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The Week Ahead

Congress Readies Stopgap FY14 Budget; EPA Focuses On Ozone, Pollinators

Posted: September 10, 2012

Lawmakers are back in Washington for a short pre-election session, though the only major legislative item likely to be acted on is a stop-gap fiscal year 2014 budget to fund EPA and other agencies through next March.

Less significant items will likely be put off until after the election or the next Congress, though both the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic Senate will be looking to hearings and symbolic votes to make their case to voters prior to the November elections. For example, the House energy committee is holding a hearing to make the case for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's energy plan. The Senate Democratic leadership, meanwhile, may try to force another vote on the budget plan from Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-WI), Romney's vice-presidential pick.

EPA has also put off any major decisions until after the election, though several important scientific review panels are meeting this week to consider agency plans. EPA's clean air advisers are slated to begin a three-day review of the agency's ozone risk assessment, while pesticide advisers are poised to begin a multi-day review of EPA's proposed framework for assessing risks of agricultural chemicals on pollinators.

In Congress

In the midst of a heated election campaign, Congress returns to Washington for a short legislative session with a lengthy 'To Do' list, meaning that many pending items will likely get punted to a lame-duck session after the election or till the next Congress.

Top of the list is passage of a continuing resolution funding EPA and the rest of the government through next March. According to the deal announced last month, the measure -- which is consistent with the budget sequestration deal policymakers struck last year -- includes a 9 percent cut for EPA from its fiscal year 2012 appropriation of $8.4 billion.

But those funding levels could change if Congress reaches a deal before next March dealing with the so-called “fiscal cliff,” when the massive budget cuts and expiring tax cuts are slated to take effect.

While many policymakers are concerned about the prospects of the massive reduction in fiscal stimulus, administration officials do not appear to be concerned that lawmakers will not rectify the situation. Last month, White House budget officials announced that they would be meeting with EPA and other agencies to ask officials to provide details on programs they believe could be exempt from the automatic funding cuts.

And EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe told state officials recently that EPA is not accounting for the looming budget cut it could face in January as it crafts its FY14 budget, though the agency's top budget official says it is unclear whether any EPA programs would be exempt from the cut.

According to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), the FY14 funding resolution could be considered at any time. The measure is slated to be considered under suspension of House rules, which is usually reserved for non-controversial items that are expected to gain two-thirds majority vote but cannot be amended.

There is no indication on when the Senate will take up the funding resolution.

Speaking of EPA's budget, the House Energy and Commerce Committee energy and power subcommittee holds a Sept. 11 hearing to make the case for H.R. 4255, a bill that bars the agency from providing Clean Air Act grants to foreign recipients.

“It is difficult to see the value in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) providing taxpayer-funded grants to organizations and governments outside the United States for things like “good governance capacity-building” in Jordan or “regulatory dialogue” on landfill gas in Brazil,” according to testimonyslated to be presented by Daniel Simmons, director of regulatory affairs at the Institute for Energy Research.

The House also appears likely to pass a non-controversial measure creating -- and authorizing user fees for -- an electronic manifest system for hazardous waste.

But it is not clear if lawmakers will be able to reconcile differences between House and Senate versions of the bill before the election. Before lawmakers adjourned for their summer recess, the House Energy and Commerce Committee advanced a bill that requires EPA to seek annual appropriations for the manifest system -- though the Senate bill proposed a less burdensome funding system that would have allowed EPA easier access to the money.

According to Cantor's schedule, the House is expected to vote on its version of S. 710, sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-SD), later this week.

The House is also slated to vote on a bill amending the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program in the wake of the bankruptcy of Solyndra, the solar panel manufacturer -- though the Senate is unlikely to take up the bill anytime soon.

Less certain for action is how Congress plans to deal with the Farm Bill and other expiring agriculture programs, including user fees and streamlined approval deadlines for EPA pesticide registrations.

EPA's pesticide program is slated to expire Sept. 30 and EPA officials and others are warning that unless Congress acts by then it could create chaos. But legislation to extend the program is caught up in broader disputes over the Farm Bill. In addition, EPA has largely stayed out of the legislative process to avoid ire from Republicans who have vowed to block most agency initiatives.

Supporters of the program are now hoping the Senate will pass a stand-alone bill before the end of the month after the chamber failed to take up the House farm bill that contained the provisions.

Expect scores of others to start lobbying lawmakers on other issues. Silicone manufacturers are expected to call on lawmakers to put pressure on EPA to back their narrow plan for monitoring certain siloxane chemicals in wastewater. The agency is weighing whether the industry-proposed testing program will need to be vastly expanded in order to provide the data EPA needs to perform a risk assessment for the widely used substances.

And biofuels industry representatives are in town for trade group's Growth Energy strategy session with visits to Capitol Hill and the administration on a host of renewable fuels issues. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is slated to address the conference Sept. 11.

Last week, biofuels groups made clear they are not willing to consider legislative changes to EPA's renewable fuel standard, despite scores of problems with the program. The biofuels sector is also weighing a suit over the administration's just-announced vehicle greenhouse gas standards.

Administration officials are expected to tout the new GHG standards at the Fifth International Environmentally Friendly Vehicle Conference, which will be held for the first time in the United States in Baltimore, MD Sept. 10-12. Margo Oge, the outgoing chief of EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality is slated to speak Sept. 10, while EPA's Perciasepe is slated to give a keynote address Sept. 11.

Key committees are also slated to hold important hearings this week. The House Energy and Commerce's subcommittee on environment and the economy will hold a hearing on the Department of Homeland Security's Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program. Expect industry and others to resist calls from former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and others for the Obama administration to expand EPA's 'Risk Management Plan' program to require facilities to assess whether inherently safer technology options are available, and if so to adopt those technologies.

The energy and power subcommittee will be back in action later in the week. On Sept. 13, the panel holds a hearing on GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney's call for North American energy independence within a decade. And on Sept. 14, the panel holds a hearing on H.R. 6172, a bill that prohibits EPA from finalizing its proposed greenhouse gas performance standards for new coal-fired power plants until carbon capture and storage is found to be technologically and economically feasible.

At EPA

EPA's ozone air quality standards are slated to get a lot of attention this week. The agency's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee is meeting Sept. 11-13 to consider the agency's risk, exposure and other documents that will inform the next ozone air quality standard, slated for proposal in 2014. The agency is also taking public comment on its assessment documents, with the public comment period closing Sept. 10.

EPA staff says the latest science provides “strong support” for tightening the agency's current national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) to protect human health and to set a distinct “secondary” standard to protect crops and other environmental resources, though industry groups are likely to resist a stricter standard.

Once final, the upcoming standard will replace the Bush-era standard of 75 parts per billion that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has called scientifically indefensible but which President Obama later forced the agency to implement.

Also on air quality, the Ozone Transport Commission, the group of East Coast states concerned about ozone issues, and Mid-Atlantic/North-East Visibility Union, are holding a joint meeting Sept. 13 to discuss a series of regional haze, modeling and mobile and stationary source issues.

The other major scientific review at EPA this week will be conducted by a pesticide Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) that is slated to review the agency's proposed framework for assessing the risks that pesticides pose to pollinators.

EPA has proposed a tiered approach for quantitatively estimating the risks that pesticides pose to pollinators. The agency was hoping the SAP would provide feedback on the framework during its Sept. 11-14 meeting in order to inform registration reviews for the controversial neonicotinoid class of pesticides. But the agency's plan faces hurdles, including time constraints validating some of the chemical tests and concerns from industry over data quality.

In other pesticide news, comments are due Sept. 10 on EPA's planned registration review for several pesticides that contain nanosilver ingredients. The agency has said it is initiating the review to address its concerns over gaps in knowledge and data key to understanding the substances' health and environmental risks.

EPA's National Drinking Water Advisory Council holds a Sept. 12 meeting in Chicago on the agency's proposed health goal for perchlorate, the ubiquitous rocket fuel ingredient, in drinking water. EPA employed its traditional formula when it first proposed the maximum contaminant level goal but the agency's scientific advisers are suggesting that EPA instead use a novel modeling approach that could quell concerns from many in industry.

There is also legal action this week. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit holds oral arguments Sept. 12 in a case that could force the agency to craft additional measures to limit emissions of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic organic matter (POM), and hexachlorobenzene (HCB) for sources. The Sierra Club is asking the court to vacate EPA's 2011 finding that it has met its Clean Air Act mandate to craft regulations for industry sectors accounting for 90 percent of the emissions of several hazardous air pollutants.

Opening briefs are due Sept. 10 in an appeal brought by the transportation and road construction industry which is seeking to overturn a lower court ruling rejecting their suit seeking to preempt California and other states from issuing emissions rules for non-road engines that are more stringent than federal standards.

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