Enviros, industry gird for Senate amendments on pipeline, EPA regs, more

Posted: Mar 20, 2013

Written by

Nick Juliano, E&E Daily
Protesting the KXL

The Senate is preparing for a marathon series of votes on budget amendments this week, with Republicans expected to press for roll calls on measures aimed at approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline, blocking U.S. EPA climate change rules, ending renewable energy tax credits and expanding oil drilling on federal lands, according to aides tracking the process.

Debate on the budget resolution from Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the first such Senate floor debate in four years, is expected to start as soon as today or tomorrow after the chamber votes on a must-pass spending bill to prevent a government shutdown at the end of the month. The Senate last night voted 63-35 to end debate on that spending bill, and a final vote is expected today.

The spending bill -- a continuing resolution for most agencies combined with a handful of new appropriations bills -- will not be subject to any new amendments after senators were unable to agree on how to pare down the more than 100 amendments that had been introduced. Last week, the chamber adopted by unanimous consent an amendment from Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) to shield farmers who store fuel on their property from a U.S. EPA oil spill prevention rule.

The House, which passed a similar spending bill earlier this month, is expected to take up the Senate version by the end of the week.

With the threat of a government shutdown essentially avoided, attention is turning to debate over the budget resolution, which Murray introduced last week (E&E Daily, March 14).

The budget amendments are not expected to have any immediate policy consequences because the underlying resolution is nonbinding, but they are seen as a rare opportunity by Republicans to force Democrats to take tough votes and get senators on the record about controversial issues.

"They don't matter," said Stan Collender, a former aide to the House and Senate Budget committees and now director of financial communications at the public relations firm Qorvis. "If they pass, the top-line numbers will change based on an assumption that the policy will be implemented, but it's just an assumption. A budget resolution isn't a law and actually changes nothing."

The budget will be open to 50 hours of debate, after which an unlimited number of amendments can be considered, in accordance with Senate rules, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the floor yesterday. Reid said time was of the essence if the Senate was to complete its work ahead of a two-week spring recess planned to begin Friday, and he warned that votes over the weekend or next week were possible.

Among the top targets for Republicans will be the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude from Alberta's oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas. President Obama told Republican senators last week that he would decide whether to approve the pipeline this year, but that is not quick enough for supporters, who are pushing for more immediate approval via legislation (Greenwire, March 15).

Multiple Senate aides, who requested anonymity, said Keystone XL was almost certain to be the subject of a budget amendment. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who offered the stand-alone bill to approve the project, said he is considering offering it as an amendment but has not made a final decision yet. Separately, Hoeven's Keystone bill was added to the Senate calendar yesterday.

Another top target, aides said, is EPA's impending rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, which would effectively bar the construction of new coal-fired power plants if implemented as proposed. EPA is said to be considering major changes to the rule and is unlikely to finalize it by next month as initially scheduled (Greenwire, March 18).

Environmentalists already are sounding the alarm about the possible amendments. The activist group 350.org, which has been fighting Keystone XL, said it is organizing rallies in Virginia, Colorado and Minnesota urging senators to vote against the pipeline amendment. Virginia's Sen. Mark Warner, Colorado's Sen. Mark Udall and Minnesota's Sen. Al Franken -- all Democrats -- are up for re-election in 2014.

The Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group, last night sent out a press release warning against the Keystone XL and EPA amendments as well as expected efforts to "eliminate funding for salmon recovery funding in the Pacific Northwest ... cut significant funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for federal public lands, and eliminate ocean and coastal planning," according to the group.

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