Spending bill would block protection efforts for at-risk bird

Congressional appropriators agreed Tuesday on a government funding bill that would prevent the federal government from designating two sage grouse species as endangered.

The policy rider on the annual appropriations bill is meant to protect oil and gas drillers, developers and others who fear that a potential listing under the Endangered Species Act would put new hurdles or restrictions on their activity in the 11 western states where the chicken-sized greater sage-grouse and its smaller cousin, the gunnison sage-grouse, live.

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The funding bill would also force the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw a so-called interpretive rule on the ponds and streams over which it has jurisdiction.

The bill, unveiled Tuesday night, came in just under $1.1 trillion overall to fund most of the government until Oct. 1.

Among other priorities, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said the bill “reins in bureaucratic overreach.”

“It reflects conservative priorities, yet it is also a compromise bill that can and should have wide bipartisan support in both the House and Senate,” he said. The measure must still pass both chambers of Congress and be signed by President Obama.

The sage-grouse has become a symbol of the frustration businesses and Republicans have with the Endangered Species Act and the Fish and Wildlife Service. To them, the law can bring about onerous rules that infringe on property owners’ rights while stalling commerce.

Environmentalists immediately blasted the sage-grouse rider, though they said there are other ways to save the bird from extinction and preserve the sagebrush habitat.

“It is outrageous that Congress would include such a grossly irresponsible rider on this omnibus,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, chief executive officer of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement.

“This is yet another example of the recent political attacks on our nation’s wildlife and natural heritage, with Congress once again meddling in what should be science-driven decision making and ultimately placing an imperiled species at grave risk,” he said.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) said the development adds to the urgency of conservation measures to save the bird.

“This rider makes it all the more essential that we dig in and get good conservation in place, fast. Time is one thing the greater sage grouse does not have,” Eric Holst, senior director of working lands at EDF, said in a statement.

The funding bill would also force the EPA to withdraw a so-called interpretive rule on the ponds and streams over which it has jurisdiction.

The “waters of the United States” interpretive rule was meant to clarify to farmers which agricultural practices are always allowed under the Clean Water Act. But Republicans and agriculture groups complained that it added confusion and could be read to greatly expand the EPA’s authority.

It leaves in place the underlying “waters of the United States” proposal to redefine the EPA’s jurisdiction over water bodies like ponds and streams, which has also received great backlash from Republicans who say that it would massively expand federal reach. The EPA plans to make it final in the spring.

Greens and Democrats had feared that the bill lawmakers negotiated would block the water protection rule or other Obama administration priorities like the EPA’s proposals to limit carbon pollution from power plants.

Democrats were proud to have defended the water rule and other top Obama administration environmental priorities in the bill.

A Democratic source said Republicans “fought aggressively” against the water rule but failed.

The source characterized the omnibus fight as a broad success story in which Democrats defended Obama’s environmental agenda from “aggressive” Republican pressure.

The EPA’s budget would be cut by the legislation by $60 million to a total of $8.1 billion, lawmakers said.

Additionally, negotiators decided to prohibit the EPA from regulating the lead content in ammunition and fishing tackle.

The bill retains various riders attached to the last annual spending bill in January.

It prevents the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corp. from restricting their funding for power plants that don’t reduce carbon emissions, such as coal-fired power plants.

It blocks the Army Corps of Engineers from moving forward on any rules that would redefine fill material under the Clean Water Act, which Republicans charge would hurt coal mining operations.

It continues to prohibit the Energy Department from enforcing minimum efficiency standards on light bulbs, which would phase out nearly all of the cheaper incandescent bulbs.

It also continues to fund the process to plan and build the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site in Nevada, despite opposition to it from Democrats and the Obama administration.

—This story was updated Wednesday at 9:55 a.m.