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Jul 212011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Republicans in the U.S. House are again packing budget bills with riders that would strip away protections for clean water, clean air and wildlife.

They’re adding these measures as riders on the coming 2012 budget bills, which is how the budget gets tweaked:  Representatives add or subtract money for the programs they think need to continue, expand or contract. Amendments are used to shape how tax dollars are spent, to fund priorities and de-fund outgoing programs. This is business as usual, though it can look like a ping pong match as lawmakers duel over what to spend on. (See, for example, the back and forth on money for nuclear power vs. green energy in the amendments stacking up on HR 2354, which will fund energy and water development. Money goes in. Money comes out.)

The problem, say environmental advocates, is that these budget riders also are being used to fly politically unpopular amendments in under the radar, even when they have little to do with spending.

The NRDC has started a  web page to track many of these ideological riders. They say this guerrilla assault on environmental protections is the worst they’ve seen in 40 years and would unravel decades of environmental progress in ways that the public would not support.

That’s probably true in the case of many of the riders, such as those that would loosen controls on pesticide pollution and runoff from coal mining operations and open more public lands to mining.

Poll after poll after poll shows that regular Americans want cleaner air and trustworthy tap water, and they want polluting industries to clean up after themselves.

But several of these riders, tucked like little grenades into must-pass budget bills, would erode federal oversight of natural resources.


The Republicans behind the riders argue that these provisions will help businesses thrive and restore the nation’s economic health. They say regulation “overreach” is costing the nation jobs, though their argument becomes a bit hard to follow considering that industries that comply with clean air and water policies must  hire people to track and clean up their pollution.

You can decide for yourself if these amendments are part of the ticket to economic recovery or a disaster for the nation’s national parks, clean air and clean water protections by viewing them at Government Track, an independently funded project set up to help the public follow Congress.  (And it’s not even government funded!) You’ll have to search for the 2012 budget bills where the riders are attached.

Most of these measures appear to be gifts to business and industry that relieve them of acting responsibly and with adequate regard for the natural resources that belong to all of us.

One of the riders would block the Department of the Interior from enforcing safeguards for streams affected by the runoff from surface coal mining. I see how that helps one business, by allowing the coal industry to freely pollute. But I fail to see how it’s “good for business” overall, unless we’re talking about assisting the healthcare industry, which could pick up additional clientele from people made ill by chemical exposures. (Coal pollution dumps mercury and other toxic chemicals into streams,  poisoning fish and creeping up the food chain.)

Degrading streams with coal pollution hardly sounds like a plan for improving the landscape for tourism, or local agriculture, or mom-and-pop businesses in downstream towns.

A look at some of the other riders poses similar questions about who is helped and who would be hurt. Let’s look at just a few proposed by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). According to the NRDC’s list Simpson would like to:

* Exempt pesticide applications from EPA enforcement under the Clean Water Act. (Simpson claims pesticides are adequately controlled under a different law.)

* Bar any new listings under the Endangered Species Act, effectively undercutting the authority of the Fish & Wildlife Service.

* Shut down the EPA’s plans to limit carbon pollution from power plants.

Picture the lobbyists and industries behind these provisions: Agribusinesses with pesticides that runoff into streams; ranchers bothered by the recovering Rocky Mountain Wolves and coal plants that are the single largest source of carbon pollution, which is fueling climate change and worsening air quality.

Must we accept the status quo or even a rollback of protections? Or can businesses be asked to operate sustainably and find innovative solutions to pollution? Countries around the world are working to curb coal pollution, clean up their water supplies and preserve land for wildlife; yet in the message of these riders is that this would be asking too much in the U.S.

Fortunately, many of these riders will be defeated. Indeed, some of them are mere Hail Mary passes, with little chance of moving forward. But advocates and environmentally minded lawmakers must watch the action closely.

Like a traffic jam, this pile up of provisions is an audacious marvel on one level, filled with peril on another.

The list compiled by the NRDC contains a lot of rage at the harness of government regulation.

* A rider offered by Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) would stop the EPA from limiting toxic air pollution from cement kilns. (Cement supports claim the EPA’s rules are unachievable.)

* A rider offered by Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) would allow the federal government to purchase dirty fuels like liquid coal despite a law that forbids purchasing alternative fuels that emit more carbon pollution than conventional fuels.

* A rider by Rep. Steve Austria (R-Ohio) would block the EPA from setting new mileage standards for cars, and from allowing California to do so.

That’s a new one — a legislator from Ohio trying to control what California can do. So much for the “local control” that the Tea Party champions when it needs to drum up public support. And so much for energy efficient cars, which has been a boon for Detroit automakers as well as for consumers.

And then there’s the big boot to the EPA offered by its “frenemy” Rep. Simpson:

* A rider that would prevent the EPA from limiting carbon pollution from power plants and other stationary sources for at least another year.

This rider essentially flouts the Supreme Court-ordered mandate to the EPA to determine whether greenhouse gases endanger public health, and if so, to regulate them. The agency announced last year that carbon emissions are harmful to humans — ya think? — and that it would begin protections by regulating smokestack emissions from power plants.

Mike Simpson vigorously opposes this plan, reiterating in a June press release that “the scariest agency in the federal government is the EPA.” and that its “unrestrained effort to regulate greenhouse gases and the pursuit of an overly aggressive regulatory agenda are signs of an agency that has lost its bearings.”

He’s also accused the EPA of  “creating economic uncertainty and killing jobs,” though he offers few supporting details.

Simpson holds the judicial branch of government in similar low regard. In another rider that flouts Constitutional checks and balances, he proposes to “permanently prohibit the courts” from reviewing any de-listing of the gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act.

This would clinch a Congressional takeover over the fate of wildlife. (Simpson would thereafter leave ongoing wildlife monitoring to individual states,  though he apparently fears that the federal courts would disagree.)


The questions raised by all of this activity are fundamental: Should the federal government continue to provide a check on pollution? Who should oversee wildlife protection? How can the public health be adequately protected from harmful air emissions and water pollution?

Of course, one question — Why are so many of our lawmakers voting against public health protections? — is easy to answer.

Big polluters are big campaign contributors. That includes the oil and gas industries, the most profitable on the planet, as well as mining and utility concerns. Add health care and finance and you’ve got a snapshot of who’s calling the shots inside the Beltway.

Too many of the companies in these sectors, rather than modernize and innovate, would just as soon shake more profits from the tree by loosening or removing government regulations. It’s easier to pollute streams than to figure out how to shift toward clean energy.

And our government leaders — especially the Tea Party, ironically elected to clean up Washington when what they have shown they  support is dirty industry — are far from standing in the way of Big Polluters. Indeed, they are paving the way for short term profits that short change our health and the economy.

Does it make you want to know more about who’s paying for these politicians? You can see who supports your U.S. representatives and senators at Open Secrets, a website that tracks political contributions. It’s not a perfect picture. Industries spread the money around to cover their bets on both sides of the political fence. Many Democrats are beholding to Big Polluters too, though thankfully many continue to act as public servants, resisting the squash-Big Government rationalizations that now dominate the discussion.

Speaking of squashing discussion. Some lawmakers even have a plan for powering down on any debate about how campaign dollars dictate policy.

House Amendment 651, proposed by Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) would “prohibit the use of funds to implement any rule, regulation, or executive order regarding the disclosure of political contributions that takes effect on or after the date of enactment of H.R. 2354″.

This is inside baseball, and not being a Washington-based reporter, I wouldn’t presume to know all the angles. But it appears to be a brilliant final volley: Pass the budget, close the door and pass the hat.

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network