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House GOP budget bill aims to slash environmental regulation

The plan to cut $60 billion from the federal budget targets environmental programs so widely it appears to be as much an ideological gambit as a budgetary one. 'The sheer scope of it is overwhelming,' a UCLA environmental law expert says.

March 07, 2011|By Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times
  • Water birds fly over the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Budget cuts would kill appropriations for a salmon restoration program on the San Joaquin River as well as funding for Endangered Species Act fish protections that have reduced water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Water birds fly over the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Budget cuts… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

The House spending bill passed last month wouldn't just chop $60 billion from the federal budget — it seeks to cut a broad swath through environmental regulation.

From fish protections in California to water pollution limits in Florida and regulation of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, environmental programs were targets of the Republican budget resolution, which appears to have been as much about setting a political agenda as about deficit reduction.

Democrats have promised to block the environmental and other cuts in the Senate, where they hold a slim majority, and President Obama has raised the threat of a veto, making it unlikely that many of the hits in the proposal will survive. Lawmakers last week passed a stopgap measure to keep the government operating while they hash out a compromise.

But few expect the recently elected and highly motivated GOP majority in the House to give up. "I think they're going to try and use every tactic in the book," said Nick Loris, a research associate with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "This is largely what they came into office saying they were going to do."

The continuing resolution adopted by the House two weeks ago swings a much bigger ax than similar proposals that helped stall a spending measure, resulting in a government shutdown in 1995. "I've never seen anything remotely like this. The sheer scope of it is overwhelming," said Sean Hecht, executive director of the UCLA Environmental Law Center.

The much-amended proposal, which would fund the federal government for the fiscal year ending in September, slashes spending on dozens of environmental initiatives on the state and national level.

In California, the resolution would kill appropriations for a salmon restoration program on the San Joaquin River as well as funding for Endangered Species Act fish protections that have reduced water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The measure also withdraws funding for a study on the removal of hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River and chops $15 million from the Presidio Trust in San Francisco.

The proposal slices the Environmental Protection Agency budget by 30% — the largest cut to any agency. It bars the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions and from implementing new water pollution limits in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and in Florida.

The bill stops the agency from enforcing new limits on toxic emissions, such as mercury, from cement plants and from updating air pollution standards on dust and other coarse particulate matter that exacerbate asthma and lung ailments. It withdraws funding for the enforcement of dredge and fill regulations that the EPA recently used to halt a big mountaintop-removal coal project in West Virginia.

The legislation blocks a new Bureau of Land Management initiative to identify and protect pristine public lands in the West and withholds funding for a new Forest Service management plan that would restrict off-road vehicle use in national forests. It also removes Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in the northern Rockies and eliminates hundreds of millions of dollars from a federal land acquisition program.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, called the budget resolution a "slash-and-burn proposal" and "a backdoor attack on our national landmark environmental laws."

The delta and San Joaquin River sections were written by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), who represents parts of the San Joaquin Valley and has previously introduced legislation to waive protections for salmon and the delta smelt and ramp up pumping from the delta, one of California's major sources of water.

Nunes said his budget language was a "simple attempt to try to get some of our water back so we can put people back to work." He added that if his proposal died in the Senate, he would keep pursuing it.

"Every chance that we have to amend a bill or pass a bill, we will be doing it," said Nunes, who on his House blog last year complained that "environmental radicals operating in the name of Gaia, Mother Earth, the Wiccan religion and a host of other cult-like organizations have litigated, legislated and extorted away the water needed for San Joaquin Valley communities."

Terry Anderson, executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center, which promotes a free-market approach to environmental problems, said the cuts were driven more by political than budgetary concerns. And he argued that even if they went into effect, they would have a limited impact.

"The regulations that won't be enforced haven't been the biggest drivers in improvements in environmental quality in recent years," Anderson said. "We have a clean environment, and we'll continue to clean it up because of technology. And that is largely a function of economic growth."

bettina.boxall@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Simon in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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