House Republicans from Western states pressed EPA Administrator Michael Regan on Tuesday about his agency’s signature water rule, saying it doesn’t adequately consider the needs of their states.
The pushback was the latest in a dispute over what should qualify as waters of the US, or WOTUS. Regan largely parried members’ questions in his second week of defending to lawmakers the Biden administration’s $12 billion budget request for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Although the tone of Tuesday’s House hearing and last week’s Senate hearing was cordial, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee with EPA oversight, ended the House meeting with a clear sign that Republicans plan to scale back President Joe Biden’s spending request dramatically.
“When you see the budget, don’t go particularly nuts,” Simpson said. “It won’t be pretty when it first comes out, but that’s the way it is.”
Farmers in Montana are “really upset about” the EPA’s new WOTUS rule, said Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.). Agricultural producers in Utah feel their entire livelihood “could literally be taken away by the stroke of a pen by someone who doesn’t understand or appreciate” their needs, said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah).
The Biden administration’s 2023 waters of the US rule was finalized in January and took effect this month. The rule aims to protect water quality in large waterways nationwide. It affects housing, agricultural, mining and other development in every state because builders need a permit to disturb federally protected wetlands and waters.
Regan conceded that “trying to regulate streams and rivers and ponds and ditches in North Carolina and Nevada is almost impossible.” But he added that the EPA’s rule was guided by the statutory requirements imposed on it by the Clean Water Act, and that the agency made several exemptions to help the agricultural sector.
Repeating a point that was raised in last week’s Senate budget hearing, Simpson questioned why the EPA moved ahead with a new definition of WOTUS before the Supreme Court could weigh in with an opinion on the matter in Sackett v. EPA, a case over the definition of waterways. The Supreme Court is expected to issue an opinion before the end of this term.
“It’s almost like you’re trying to sway the Supreme Court, or say, ‘To hell with you, this is what we’re going to do,’” Simpson said.
In response to questions about why the budget asks for money to hire 1,960 new staffers, despite the tens of billions of dollars the EPA got in the infrastructure and climate bills, Regan said many of the positions hired under those laws aren’t permanent and will sunset eventually.
Moreover, a lot of “bread and butter issues” the EPA is responsible for, such as emergency response and enforcement, can’t be carried out effectively without more staff, Regan said.
At another point in the hearing, Simpson suggested that the abandoned Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which still stands empty, could be used to store old batteries or solar cells that would otherwise be sent to landfills.
19% Budget Hike
Biden’s fiscal 2024 budget requests a 19% increase over the EPA’s current enacted level of $10.1 billion. That figure is the EPA’s highest since 2010, although Congress rolled it back from Biden’s $11.9 billion fiscal 2023 request.
With Republicans now in control of the House, and Democrats holding only a narrow majority in the Senate, the fight over the EPA’s budget is likely to grow more intense. House Republicans are already working on a plan to cut spending back to fiscal 2022 levels and limit growth to 1% a year after that.
Faisal Amin, the EPA’s chief financial officer, said that plan would wipe out funding for new staff, set back the agency’s efforts on climate change and environmental justice, and put new programs at risk of cancellation.
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