy will make in the short term. The Export-Import Bank doesn't currently have any plans to finance coal plants — though it's possible that could change in the future. (Back in July, Reuters reported that the bank was considering financial assistance for a 3,960-megawatt coal plant and mining facility in Jharkand, India.)

It's also worth noting that many Republicans have been pushing to kill the Ex-Im Bank altogether, though they seem to have lost that fight for now.

3) Blocking money for climate-change aid

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the United Nations Climate Summit on September 23, 2014 in New York City. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The Green Climate Fund is an international fund that aims to help poorer countries adapt to the impacts of climate change and cut their emissions. The governments of various wealthy countries have pledged some $10 billion for the fund — with Obama promising $3 billion from the United States.

But it's not clear where Obama will ever get that money. GOP lawmakers have added a provision to the spending bill stating that "no funds may be made available for this purpose." Obama didn't specifically request any climate-fund money for 2015, but this is a pretty clear sign that Republicans will oppose any future requests.

As Chris Mooney points out at Wonkblog, climate aid programs used to be less controversial. Back in his 2008 State of the Union, George W. Bush proposed $2 billion to promote clean-energy technologies in the developing world. But this sort of foreign aid is facing much more opposition these days from the GOP.

4) The EPA gets a $80 million budget cut

(MCT/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)

Congress has been cutting EPA spending since 2010, and this latest bill would trim the agency's annual budget to $8.1 billion — a $60 million cut from last year. If this bill becomes law, the EPA would be reduced to its lowest staffing levels since 1989, according to the Washington Post.

But how much does this matter? It's worth noting that Congress is actually giving the EPA more than what President Obama requested back in March (he wanted larger cuts to the agency's clean water state revolving funds, which provide money for upgrading sewage and water treatment).

Back then, EPA head Gina McCarthy said that Obama's funding levels would still allow the agency to carry out its work on climate change, air pollution, clean water, toxics, and chemical safety. On the flip side, she's also noted that morale at the EPA is low — the worst of any federal agency — as many employees are facing rising workloads in the face of continuing cutbacks.

5) No funding to enforce the ban on traditional lightbulbs

(Michael Gottschalk/Photothek/Getty Images)

This one's more symbolic than anything, but it's still worth explaining.

Back in 2007, Congress passed a bipartisan bill to require stricter energy-efficiency standards for all light bulbs sold in the United States. Manufacturers phased out traditional incandescent bulbs in favor of newer compact fluorescent lightbulbs, LEDs, and more efficient (but also more expensive) incandescents.

Republicans have long complained about this "light bulb ban," and they've now included a provision in the CRomnibus to bar the federal government from spending any money to enforce these rules. (The House GOP pushed for a similar rule in a January spending bill.)

This provision probably won't have much impact, however. Most of the biggest lightbulb manufacturers have already switched over to the newer, more efficient bulbs anyway. Indeed, large companies like General Electric and Phillips were the ones who lobbied for the original efficiency rules because the older cheap bulbs weren't very profitable to sell. They're unlikely to go back.

This rider could, in theory, allow some US stores to import older incandescents from abroad and sell them here. This would still be technically illegal under that 2007 law. The federal government just wouldn't have any money to enforce the rules.

6) A fight over the Clean Water Act

Farmer planting small seeds such as salad greens with tractor and small seed planter. Already planted seeds being irrigated in background. Salinas Valley, California, USA. (Nancy Nehring/Moment Mobile/Getty Images)

Under the Clean Water Act of 1972, the EPA is supposed to regulate water pollution in the United States. But there's a lot of dispute over which bodies of water are actually subject to oversight (particularly in edge cases, such as small streams and wetlands).

Back in April, the EPA proposed a major rule to try to clarify which smaller bodies of water would fall under its jurisdiction. This caused a huge backlash from groups like the Farm Bureau, who argue that rule would give the EPA power to regulate irrigation ditches or puddles that formed on farms. (Fertilizer runoff is a big source of water pollution.) The EPA denied this, but there's still a ton of confusion here over what agricultural activities are exempted.

Some Republicans have pushed to overturn the EPA proposal entirely, but they didn't do that in this spending bill. Instead, they simply inserted language that would prevent the EPA from requiring permits for certain farming practices or ditch maintenance.

There's some debate over whether this provision simply reinforces the exemptions for farming that were already in the Clean Water Act — or whether it might allow others, like real-estate developers, to get their own exemptions. See this E&E Daily piece for more.

7) Other miscellaneous energy and environmental measures

-- The Department of Energy has a $10.2 billion budget, and a small slice of that goes toward researching energy technologies. This bill would provide about $500 million for fossil-fuel research and $900 million for nuclear energy, a bit more than Obama requested. By contrast, energy efficiency and renewable energy programs get $1.9 billion — about $380 million less than Obama wanted.

-- The bill would bar any restrict funds for federal regulation of lead ammunition. As Katie Valentine reports at Climate Progress, conservationists have been worried that lead ammunition left in the bodies of carcasses can have an adverse impact on scavengers.

-- The bill also exempts livestock producers from some greenhouse gas emissions regulations. Livestock is a major source of methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. The EPA has no current plans to regulate this sector (though it might in the future).

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