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The Week Ahead

Court Poised To Hear Suit On EPA's Water Permit Veto Power, Obama Plans Energy Speech

Posted: March 11, 2013

A key appellate court is slated to hear oral arguments in a case that could determine the limits of EPA's controversial Clean Water Act (CWA) authority to veto dredge-and-fill permits. President Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech in which he is expected to begin to detail some of his plans for generating cleaner energy and addressing climate change.

In Court

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will hear arguments March 14 in Mingo Logan Coal Company v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, a case that could determine the scope of EPA's rarely used authority under CWA section 404(c) to block Corps' approved projects by withdrawing disposal specifications.

In the pending case, the government is appealing a lower court ruling that overturned EPA's decision to block a mountaintop removal coal mine project after the section 404 permit had already been issued.

While the case at issue focuses on EPA's authority to withdraw disposal sites from projects' specifications after the Corps permit has been issued, government lawyers are arguing that the law provides broad authority to block use of disposal sites -- an issue that could guide the agency's action as it weighs whether to preemptively block the controversial Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay, AK, even before a permit has been sought.

EPA's threat to preemptively veto the Pebble Mine is drawing strong criticism from Senate Republicans and industry groups, who say EPA lacks authority to issue such vetoes and have called on the agency to “disavow” its claims.

At The White House

President Obama is slated to deliver a March 15 speech at the Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago where he is expected to detail some of his plans for addressing climate change and clean energy.

His speech comes after the president held a March 7 meeting with energy industry officials in what is believed to be the president's first outreach meeting with outside groups to consider options for addressing climate change since Obama won re-election. The president said last year that he was planning to launch wide-ranging talks with experts on what can be done in the short-term to address climate change, as well as a public “education process” to consider realistic long-term actions that can gain bipartisan support.

On Capitol Hill

Lawmakers will return to Washington this week with a continued focus on budget matters. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) is slated as soon as March 11 to unveil his proposed budget blueprint for fiscal years 2014 and beyond. The non-binding measure, which appropriators use to guide spending levels, seeks to balance the budget over 10 years -- which likely means it will drive extensive cuts to EPA's annual spending.

But Senate Democrats are said to be crafting their own measure -- the first in more than 3 years -- that will likely preserve much more of EPA's current spending than the House version.

The Senate is also expected to unveil its version of a continuing resolution to fund EPA and other agencies through the rest of FY13 when the current resolution expires March 27. The House version, which the lower chamber approved March 6, is drawing strong criticism from state officials who are concerned about language that would rescind $35 million in unspent grants.

In other budget news, labor union officials representing staff at EPA and other agencies are slated to hold a March 13 press conference to “discuss the impact of sequestration on federal employees and government services.” The event, which will feature J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, and other union leaders, will likely reiterate union concerns about furloughs that agency staff face as a result of the recent sequester.

In addition to Congress' focus on budget matters, several committees are holding important hearings.

The House science committee's oversight subcommittee is hosting a March 14 hearing entitled “Top Challenges For Science Agencies: Reports from the Inspectors General.” EPA's Inspector General (IG) Arthur Elkins Jr. is slated to testify, along with IGs from the departments of Energy and Interior.

In the past, Elkins has warned that budget cuts, like the recent sequester, have trimmed his office's resources, making it more difficult to get to requests for discretionary inquiries, like congressional requests to investigate the science underlying EPA's air quality standard.

House Democrats are also likely to query the IGs over their recent requests to assess how agencies are addressing the threat of climate change. Those requests followed a new Governmental Accountability Office report that for the first time lists the financial harm from climate change as a high risk to the federal government.

And the House Energy & Commerce's environment and economy subcommittee is hosting a March 14 hearing on anti-terrorism security standards to protect chemical and other industrial facilities. Industry groups and GOP lawmakers, who oppose environmentalists' push for stricter EPA security rules, are expected to make the case that the Department of Homeland Security's current chemical security program is adequate.