Interior budget bill cuts EPA, tries again on King Cove

Photo/Pat Sullivan/AP

Sen. Lisa Murkowski unveiled an Interior Department budget bill June 16 with funding limitations on the Environmental Protection Agency and a provision that could lead to an emergency access route for King Cove.

“Many of Alaska’s key initiatives have been addressed, whether it’s how we access our lands and our resources for development to strengthen our economy; whether it’s how we conserve our lands for use by Alaskans,” Murkowski said during a teleconference briefing with Alaska reporters.

The EPA’s budget was cut by nearly 7 percent, a $540 million reduction from the current fiscal year. Funding for its regulatory programs was cut by $57.1 million, but cleanup programs got an additional $21.5 million.

Murkowski said the EPA budget finds a balance between caring for the environment while not adding “unduly and unnecessary regulations to thwart our opportunities and further hinder development.”

In total, the bill authorizes more than $30 billion of discretionary spending, plus $1.05 billion for emergency firefighting. It is about $2.2 billion less than President Obama’s budget request.

Murkowski, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, said the bill also funds several Alaska Native priorities through Interior agencies, including funding for Tribal courts at the federal level for the first time.

Nationwide, the first version of the 2016 fiscal year Interior budget commits $4.77 billion for Indian Health Services, a $135 million increase over 2015, with $20 million dedicated to easing the IHS facility construction backlog, according to a subcommittee bill summary.

Another EPA-related provision attempts to halt the agency from implementing the pending Waters of the U.S. rule by blocking any funding to the regulation.

The Obama administration argues the Waters of the U.S. rule simply clarifies the EPA’s jurisdiction over navigable waterways under the Clean Water Act, and thus where and when it can require Section 404 fill and dredge permits for development projects.

Republicans contend it vastly expands the agency’s authority to even small creeks and dry-run ditches and would make permitting many resource development projects an even slower and more costly endeavor. Alaska’s congressional delegation has been exceptionally critical of the pending regulation given the state contains about 60 percent of the nation’s wetlands.

A close reading of the regulation finds the actual impact is likely somewhere in the middle.

The EPA has broadly interpreted the vague Clean Water Act since it was enacted more than 40 years ago, and the Waters of the U.S. rule mostly codifies current agency practices.

It remains to be seen whether cutting off funding will have any impact on the effectiveness of the new rule as federal agencies often manage to deal with funding challenges.

Specifically to Alaska, Murkowski said the budget bill also contains language that directs the Bureau of Land Management to remove permitting roadblocks for oil and gas projects in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and has similar provisions for mining on federal land.

“We’re trying to eliminate some of the redundancy (in regulation) that leads to additional cost and further delay,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski said a provision also directs the U.S. Forest Service to take stock of Interior Alaska timber resources for the first time.

New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, the ranking Democrat on the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee said he is disappointed by, among other things, the EPA funding cuts that hurt efforts to limit climate change.

“It underfunds education and health care for Tribal communities. It shortchanges communities that depend on national parks and other public lands to support their local economies,” Udall said in a formal statement. “And it includes dangerous policy riders that undermine environmental laws that have kept our air and water clean, protected imperiled species and safeguarded sensitive ecosystems for decades.”

Murkowski said the funding levels in the bill follow the Budget Control Act, known as sequestration, passed by Congress and signed by the president in 2011.

The bill provides $2.73 billion for the National Park Service, which is $112 million more than 2015, but $321 million short of the president’s budget. President Obama requested a one-time $326 million appropriation to prep the country’s parks and monuments for the National Park Service’s centennial in 2016; the bill authorizes $110 million for the centennial initiative.

King Cove road

Murkowski touted a provision in the budget bill that would allow the State of Alaska and the Interior Department to negotiate a “fair trade” land exchange and allow the state to build a road from the Alaska Peninsula village of King Cove to nearby Cold Bay.

The 11-mile section of gravel road — through what is now Izembek National Wildlife Refuge territory — would give King Cove residents overland access to the large World War II-era runway at Cold Bay, and thus safe access to medical care in Anchorage during bad weather.

While the bill allows the feds to enter negotiations with the state, it does not require a deal to be accepted. Murkowski dodged questions from reporters about how the land swap would be any different than one passed by Congress and signed by Obama in 2009, but was denied by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell just before Christmas 2013.

That land swap, part of an omnibus public lands package, would have given about 56,000 acres of Native village corporation and state land to the federal government in exchange for 206 acres in the Izembek Refuge.

“We offered up a pretty good exchange with the law that was passed several years ago, a 300-1 exchange,” Murkowski said.

Since, Murkowski has blasted Jewell on the issue every chance she’s had, saying the road will be built one way or another.

Jewell has said the road would damage critical waterfowl habitat in the refuge, which is home to nearly all of the world’s populations of some migratory birds at certain times of the year.

During a February visit to Alaska Jewell reiterated her stance on the King Cove road and said the issue was a done deal. Eventually Murkowski admitted a new land swap could be denied, but also said that wouldn’t happen.

“We’re not going to let the Interior Department say they’re not interested; we’ve already gone down that road once before,” Murkowski said. “What we’re trying to accomplish through this policy provision is that the people of King Cove will have access to an emergency, lifesaving road to get to Cold Bay.”

She did not elaborate on how she would prevent a repeat by the Interior Department during her brief availability.

Whether the road is ultimately built could have a lot to do with the upcoming elections in 2016.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/20/2016 - 4:44pm