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Budget bill seeks to rein in Clean Water Act jurisdiction changes

TheU.S. House Appropriations Committee released its fiscal year 2017 energy andwater budget bill on April 12, legislation that seeks to raise funding forfossil energy research but could further undercut the Obama administration'stroubled Clean Water Rule.

Thebill would boost appropriations for the U.S. Department of Energy's fossilenergy research and development to $645 million, a $13 million increase fromprior-year enacted levels and above the $600 million by the Obama administration inits budget request released in February. Nuclear energy research, developmentand demonstration activities would get $1.01 billion under the committee'sbill, up by $25 million from the fiscal year 2016 enacted level. Overallfunding for DOE energy programs would total $11.08 billion, up by $56 millionfrom the fiscal year 2016 enacted level but $1.3 billion below the president'srequest.

Theproposed growth in fossil and nuclear R&D amid a drop in total energy programfunding comes after GOP lawmakers criticizedthe administration's budget request for the DOE. Republicans said Obama'srequest did not give enough support to coal-focused technologies while boostingclean energy funding to help the Obama administration achieve its climategoals, which GOP lawmakers are also fighting.

"[T]hebill prioritizes and increases funding for energy programs thatencourage U.S. economic competitiveness and that help advance the nation'sgoal of an 'all-of-the-above' solution to energy independence,"the committee said.

Thelegislation also includes policy items that could further prevent the U.S. EPAand U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from implementing their Clean Water Rule,which a federal appeals court already stayednationwide in October 2015 pending the outcome of lawsuits against theregulation. The budget bill would prohibit any changes to federal jurisdictionunder the Clean Water Act, a restriction that could ease concerns from coalproducers and other energy-related industries that the recently finalized CleanWater Rule would drastically expand water bodies subject to federal regulation.

Anotherpolicy item in the bill would prevent any changes to the definition of "fillmaterial" and "discharge of fill material" for the purposes ofthe Clean Water Act. That provision is likely aimed at preventing tougherregulations for surface coal mining in Central Appalachia, where producers mustobtain Clean Water Act permits to place mine material in or near streams. Ifthe EPA or the Army Corps deemed mine overburden "waste," as opposedto fill material, producers may not be able to obtain permits for valley fills.

TheHouse Appropriations Committee will mark up the energy and water budget bill onApril 13, but the fate of the appropriations process remains in doubt. Moreconservative GOP lawmakers were unhappy with the funding levels for the federalgovernment authorized by former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and maythwart considerationof separate appropriations bills for fiscal year 2017, which could forceCongress to pass a continuing resolution that will keep funding at currentlevels.