Would looser environmental regulations help the economy?

WASHINGTON — Republicans in the House of Representatives are waging an all-out war to block federal regulations that protect the environment.

They loaded up a pending 2012 spending bill with terms that would eliminate a broad array of environmental protections, everything from stopping new plants and animals from being placed on the endangered species list to ending federal limits on water pollution in Florida,

The terms also include a rollback of pollution regulations for mountaintop mining and a red light on federal plans to prevent new uranium mining claims near the Grand Canyon.

Another Republican-sponsored bill that's before Congress would weaken the nation's 1972 Clean Water Act, taking away the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to step in when it finds state water-pollution rules too loose.

The sweeping anti-environmental regulation agenda has support among Senate Republicans and the GOP's presidential hopefuls. Its backers say it's necessary for the sake of jobs and economic growth.

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., has said the EPA is "riding roughshod" over business. He told EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that it's time to rein in her agency.

"Earlier this year, I said that the scariest agency in the federal government is the EPA. I still believe that," Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said at a hearing Tuesday on the spending bill. He said that the bill "attempts to rein in the excesses of the EPA."

Jim DiPeso, a spokesman for the independent group Republicans for Environmental Protection, said that "some of the more zealous tea partiers in Congress" wouldn't go so far in environmental protection as even Ronald Reagan, who signed wilderness bills even though he, too, tried to roll back environmental regulation.

"You see a very dogmatic, libertarian faction that for a lot of reasons has become more powerful in the Republican Party than it's ever been," DiPeso said. The spending bill's assault on environmental rules has "very little to do with getting fiscal imbalance under control," he charged. "It's ideological."

Republican doctrine wasn't always so hostile to environmental protection. The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act of the 1970s had strong support from both parties. President Richard Nixon created the EPA and told Congress in 1973 that America's "irreplaceable heritage" had to be protected, arguing that "the price of economic growth need not and will not be deterioration in the quality of our lives and our surroundings."

Some provisions in the spending bill simply aim to cut spending, but many others would change environmental policies.

EPA funding would be cut by $1.5 billion, or 18 percent, from 2011, putting funding below where it was in 2006, during the Bush administration. The level would cut funds sharply for states and communities to install clean-water infrastructure.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund would be cut by 79 percent from last year. It provides matching grants to states and local governments for recreational areas and facilities. The money comes from oil and gas revenues.

Among the bill's proposed policy changes:

_ Money would be available to take animal and plant species off the endangered and threatened lists, but not to add any.

_ EPA water-pollution initiatives would stop. The agency couldn't regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste when it's placed in landfills, something it hasn't yet decided whether to do. The EPA and the Department of the Interior would be blocked from regulating water pollution from mountaintop coal mining.

_ The Interior Department would be prevented from carrying out its plan to ban new uranium mining near the Grand Canyon for 20 years.

_ A provision by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., would block the EPA from spending money to enforce water pollution rules in Florida.

_ A provision by Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, would stop the EPA from limiting mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from the Portland cement industry, a type of cement.

House Republicans put similar cuts in the 2011 spending bill, but Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama eliminated most of them.

The top item in the "House Republican Plan for America's Job Creators" is the REINS Act ("Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny"), sponsored by Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. It would allow either house of Congress to block major new regulation of any kind.

James L. Gattuso is a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who's studied regulatory policy for many years. He said that conservatives in Congress thought that the costs of regulation were holding back job growth and the economy.

Gattuso wrote a report last year arguing that regulations increasingly imposed "hidden taxes" that cost $1 trillion or more each year and damaged the economy.

On the other hand, Mark Latham, a professor at the Vermont Law School, said that while it was true that businesses spent billions of dollars to comply with environmental regulations, what was left out of the GOP argument was that environmental regulations created jobs and protected health.

Michael Livermore, the executive director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law, said that lifting environmental restrictions wouldn't help the economy as proponents claimed.

"It's just really not that big a deal that it would make sense for Congress to spend so much of its energy and so much of its time focusing on this if what they care about is the economy," he said. "If what they care is making things easier for special industrial actors who are politically connected, then it makes a lot of sense."

Another House bill would revise the Clean Water Act to prevent the EPA from setting water-pollution standards when it finds that state standards don't protect public health. It also would limit the EPA's review of permits that allow coal companies to dump rubble from mountaintop mining into streams.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who objected to EPA water regulations for algae in Florida rivers, and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who objected to water permit requirements that he said threatened coal mining jobs. The House passed the bill Wednesday night. The 239-184 vote was largely along party lines, with only 13 Republicans opposed.

The White House indicated Tuesday that Obama would veto the bill if it got to his desk. It said in a statement that the bill would roll back provisions of the Clean Water Act "that have been the underpinning of 40 years of progress in making the nation's waters fishable, swimmable and drinkable."

Another bill that's pending is the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, sponsored by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. He said the bill would "create jobs and grow local communities." It would end protections on 43 million acres in the West, lands where Congress hasn't made final decisions about formal wilderness protection.

Some of the leading Republican presidential candidates haven't discussed specifics on environmental regulation, but front-runner Mitt Romney told a town hall meeting in New Hampshire this month that regulation was one of the main problems holding the economy down.

Candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has proposed measures to eliminate the Bush administration's light bulb standards — which failed Tuesday in the House — expand access to offshore oil and natural gas, and ban the regulation of heat-trapping gases from fossil fuel use.

Bachmann said in a GOP debate in June that she'd start her efforts to roll back regulations with the EPA. "It really should be renamed the 'job-killing organization of America,' " she said.


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