As Congress adjourns, the environment is left in limbo

  As Congress wraps up its business for the year, Western lawmakers will be heading home with a little bit of pork and a whole lot of change.

That’s not pocket change, however: New laws passed this year could mean some big changes across the Western landscape.

The 108th Congress has passed a significant number of laws that turn back the clock on environmental protection. While environmental and citizens’ groups have defeated a few of the more egregious proposals, the most controversial piece of legislation — the energy bill — will likely not see a vote until early next year.

Environmentalists across the nation are reeling: "I’ve never seen it this bad in my 40 years," says Brock Evans, a former Marine, former Republican and current executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Endangered Species Coalition. "Bush is a big part, but he’s not the only part; Western Republicans are especially virulent (in their anti- environmentalism)."

Here’s a quick wrap-up of some of the anti-environmental legislation passed in the end-of-session rush — and a few of the bills that Congress has decided to save for early next year.

Energy bill stalled — for now

On Thursday, Nov. 20, final approval of the energy bill seemed all but inevitable. Congressional conferees had approved the nearly 1,200-page bill, the House had passed it by a vote of 246 to 180, and supporters predicted they would send it to the president before Thanksgiving. But on Friday, Nov. 21, the Senate narrowly voted to postpone its decision, a signal that the bill did not have the backing it needed to pass. Opponents, including seven Republicans, were especially critical of a provision protecting manufacturers of MTBE — a gasoline additive that has contaminated groundwater throughout the country — from liability lawsuits.

Bill proponents scrambled to shore up support during the following weekend, but they gave up the effort on Monday.

Though the current version of the bill would not open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling — conference committee members conceded that an Arctic Refuge provision would almost certainly provoke a filibuster — environmentalists maintain that it would have a major impact on other public lands, especially in the Rocky Mountain West.

"The focus in fighting the bill has been on removing the Arctic refuge (provision)," says Tom Darin, public-lands director for the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. "That’s a good victory, but at what cost? We’ve got several Arctic refuges within the five Rocky Mountain states."

The bill contains a congressional blessing for the White House Energy Projects Task Force, established by executive order in 2001 to "expedite" and "accelerate" energy projects on federal lands (HCN, 9/2/02: Bush's energy push meets unintended consequences). It would also, among other things:

• Exempt "all field activities or operations" associated with oil and gas exploration and production from the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.

• Force the Bureau of Land Management to make preliminary rulings on drilling permit applications within 10 days, and most final decisions within 30 days.

• Exempt the process of hydraulic fracturing, used in oil and gas drilling operations, from the restrictions of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

• Potentially reduce federal accountability for energy development in Indian Country, a change criticized by several tribal leaders (HCN, 8/4/03: Plains tribe harnesses the wind).

• Require the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Forest Service to station employees in seven BLM offices throughout the Rockies as part of the "Federal Permit Streamlining Pilot Project." The employees, each with expertise in one or more federal environmental laws, would participate in BLM analyses of energy projects.

Mac Blewer of the Wyoming Outdoor Council says such "streamlining" of public-land energy projects would give him and his allies plenty to do. "We’d have to move fast in Congress to protect some of these areas," like the Rocky Mountain Front and Wyoming’s Red Desert, he says. "Otherwise, we’d have nothing left to organize around."

Republican leaders have promised to resurrect the energy bill after the first of the year.

The author is a contributing editor of High Country News.

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