By John O’Grady
The federal government funding nightmare is not over. It is merely delayed. With all the political red herrings, government firings and scandals, this White House would wager that most Americans are either not paying attention or are apathetic altogether from the deliberate feed of misinformation.
However, a funding bill must be passed by March 23, or the government will shut down yet again. Standing in the way of a bipartisan deal are an unprecedented number of environmental “poison pill riders.” Congress, especially the House, is going to great lengths to line the pockets of big industry by including federal budget riders in the current drafts of spending bills, which expose Americans to just about every kind of pollution under the sun.
No environmental protection under current law is left unscathed by provisions that big, corporate polluters fancy. To be clear, riders are often stuck to unrelated legislation. They would not affect federal spending by one cent but aim to sneak through legislative changes that would be difficult to pass on their own. Riders get less scrutiny than bills that are subject to open debate on the House or Senate floor.
A “porcupine provision” or poison pill rider is not bipartisan, usually does not “fix” a problem and is hard for one political party to swallow. Republican leadership uses riders to gut environmental and public health protections it can’t otherwise endorse or pass on their own if they were exposed to the light of day.
Count them. There are so many antithetical environmental riders added to the 2018 federal budget, here are some of the most egregious.
One rider proposes to delay the new regulations that protect people from ground-level ozone pollution (smog) until 2026. This is the same Ozone Clean Air Act rule that a federal court just ordered EPA to comply with. This rider also doubles the delay for periodic EPA review of all air pollutants from every five years to 10. It both endangers the human health from air pollution before the new standards take effect and weakens EPA’s ability under the Clean Air Act’s authority to monitor air quality in the future. This reversal will only sicken our citizens, especially the vulnerable young and elderly.
Does this White House want to make America smoggy again? In 2015, after exhaustive study, EPA moved to restrict the ground-level ozone limit from 75 parts per billion to 70 ppb. EPA found that in implementing the rule, by 2025 the annual costs to industry would not exceed $1.4 billion, but the public health benefits could be more than $5.9 billion (California excluded). Thousands of deaths will be averted, 960 hospital admissions and emergency-room visits will be avoided, 230,000 cases of asthma will be eased. We would no longer lose 188,000 days of productivity to asthma, bronchitis and other illness.
If this rider is passed, EPA would no longer police the ozone standard — years spent designing and implementing the rule would go to waste.
Another House poison pill rider would prevent EPA from assessing the economic impact of climate change in estimates of costs and benefits of its science-based rules. It would stop EPA scientists and engineers from factoring in the real costs of intense storms, flooding and other extreme weather that cause billions of dollars of damage, like the droughts that spurred wildfires in the west and the Nor’easters on steroids that have been barraging New England. The Government Accountability Office and the Department of Defense predicted that related warming air and oceans will likely cost tens of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy.
Yet, another inexplicable rider blocks the Department of Energy (DOE) from implementing and enforcing common sense energy efficiency standards, even for light bulbs. By all accounts, the consumer transition to more efficient light bulbs has been seamless. It is hard to figure who would be in favor of passing this poison pill rider, preventing the DOE from administering the standards against inefficient, noncompliant bulbs, a blatant, inexplicable reversal of progress already achieved.
While EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is expected to restrict the role of science in policymaking, he has come out in favor of another rider to require all biomass (wood chips, corncobs, etc.) burned for electricity production to be considered carbon neutral. It is not. Scientists know that emissions from burning wood biomass are higher than those from coal. Still, Pruitt is unconvinced and threatens long term health of forests, encourages burning of trees for electricity, and ignores manmade global warming by concealing the role exacerbated by emissions.
It gets much worse. Many of the poison pill riders help farmers discharge pollution from animal waste. Riders will permanently prevent EPA from limiting industrial livestock pollution under the Clean Air Act. They stop requiring the reporting of greenhouse gas emissions from manure management, exempt livestock grazing permit renewals from environmental review and prohibit EPA from writing rules that would require the largest industrial livestock farms known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) to properly store and dispose of hundreds of millions of tons waste. When not treated properly, CAFO pollution leaches into drinking water and contaminates the drinking water wells that rural areas rely on.
Several poison pill riders overrule a Clean Water Act rule that harmful discharges must be regulated. Another would allow EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to repeal the 2015 Clean Water Rule without following laws that would normally apply to such an action. The rider would allow EPA to ignore public input in repealing the Clean Water Rule and adopt a less stringent rule without any reasonable basis. Here, Congress is proposing to dispense with longstanding transparency and good governance requirements while dismantling clean water protections.
Giveaway riders to the oil and gas industry abound in the funding bill. One proposes to prevent the Bureau of Land Management from accurately measuring and reporting oil production on America’s public lands and will stop federal agencies from ensuring all royalties due are paid.
Add to that a rider to block EPA from enforcing its Methane Pollution Standard (MPS) on the oil and gas industry, the largest dischargers of methane. EPA’s MPS has already proven that low-cost safeguards accrue climate benefits of $170 million by 2025 and significantly reduce Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions and HAPs (hazardous air pollutants.)
In a proposal that would disable all citizen oversight of federal action, another rider strips all citizens of the ability to recover attorney’s fees in certain situations when they prevail in lawsuits brought under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act or Endangered Species Act. This restricts access to the courts and allows for the most egregious violations to remain unchecked.
These riders are lethal challenges to American safety. But, in fact, riders can be defeated. When riders are identified and brought into the public debate they can be exposed for what they are — in this case, an attack on the shared values protecting public health and the environment. We urge Congress to aggressively fight these poison pill riders that gravely threaten well-being, harm ecosystems and undermine democracy.
John O’Grady is president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National Council of EPA Locals #238 representing over 8,000 bargaining unit employees at the U.S. EPA nationwide.