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 NCSL’s coronavirus (COVID-19) resources or any of the stories below, 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
Join Us for NCSL Base Camp 2020
Though we could not meet in person in Indianapolis for the 2020 Legislative Summit, NCSL is bringing the state legislative community together for NCSL Base Camp 2020—where national thought leaders and policy experts join with states to map the way forward. Two sessions we want to highlight specifically for NRI committee members are below (register here).
The State-Federal Clash Over the Energy Mix | Tuesday, Sept. 15, 1:30 p.m. ET
Electricity markets are evolving rapidly, with the federal government, states and regions taking a broad range of approaches to crafting the legal and regulatory frameworks under which markets and utilities operate. Ongoing debate exists as to whether certain state efforts to promote clean energy and jobs yield economic development or create imbalances and significant challenges for regional markets. Join NCSL for this interactive discussion to learn about electricity markets, how recent federal decisions could impact state energy policies and what lies ahead for the U.S. energy mix.
Transportation: Predictions for 2021 | Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2:45 p.m. ET
Are the ways we fund, plan and build transportation systems keeping up with demand? Join our roundtable with nationally recognized transportation experts for a freewheeling discussion. We’ll tackle the looming federal transportation reauthorization, public-private partnerships, state funding innovations, project prioritization, changing travel and mobility patterns, the role of technology in safety and mobility, and much more.
Of course, NCSL will also have sessions on COVID-19, the economy, systemic racism and this fall’s high-stakes elections. For a year unlike any other, you need a plan unlike any other. Welcome to NCSL Base Camp 2020.
Fall 2020 Energy, Environment and Transportation Webinar Series
In addition to NCSL Base Camp 2020, NCSL is pleased to present a fall 2020 energy, environment and transportation webinar series, which launched Thursday, Aug. 27, and will conclude Oct. 22. Most webinars will be recorded for those who are unable to attend the live meetings.
Building the 21st Century Energy Workforce | Thursday, Sept. 10, 3 p.m. ET
Workforce development is one of the most important issues facing the U.S. energy industry, which employs 6.7 million Americans. Clean energy jobs are growing as new technologies come online, while some traditional resources—such as coal-fired power plants—are shutting down, leaving a growing number of Americans out of work. Large-scale retirements among an aging workforce also present new challenges for hiring qualified workers across the energy sector. These issues—now compounded by wide job losses driven by COVID-19—are presenting new obstacles as states look to bolster their energy workforces. This session will explore the workforce challenges and opportunities facing the energy sector, highlight how the coronavirus pandemic is shifting the energy jobs landscape and how policymakers can support and train skilled workers to fill these vital positions. Register Here!
President Bans Oil Drilling Off Coast of Southern States
President Donald Trump signed a memorandum announcing the imposition of a new ban until 2032 on oil drilling off the coasts of Florida (Atlantic and Gulf), Georgia and South Carolina, reversing the administration’s earlier pledges to open those waters to exploration. The decision expands a current moratorium, until 2022, on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and broadens it to include drilling off the Atlantic coasts of Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. The current moratorium expires in 2022.
Next Round of Federal Aid for Farmers Expected Shortly
As the nation grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, federal agencies continue to take action to deal with the effects of the virus and its impacts on the economy. U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue indicated that another round of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program could be announced “shortly after Labor Day.”
Amtrak Announces Possible for Employee Furloughs
Amtrak Chief Executive William Flynn informed Congress that the U.S. passenger railroad needs up to $4.9 billion in government funding to avoid service and job cuts and to address mounting losses. Without the aid, he said, Amtrak will furlough more than 2,000 workers as a result of the steep decline in travel demand from COVID-19. Ridership and revenue levels are down 95% year-over-year since the pandemic began. There is widespread disagreement in Congress as to whether Amtrak, like the Postal Service, should put more focus on its profitable operations like a business or function more as a government service to all Americans with less emphasis on turning a profit.
DEA Issues Final Rule on CBD Manufacturing Process
The Drug Enforcement Administration issued a new interim final rule, which takes effect immediately, covering the CBD manufacturing process. Specifically, derivatives of hemp during the manufacturing process can never rise above the 0.3% THC limit included in the 2018 Farm Bill. Hemp processors and manufacturers have reported that THC levels usually rise above this limit during manufacturing even if the inputs and eventual outputs are below it. However, it remains unclear how the DEA will enforce the new rule. DEA spokesperson Sean Mitchel announced that the agency “is aware of the concerns of the CBD industry and is currently in the process of evaluating policy options.”
Pilot Program to Lower Age Limit for Interstate Commercial Drivers
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) announced it is beginning the rulemaking process to create a new pilot program to test lowering the age limit for interstate commercial drivers from 21 to 18. The FMCSA would require participants in the pilot group to have commercial driving licenses and take part in a 120-hour probation and a subsequent 280-hour apprenticeship program established by an employer. Participants would not be allowed to operate vehicles hauling passengers or hazardous materials or special configuration vehicles. The FMCSA previously piloted a program allowing 18- to 20-year-olds with military training to operate commercial vehicles across state lines. Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia currently allow 18- to 20-year-olds to drive commercial trucks for intrastate commerce.
EPA Issues New Wastewater Guidelines for Coal Facilities
The Environmental Protection Agency issued a final rule relaxing previous effluent limitation guidelines for wastewater from coal facilities. The final rule is similar to the one proposed in 2019 but extends the timeline for plants to comply and exempts any coal facilities closing, repowering or switching to natural gas by 2028. The EPA’s revisions will apply to wastewater generated at coal-fired power plants when sulfur dioxide is removed from the facilities’ emissions, as well as water used to flush the bottom ash out of plants and into coal ash pits. Additionally, the EPA approved authority for Wyoming to regulate underground carbon dioxide injection wells as part of the state’s effort to capture emissions from coal-fired power plants. The decision makes Wyoming the second state after North Dakota with primary enforcement authority over these wells under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
DOJ Will Not Appeal Decision Invalidating Refinery Exemptions to the Renewable Fuel Standard
In a significant update to the administration’s biofuel policy, the Department of Justice will not appeal a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision invalidating numerous small refinery exemptions to the Renewable Fuel Standard. The court found that for the EPA to approve an exemption, a refinery would need to have been approved for exemptions since 2010. As such, many refineries have applied for backdated exemptions, though initial indications are that the EPA will not approve these requests. These two actions could require refineries to boost their purchases of biofuels, increasing biofuel demand and thus raising the price of its crop inputs.
Rusty Patched Bumblebee Denied Critical Habitat Designation
The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declined to designate critical habitat for the rusty patched bumblebee. Once common throughout the midwestern and northeastern United States, the rusty patched bumblebee has since vanished from 87% of the counties it formerly inhabited. The FWS said that, while the bee is no longer present in 20 of the 31 states and provinces where it occurred historically, suitable habitat is “still widespread” in these areas.
FERC Rejects State Proposal to Promote Renewables
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission formally rejected a proposal by the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) to better promote renewables in its capacity market. The commission called the NYISO’s request “unjust and unreasonable and unduly discriminatory” because it favored resources supported by state policy—most specifically nuclear power plants and renewables—over those that did not receive such support, such as fossil fuel generators.
DOE Agrees to Pay South Carolina Plutonium Cleanup
The Department of Energy announced a settlement with the state of South Carolina concerning the cleanup of weapons-grade plutonium stored in the state near the Savannah River. As part of the settlement, South Carolina will receive an upfront payment of $600 million in return for agreeing not to pursue additional litigation on the matter for several years. A previous agreement between the state and the DOE included a commitment from the agency to clean up more than 11 million tons of radioactive material by 2016 or pay the state $100 million in penalties. The new agreement follows a settlement reached between Nevada and the DOE in June in which the U.S. government committed to removing 0.5 metric tons of plutonium it stored in the state by the end of 2026, and to canceling shipment of another batch it had planned to store in the state.
Federal Court Reinstates Increased Vehicle Emissions Penalty
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned the administration’s July 2019 rule suspending a regulation that more than doubled penalties for automakers failing to meet current fuel efficiency requirements. A coalition of 13 states filed a lawsuit against the rule. As a result of the court’s finding that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lowered the fines without regard for inflation, the penalty rate for every .1 mpg over corporate average fuel economy standards will be $14 starting with model year 2019 vehicles, rather than the $5.50 penalty sought by the administration.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Takes Next Step on Small Modular Reactors
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a final safety evaluation certification for NuScale Power’s small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) design. The safety evaluation is one of the final steps before official approval from the commission. Each SMR would be capable of producing 50 megawatts of power without emitting carbon dioxide.
USDOT Provides Nearly Half a Billion in Transit Grants to States
The Federal Transit Agency (FTA) announced the release of $400 million in federal funds for four transit projects in Arizona, Indiana, Missouri and New Jersey. The largest of these projects is the $250 million Portal Bridge replacement in New Jersey, which is part of the Northeast Corridor system on which Amtrak operates. Separately, the FTA also awarded $100 million for a bus rapid transit project in Miami.
FAA Announces Grants to States
The Federal Aviation Administration awarded $1.2 billion in airport safety and infrastructure grants to 405 airports in 50 states. The total includes over $1 billion from the Airport Improvement Program and $152 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grants to equal a 100% federal share.
EPA Announces Plans for a Western Office
The EPA unveiled plans to open a new office that will focus on abandoned mine tracking and cleanup in Western states and will provide oversight, guidance and technical assistance. The new office will be based in Lakewood, Colo., and titled “the Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains.”
Thanks for reading. We will be back next month to fill you in on other federal happenings—stay healthy and safe.
Ben and Kristen