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The Week Ahead

Obama's State Of The Union May Outline Climate Agenda; EPA Union Fights Budget Cuts

Posted: February 11, 2013

Environmentalists, industry officials and others are looking to President Obama's Feb. 12 State of the Union speech to Congress for further indication of the administration's second-term climate agenda. Supporters of EPA's climate rules want the president to vow new regulations to curb greenhouse gases (GHGs), while the steel industry will be listening for hints on the fate of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring Canadian tar sands crude oil into the United States.

EPA union officials are meeting in Washington, D.C., this week to discuss a host of issues including the agency's budget and its air, waste, water, climate and toxics policies. The union officials will urge lawmakers to target upcoming budget cuts to agency programs rather than staffing cuts.

State Of The Union

President Obama will give his 2013 State of the Union Feb. 12, and environmentalists, industry groups and others will be listening for any mention of climate and clean energy policies following the president's vow in his inaugural address to target the “threat” of climate change.

In advance of the annual speech before Congress, the Union of Concerned Scientists called for Obama to outline specific steps to target global warmingand build on “momentum” from the inaugural address. Advocates of EPA's GHG regulations say that a major priority for the second Obama term should be EPA finalizing first-time climate rules for new and existing power plants.

Representatives from the environmental advocacy groups 350.org, Moms Clean Air Force and others are also slated to hold a Feb. 11 climate rally outside the White House. They plan to deliver a petition of 280,000 signatures urging Obama to use the State of the Union to “lay out a plan to tackle climate change,” according to a press release announcing the event. Their primary goal is for Obama to announce he will reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.

The pipeline would bring Canadian tar sands crude oil into the United States, and supporters say it would be a boost for the economy. But critics -- including environmentalists and some Democrats -- counter that it will worsen climate change due to the high levels of GHGs associated with tar sands.

Steel industry officials meanwhile are looking to the speech for any remarks on energy extraction, including natural gas drilling and the fate of Keystone XL. A “home run” from that industry's perspective would be Obama detailing a “manufacturing strategy and support for manufacturers,” American Iron and Steel Institute President Tom Gibson told Inside EPA in a Feb. 8 interview.

Environmentalists, state officials, industry groups and others will also be looking for mentions in the speech of other key energy and environmental issues including statements on the natural gas and coal power sectors, EPA regulations, clean energy efforts and more.

Following the State of the Union, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) will host a Feb. 13 briefing to discuss whatever Obama says about climate policy in his remarks. Climate experts will speak on a teleconference to discuss “what they heard in the President’s address and what opportunities and roadblocks remain in crafting a federal climate policy,” according to ELI.

Although environmentalists, industry and others are focusing on potential energy and environmental issues in the speech, some observers say the president might target his comments on jobs and the economy rather than the attention he gave climate change in his inaugural speech.

Obama in his Feb. 9 weekly address spoke about averting the budget sequestration cuts in March, but gave only one mention of energy issues when he said, “If the sequester is allowed to go forward, thousands of Americans who work in fields like national security, education or clean energy are likely to be laid off.” His remarks mostly focused on broader economic issues relating to the sequester, and he called on Congress to craft a proposal to avert the looming budget cuts.


The fate of EPA's short- and long-term funding remains highly uncertain due to the looming budget sequestration cuts set to take effect March 1, but the agency's union officials are pushing for Congress to provide certainty by targeting program funding rather than make staffing cuts.

The American Federation of Government Employees' (AFGE) EPA Local 704, which has long opposed cuts to EPA's funding, is meeting Feb. 11-14 in Washington, D.C., for a legislative conference that is likely to focus heavily on the possibility of agency budget cuts. Union officials warn that funding or staffing cuts will hinder EPA's ability to protect the environment.

Ahead of the conference, AFGE released an issue paperarguing against staffing cuts to reduce EPA costs. The union says that reducing employees without paring back EPA's duties will lead to a reliance on costly contractors to complete the program work of fired agency staff.

The issue paper also calls on the agency and Congress to pursue a host of stricter environmental laws and rules, including a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions, stricter controls on pesticides and a complete ban on mountaintop removal mining.

EPA is under a Feb. 12 settlement deadline to respond to environmentalists' petition asking it to scrap provisions in 39 states' air quality plans that exempt emissions violations during industrial startup, shutdown and malfunction (SSM) periods from counting toward compliance with federal air rules. The agency has delayed a decision on the petition several times, and the Feb. 12 deadline is the latest in several revisions to the consent decree requiring a response. An agency spokeswoman says EPA “is working to meet the deadline.”

Environmentalists -- who say the SSM exemptions are unlawful under the air law and allow excess air pollution -- have said that one reason a decision is taking so long is the complexity involved with a potential policy change that could affect almost 40 states.

One deadline EPA is certain to miss is a Feb. 11 Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) deadline for issuing a proposed perchlorate drinking water standard.

Outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told a Feb. 2, 2011, Senate Environment & Public Works Committee that the agency planned to issue a drinking water standard for perchlorate -- a substance used in production of rocket fuel and fertilizer that inhibits normal human uptake of iodine. EPA published a Feb. 11, 2011, Federal Register notice of its determination, which triggered a SDWA clock to issue a proposed rule within 24 months, or by Feb. 11 this year.

However, the agency still needs to take several significant steps before it can release a proposal. SDWA requires EPA to consult with science advisors, small businesses and present cost-benefit analyses before issuing the rule, and a proposed rule is unlikely before December.

A private sector risk assessment group reviewing EPA's cleanup policy related to trichloroethylene (TCE) will hold a conference call Feb. 14. A draft agenda for the call says the group will discuss issues including “risk around and above” EPA's TCE reference concentration.

Nominations are due Feb. 13 for expert peer reviewers to assess the first five drafts of 83 chemical risk assessments it is planning to conduct to determine whether it should regulate the substances under the Toxic Substances Control Act, part of a major agency effort to step up use of existing TSCA authority absent congressional reforms. Comments on the assessments are due March 15.

Meanwhile, EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences' Children's Centers is hosting the latest in a series of webinars Feb. 13 on children's vulnerability to environmental contaminants. The event will include presentations on “Hospitals for a Healthy Environment” and “Engaging Children and Adolescents in Environmental Health Research,” and others.

And EPA's National and Governmental Advisory Committees to the U.S. Representative to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation will meet Feb. 15 in Washington, D.C., to learn about the status of tribes in the United States, Canada and Mexico, according to an agenda for the event.

In Congress

House and Senate committees are set to hold a series of hearings this week on major energy and environmental issues, including natural gas and states' role in environmental protection.

The House Energy & Commerce Committee will meet Feb. 12 for the third day of a business meeting to consider the panel's oversight agenda for the 113th Congress. The agenda includes a vow to review significant EPA rules and examine the agency's climate regulations, among other items.

At Feb. 5 and 6 meetings to debate the oversight plan, Republicans in party-line votes defeated Democratic attempts to insert climate change science hearings into the agenda.

House Energy & Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-CA) is slated to offer another climate amendment at the Feb. 12 meeting, which will call for the panel to examine recent reports that the worst impacts of climate change can only be avoided by near-term action.

On Feb. 15, the House energy panel's environment and the economy subcommittee plans to hold a hearing on the role of states in protecting the environment.

States often say they face ever-increasing mandates from EPA on environmental regulations but that federal funding to help states implement those requirements remains inadequate. Witnesses at the hearing will include representatives from the Environmental Council of the States, the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials, and the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators.

In the Senate, the Energy & Natural Resources Committee chaired by Ron Wyden (D-OR) will hold a hearingFeb. 12 on the “Opportunities and Challenges for Natural Gas.”

Witnesses at the event will include Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), Dow Chemical Company Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris, Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke, and American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard, among others.

Wyden has previously suggested that criticism of natural gas exports will be a key focus on the energy panel. And he recently wrote to the Department of Interior calling on it to ensure that its pending revisions to a proposed hydraulic fracturing rule protect public health and the environment.

Other Events

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) -- a climate cap-and-trade program among several Northeast states -- is hosting a webinar Feb. 11 to discuss updates to the program, which follows a recent announcement by RGGI members that they will tighten the program's GHG caps.

The stricter caps could make it more likely that EPA will accept RGGI as satisfying an eventual federal GHG rule for existing utilities, sources say, as the tighter caps will achieve significant GHG cuts. EPA has proposed a climate new source performance standard for newly constructed power plants, but EPA air chief Gina McCarthy in a recent interview with Inside EPA said the agency will largely defer to states on crafting their own “processes” for complying with an eventual NSPS for existing utilities. Increasing the amount of GHG reductions achieved by the regional trading program could make EPA look on RGGI more favorably as meeting NSPS requirements.