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
Thank you to all of you who were able to join us for NCSL Base Camp 2020, where we were joined by national thought leaders and policy experts. Sessions covered the top issues state legislatures face today: the budget, economy, transportation, energy, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the event offered insights into the important 2020 elections, redistricting and the virtual workplace. Professional development sessions will be held on leadership, negotiation, and decision-making. If you have question on Base Camp or would like to contact any of the speakers involved, please visit NCSL’s website.
Fall 2020 Energy, Environment and Transportation Webinar Series
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, and previous recordings can be found here.
Exploring Climate Action Opportunities for Sustainable and Resilient Agriculture
Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 | 3 p.m. ET / 2 p.m. CT / 1 p.m. MT / Noon PT
Climate change is a complex and global issue requiring a policy response that is thoughtful and informed. Thus far, this response has seen the implementation of emission reduction requirements on both the transportation and energy sectors. And while American farmers and ranchers continue to improve their production efficiencies, conservation of natural resources, and resiliency, the formal role and responsibilities for the agriculture sector remains uncertain. Join us as we explore and discuss some policies, technologies and other initiatives that may provide a role for the agriculture sector to develop effective and sustainable practices in response to this complex issue. Register Here!
Congress Expected to Pass Continuing Resolution to Avert Shutdown
The U.S. House of Representatives passed (359-57) a continuing resolution that funds the federal government through Dec. 11 with the Senate expected to follow suit shortly. In addition to extending existing federal appropriations, the bill also included provisions extending the surface transportation authorization (Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act) for one year, which is currently set to expire at the end of the month. Importantly, the continuing resolution authorizes the transfer of $10.4 billion to the Highway Trust Fund from the general fund for highways and another $3.2 billion for transit—both of these transfers are necessary to avoid either account falling into the red due to lower gasoline tax revenue. It would also provide $21 billion to replenish the Commodity Credit Corp., a Depression-era farm safety net program, which made $6.5 billion in emergency payments this year to help farmers weather the pandemic.
All 50 States in Compliance with REAL ID Standards
The Department of Homeland Security announced that after more than 15 years since Congress passed the REAL ID Act, all 50 states are now in full compliance. To date, the 50 states have issued more than 105 million REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses and identification cards, representing 38% of all driver’s licenses and identification card holders. As a reminder, on Oct. 1, 2021, full enforcement of REAL ID will take effect at all federally regulated airports, federal facilities, and nuclear power plants. NCSL continues to work with Congress on modernizing some of the original requirements included in the bill that require paper documentation.
USDA Announces $14 Billion for Next Round of COVID-19 Aid for Farmers and Producers
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a new round of coronavirus aid for farmers and producers totaling $14 billion on top of the $19 billion in aid provided earlier this spring. The USDA said that payments to farmers will be calculated by various methods depending on the commodity. For instance, farmers of oats and peanuts will receive a flat rate while corn and soybean growers will be paid based on losses and acreage. Additionally, payments to producers of some specialty crops and other commodities will be determined by 2019 sales.
Payments will be capped at $250,000 per person or entity for all farmers and producers will also have to certify they meet the Adjusted Gross Income limitation of $900,000 unless at least 75% or more of their income is derived from farming, ranching or forestry-related activities. Aid applications will be accepted through Dec. 11, 2020. With the adjustment in formulas to determine which producers qualify for the money, new and young farmers should have an easier time accessing the funds. The National Young Farmers Coalition said the new design should help diversified farmers who couldn’t calculate their losses on a commodity-by-commodity basis, “the revenue-based approach appears to allow for levels of payment that reflect price premiums for local and regional sales."
Department of Transportation Awards Funds for Surface Transportation, Rail and Aviation
The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) awarded $1 billion in FY 2020 infrastructure grants to fund 70 projects in 44 states through its Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Program. The maximum award is $25 million with no more than $100 million provided to a single state. Rural areas were awarded just over half the total grant amount, which was required based on provisions included in the USDOT’s FY 2020 appropriations. BUILD grants are for planning and capital investments in surface transportation infrastructure and were awarded on a competitive basis.
Additionally, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced $320.6 million in grant funding for 50 projects in 29 states as part of the Federal Railroad Administration’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program. In the aviation arena, the USDOT awarded $335 million in airport safety and infrastructure grants to 80 airports in 25 states through the Federal Aviation Administration. The projects funded include, purchasing aircraft rescue and firefighting equipment, constructing and repairing runways and taxiways, installing aircraft lighting and signage, conducting airport master plan studies, and installing airport perimeter fencing.
EPA Proposes Guidance on Updating Water and Sewer Systems Past their Useful Life
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new guidance regarding how quickly a community can afford to pay to upgrade its aging and failing water and sewer systems. Under 1997 guidance, the agency was to look at only two factors when considering the utility’s ability to afford such upgrades, and thus how quickly to require they be implemented: the cost per household as a percentage of median household income and the utility’s overall fiscal health. The proposed guidance would broaden the economic factors that the EPA can consider when it sets a schedule for how quickly a community must upgrade a water system that is dumping raw sewage into nearby rivers and streams or otherwise violating its Clean Water Act permit. Though the EPA plays no direct role in the rates that drinking water and sewer authorities charge, it can indirectly affect those rates when it sets the terms of consent decrees that mandate upgrades to water systems. The new guidance would offer two alternate ways of assessing affordability, both of which put a special focus on the impact of cost increases on the lowest-income residents. One would still use the 1997 framework but expand cost and poverty considerations. The other would use a dynamic financial and rate model to look at the impact of rate increases over time on utility customers.
House Passes Broad ‘Clean’ Energy Package; Senate Consideration Possible
The U.S. House of Representative passed H.R. 4448, 220-185, a broad clean energy package that combines provisions on building codes, energy efficiency, workforce training, research and development, environmental justice, critical minerals and fighting climate change. The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy, which states its opposition to the bill. In the other chamber, the Senate is likely to take up their energy package soon following agreement on provisions concerning emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) between Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), and Senator John Kennedy (R-La.).
While it’s still unclear if the Senate agreement will be approved by the House during a potential conference committee, the Senate language that would phase down the production of HFCs by 85% by 2035, and require the EPA to address six uses of HFCs that currently represent 5% of the total HFC market–inhalers, defense sprays, foams for boats and truck trailers, the semiconductor manufacturing process, mission-critical military uses, and onboard fire suppression for aviation. In the agreement, states would be preempted from regulating the use of those congressionally delegated uses for a period of five years, with potential for that to be renewed an additional five years after that initial period concludes.
Department of Defense Investigating Military Installations for PFAS Contamination
The Department of Defense (DOD) announced it is now investigating more than 700 military installations that are potentially contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS as the department added 34 new military installations that may be contaminated because of the military's use of aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF. In March 2020 the DOD had identified more than 600 military sites. The announcement follows a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people living near four military bases from Delaware to Washington state where PFAS was found in drinking water have higher-than-average concentrations in their blood.
BLM Advisory Board Warns of Mass Die Off of Wild Horse and Burros if Overcrowding Is not Resolved
The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board members warned of a "mass die-off" if significant steps are not taken to fix the problem of mass overcrowding of wild horse and burros. The board also expressed displeasure with the BLM recommendations to address the issue the agency submitted to Congress earlier this year, which outlined an aggressive strategy to reduce herd sizes to levels that are sustainable for federal rangelands and the animals themselves. There are currently 95,000 wild horses and burros on federal rangeland—nearly four times the 26,715 animals the BLM says the land can sustain. BLM’s plan indicates that if left on their own, "the on-range populations of wild horses and burros could increase to over 2.8 million" by 2040.”
Colorado River Basin to Face Water Shortage by 2025, Maybe 2022
Projections from the Bureau of Reclamation show there is as much as a 32% chance the Lower Colorado River Basin will be facing a shortage by 2022, and as much as a 77% chance that it will be in that case by 2025. Further, the bureau's modeling gives nearly 20% odds that the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada will be in the most severe level of shortage in 2025 and draconian cuts kick in. The projections are based on a "stress test" scenario that essentially estimates what would happen if the current, 21-year drought conditions continue.
FEMA Announces $13 Billion in Aid to Puerto Rico, Three Years After Hurricane Maria Struck the Territory
Three years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced a $13 billion aid package for Puerto Rico, which includes $9.6 billion to allow the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority to repair and replace transmission and distribution lines, electrical substations and power generation systems, and facilitate other grid improvements. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 included funding for FEMA to support Hurricane Maria response and recovery, as well as language helping FEMA ensure that Puerto Rico rebuilds its critical lifelines, services, and facilities in accordance with current industry standards.
Vehicle Miles Traveled Down Again, Impacts Likely to Reduce Gas Tax Revenues
The Federal Highway Administration reported that U.S. motorists drove 11% fewer miles in July compared to July 2019, likely in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The biggest declines were observed on the east coast, where mileage in the North fell 15.4% and in the South by 11.3%. Further, driving on urban Interstate roads fell by 14.8%, the sharpest decline seen in single road category. The impacts of the reduced driving is likely to reduce state and federal gas tax collections and potentially reduce funding for transportation projects.
FDA Proposes Rule to Outline New Food Traceability Requirements
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a proposed rule that outlines new traceability requirements for the food industry—stemming from Section 204 of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, which required the FDA to designate a list of “high-risk” foods and come up with additional traceability requirements. The rule would mandate new recordkeeping requirements for entities manufacturing, packing or storing certain foods that have been tentatively deemed more likely to cause foodborne illness, including fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, leafy greens and melons as well as cheeses, shellfish, nut butters and shell eggs.
EPA Announces Daimler Will Pay $1.5 Billion to Settle Emissions Cheating Allegations
The EPA officials announced that German automaker Daimler AG and subsidiary Mercedes-Benz USA will pay a total of $1.5 billion to settle allegations lodged by the federal government and California regarding its emissions cheating on more than a quarter-million diesel cars and vans in the U.S. from 2009 through 2016, that were equipped with an emission control device similar to the defeat devices that ensnared Volkswagen in its own costly emissions cheating scandal. The Department of Justice, the EPA and the California Attorney General’s Office said Daimler violated environmental laws by using so-called “defeat device software” to circumvent emissions testing and sold about 250,000 cars and vans in the U.S. with diesel engines that didn’t comply with state and federal laws.
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