Below are some of the latest agriculture, energy, environment and transportation policy issues we are following in Washington, D.C. If you have questions about any of the stories below or NCSL’s coronavirus (COVID-19) resources, please reach out to me, Ben Husch (firstname.lastname@example.org), or my colleague Kristen Hildreth (email@example.com), and we will point you in the right direction.
NRI Federal Information Update
New Committee Chairs Coming to Senate Transportation and Energy Committees
No matter the outcome of the two runoff races for U.S. Senate in Georgia, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) will have new chairs in 2021. Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), currently serving as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, announced that he will use his seniority to become chair of the energy committee, assuming Republicans remain in the majority. The current energy committee chair, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), is term-limited as Republican senators restrict themselves to three terms as the lead member. Barrasso’s decision also means that the EPW committee will have a new chair, either Senator Shelly Capito (R-W.Va.) or Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), who is currently the ranking member.
Senate Energy Committee Approves New Energy Regulators
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved two new commissioners for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC): Mark Christie and Allison Clements. Christie is the chairman of the Virginia State Corporation Commission and is one of the longest-serving state utility regulators, having served for 16 years. If the nominees are confirmed by the full Senate, the commission would once again have a full slate of members, though it is widely expected that President-elect Joe Biden will name a new chair when he assumes office in January.
New Federal Railroad Administration Rule Seeks to Address Amtrak Train Delays
The Federal Railroad Administration published a new final rule that creates new standards to measure Amtrak’s on-time performance and train delays. Performance will be based on certified schedules agreed to by Amtrak and the freight railroads that own a majority of the track on which Amtrak trains operate. The rule is in response to years of complaints from Amtrak that its poor performance is due to its lack of control because it does not own the tracks, even though federal law requires Amtrak trains be given preference. Amtrak also announced that it served 15.2 million fewer passengers between October 2019 and September 2020 (fiscal year 2020), a roughly 48% decrease from FY 2019. Operating revenue decreased 31.9%, resulting in Amtrak’s chief executive requesting that Congress provide more than $2 billion in emergency pandemic aid in September, but Congress has not fulfilled the request.
Department of Interior Provides New Conservation Authorities to States
The secretary of the interior issued a new order providing state and local governments significant authority to veto how funds provided for federal land acquisition as part of the Land and Water Conservation Fund are used. The order states that “a written expression of support by both the affected governor and local county or county government-equivalent (e.g., parish, borough) is required for the acquisition of land, water or an interest in land or water under the federal LWCF program.” The order is very similar to an unsuccessful amendment to the Great American Outdoors Act, offered by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), that called for state legislatures to approve any new land acquisitions in their respective states. However, the order is expected to be reversed once President-elect Biden takes office in January.
Federal Agencies Continue NEPA Updates
The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) issued a proposed rule that, if finalized, would update its processes for complying with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for the first time in 35 years. The rule would allow for “complete environmental review more efficiently in accordance with streamlining efforts” by updating the list of categorical exclusions—actions that are not subject to environmental review because they do not have a significant effect. Similarly, The U.S. Forest Service finalized a rule that will allow for logging and forest management projects to move forward without environmental reviews by expanding or creating new categorical exclusions for such activities. With a new administration and Congress taking office within two months, it is unclear if the rule will remain in place.
USDOT Announces New Pedestrian Safety Plan
The USDOT released the first-of-its-kind Pedestrian Safety Action Plan, with the goal of reducing pedestrian injuries and fatalities on America’s roads. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, 17% of all traffic fatalities in 2019 were pedestrians. In 2019—the most recent year for which data is available—6,205 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes, 44% more than in 2010.
Administration Proposes Updates to Drilling Rules for Arctic Waters
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, an agency within the Department of Interior (DOI), issued a new proposed rule that would update the standards governing oil drilling in Arctic waters. DOI finalized the Arctic drilling rules in 2016, though President Donald Trump ordered a review of the rule in 2017. The proposed rule leaves 44 of 65 provisions from the original Arctic rule—approximately 67%—unchanged. “Twenty-one provisions were identified as appropriate for revision, and 13 provisions were added to maintain safety and environmental protection on the OCS (Outer Continental Shelf).”
Greenhouse Gas Emissions Fell in 2019
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released 2019 greenhouse gas (GHG) data, showing that between 2018 and 2019 the total reported emissions from large facilities fell roughly 5%. The data is consistent with the decadelong trend in which total reported GHG emissions from large facilities decreased by more than 14% from 2011 to 2019. GHG emissions from the power plant sector specifically decreased by 25% from 2011 to 2019.
USDA Updates Conservation Practice Standards
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) published updates to its set of national conservation practice standards, which offer guidelines for planning, installing, operating and maintaining conservation practices used by farmers, ranchers and private forest landowners nationwide. Fifty-eight standards have been updated or revised since August. The 2018 Farm Bill required the NRCS to review all 169 of its national conservation practices to seek opportunities to increase flexibility and incorporate new technologies.
First Round of FY 2021 LIHEAP Grants Released
The Department of Health and Human Services released $3.4 billion in FY 2021 Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) block grant funds under the continuing resolution (CR) that’s in effect through Dec. 11. These initial awards are approximately 90% of LIHEAP’s annualized funding under the CR. The LIHEAP assists families with energy costs and provides federally funded assistance in managing costs associated with home energy bills, energy crises, and weatherization and energy-related minor home repairs.
EPA Calls on US to Increase Recycling Rate to 50%
At the America Recycles Summit, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler outlined a goal for the U.S. to recycle 50% of all materials by 2030. The chief objectives in meeting this goal include, reducing contamination in the recycling stream, increasing processing efficiency and strengthening the market for products made from recycled materials. The agency’s draft national recycling framework published last month is still open for public comment.
DOE, EPA and NOAA Announce New Grant Awards
The Department of Energy (DOE) announced $130 million in new projects to advance solar technologies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced more than $37 million in new grants from the National Coastal Resilience Fund. They will support coastal resilience projects in 25 states and U.S. territories by contributing to the restoration or enhancement of natural features such as coastal marshes and wetlands, dune and beach systems, oyster and coral reefs, mangroves, forests, coastal rivers and barrier islands. The EPA announced that it will award more than $20 million in infrastructure funding to projects that will improve access to safe drinking water for American Indian and Alaska Native populations. This funding is available under the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act’s Small and Disadvantaged Community program. Additionally, the EPA announced how it will distribute $4.3 million under the separate WIIN Act Lead Testing in School and Child Care Program Drinking Water Tribal Grant Program.
Thanks for reading. We will be back later this month to fill you in on other federal happenings—stay healthy and safe.
Ben and Kristen