House Republicans moved forward a controversial bill last week that would cut a third of the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, which raised the ire of environmentalists and caused at least one congressman to walk out of a committee meeting, calling the bill “an embarrassment.” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky) explained that the bill would create job growth “by holding back overly zealous and unnecessary environmental regulations.”
While the bill guts the EPA’s chance at fighting climate change, it also makes wildland firefighting a top priority. The overall budget for wildfire suppression and prevention programs would get a 16 percent boost, including $130 million for new aircraft “to replace Korean-War era fire-fighting planes used for large-scale fire suppression.”
Efforts to reduce hazardous fuels for fire prevention would get more than twice as much money as Obama has requested, and the U.S. Forest Service would gain $149 million, much of which would be for wildfire prevention and suppression.
“The legislation seeks to protect vital programs that directly affect the safety and well-being of Americans,” Rogers said, “while dramatically scaling back lower-priority, or ‘nice-to-have’ programs.”
Some of those “nice-to-have” programs include EPA efforts to curb emissions from power plants—a central piece of President Obama’s recently unveiled climate plan. Yet the clear connection between a warming climate and larger and more frequent fires remains largely unacknowledged in the bill. As explained in a National Association of State Foresters Quadrennial Review: “The effects of climate change will continue to result in greater probability of longer and bigger fire seasons, in more regions in the nation.”
The Republicans’ attempt to “rein in the EPA” and its “job-killing” enforcement actions comes as no surprise, considering the long-standing political battles to loosen environmental regulation, not to mention the historic delay of EPA chief Gina McCarthy’s confirmation last week. The bill is unlikely to progress in its current form. But that’s not really the point; it’s meant to make a statement more than actually change budget priorities.
The symbolic move echoes other anti-government laws proposed in Western states in response to federal regulation seen as meddling in local affairs. What’s been called “the sheriffs’ bill” in Utah, and is likely to be found unconstitutional before being implemented, would prohibit BLM and Forest Service officers from detaining or ticketing individuals for infractions such as speeding or fishing without a license if the violations are not of federal law. The bill’s sponsor, Mike Noel, “claimed BLM rangers and Forest Service forest protection officers harass citizens and step on the law-enforcement priorities of local authorities, who are accountable to voters,” the Salt Lake Tribune reports. Similarly, the Idaho legislature is looking into whether the state could manage its public lands better than the BLM and Forest Service, which some Idahoans view as “absentee landlords.” Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed a similar bill in her state last year.
Additional cuts in the controversial spending plan that passed the Appropriations Interior and Environment subcommittee in a 7-4 vote last week include: 9 percent budget cut to the U.S. Geological Survey, 27 percent for the Fish and Wildlife Service, and 9 percent to the National Park System. It notably does not include the administration’s proposed increases in fees to graze and drill for oil and gas on public land. Oil and gas programs would get an additional $23 million over last year’s budget, language would be added to current rules to expedite energy permitting processes, and the EPA would be severely limited in enforcing clean air regulations. Again, the correlation of carbon emissions and the bill’s chosen headliner, wildland firefighting, makes no appearance.
As HCN reported last year, “In the first year after the 2010 midterms, Republicans in the House floated nearly 200 pieces of legislation seeking to undermine or block environmental regulations or scientific findings, including the EPA's new rules for mercury pollution from coal plants and the proper disposal of toxic coal ash.” Last week’s proposed bill shows that this trend of obstructionism is still going strong and shows no signs of stopping.
Tay Wiles is the online editor at High Country News. News tips and follows @taywiles.