The Senate did not take up comprehensive climate and energy legislation before the August recess, but will likely consider legislation in response to the Gulf oil spill when it returns in September.
Climate and Energy
On 7/22 the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee passed its spending bill that funds key environmental programs, including those of the Environmental Protection Agency. During consideration of the bill, members voted on a number of amendments that would have handcuffed the agency's ability to regulate dangerous air pollution, including carbon pollution. Rep. LaTourette (R-OH) offered two of these amendments, both of which were defeated. The first, which would have blocked the EPA from moving ahead with its plans for limiting carbon pollution, was defeated by a tie vote, 7-7. The second would have blocked EPA action on ground-level ozone, which is a major contributor to the smog that aggravates respiratory health problems. Other defeated amendments include one that would exempt factory farms from greenhouse gas regulation, and another that would mandate that the EPA ignore the carbon pollution associated with biomass.
Gulf Oil Disaster
On 7/22 Sens. Whitehouse (D-RI), Snowe (R-ME) and Rockefeller (D-WV) introduced the National Endowment for the Oceans Act (S. 3641), which would create a new trust fund to protect ocean resources -- long a goal of the environmental community. The endowment would be funded from a combination of sources, including money from fines collected for violations of federal law that occur in our oceans, interest from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, and revenues from offshore energy development. Importantly, the money would be distributed to coastal states and other entities without regard to whether oil drilling is allowed by a state.
On 7/28 Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) introduced the Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act (S. 3663) to begin to reduce U.S. dependence on oil and address the Gulf oil spill. The bill would reform the liability system to make sure that oil companies pay the full cost of cleanup and damages resulting from oil spills; strengthen government oversight of oil and gas exploration; promote vehicles that run on electricity and natural gas; offer rebates to encourage homeowners to improve the energy efficiency of their homes; and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, an existing onshore trust fund that pays to purchase lands in need of permanent protection. The legislation would also strengthen both the requirements for oil spill response plans, and the policies and the standards for determining where, when and whether to lease areas for offshore drilling. For example, oil drilling would be allowed only when it could be done in a way that provides adequate protection to life, health, the environment, property and other uses of the sea. On land, the legislation would ensure drilling activities meet environmental standards by requiring the disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals and removing the oil and gas industry's special exemption from the Clean Water Act's storm water requirements. The Senate was initially expected to vote on the bill before the August recess, but on 8/3 Sen. Reid decided not to press for a vote in August because the bill lacked the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster due to uniform opposition from Republicans joined by some oil-state Democrats. The Senate is expected to take up the bill when it returns in September. NRDC is working to get Senator Reid to include the National Endowment for the Oceans in this package. The bill should also be further strengthened by creating a stronger role for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in oil and gas decisions, a measure already approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Visit NRDC Oceans Advocate Regan Nelson's blog to read more details on the bill.
The Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act would eliminate the $75 million liability cap on damages so that polluters, and not the taxpayers, are responsible for all damages from an oil spill. This provision would apply to existing claims, including those for damages resulting from the Gulf spill disaster, and is one of the most controversial aspects of the bill. On 8/6, Sen. Begich (D-AK) released draft legislation intended as a compromise on the liability cap issue. Under Sen. Begich's bill, companies operating offshore would be required to carry insurance to cover costs up to a level determined by the Secretary of Interior, which must be at least $250 million. Beyond that level, all offshore producers would collectively share liability for up to $20 billion in damages.
On 7/30, by a vote of 209-193, the House passed the Consolidated Land, Energy and Aquatic Resources (CLEAR) Act (H.R. 3534), which would strengthen government oversight of oil and gas exploration and ensure polluters like BP pay the full cost of damages resulting from oil spills. The bill passed with nine amendments, including one offered by Rep. Himes (D-CT) and another from Rep. Connolly (D-VA) that were strongly supported by NRDC. The amendment offered by Rep. Himes clarifies that land acquisition is one of the tools that the government should use to promote ecological restoration after an oil disaster (land acquisition is allowed under current law, but is never a preferred option). The amendment offered by Rep. Connolly would close a legal loophole to ensure that oil companies will be held responsible for the oil spill liability of a bankrupted subsidiary. The bill also would assure that American taxpayers get a fair market value for oil and gas extracted from federal leases and would set up a new system to cover liability from spills to ensure that taxpayers are not stuck with the cleanup costs or with paying for environmental and economic damages. In addition, the legislation would create an oceans trust fund paid for by oil royalties, fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and remove the special exemption from the Clean Water Act's storm water requirements that the oil and gas industry received three years ago. The bill could be even stronger and includes some undesirable provisions, including one that would modify the current deepwater drilling moratorium. That provision originated in an amendment from Rep. Melancon (D-LA). Yet, after passing Rep. Melancon's amendment, the House defeated a Republican motion to completely repeal the moratorium. Visit NRDC Legislative Director Scott Slesinger's blog to read more details on the bill.
On 7/29, Rep. Nadler (D-NY) introduced the Clean Ports Act (H.R. 5967) to give ports clear authority to require trucks that service the nation's ports to meet minimum environmental, health, safety and security standards. Trucks servicing the nation's ports are the dirtiest, oldest and least maintained trucks in the country, responsible for more than 40 percent of sulfur dioxide pollution in areas surrounding ports. The Clean Ports Act would allow ports to require that trucking companies register with the ports so that ports are able to hold companies responsible for ensuring their trucks meet federal standards under the threat of sanctions ranging from fines to prohibiting entrance to facilities. Currently, trucks servicing the ports are leased by the drivers, and no entity beyond the drivers is responsible, making enforcement impractical. The legislation, which currently has 65 co-sponsors, is designed to overcome a court ruling blocking truck rules at California ports.