American air and water are cleaner since the first serious environmental laws in the U.S. were passed in the 1970s. This is a great American success story that I hope is not undone by hidden and misunderstood legislation now being considered in Congress.

The House of Representatives will soon take up an appropriations bill that threatens to reverse decades of progress in cleaning our air and water, cutting programs necessary to curb climate change such as the Clean Power Plan and ignoring the pollution from burning wood for energy. What was once an American success story could easily become undone if significant changes aren’t made before the bill reaches the President’s desk.

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The first major flaw included in the Fiscal Year 2017 Departments of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies appropriations bill is a provision that would block implementation of the Waters of the United States or Clean Water rule, which is designed to protect drinking water for over 100 million people. At a time when cities around the country fear their water supplies becoming as contaminated as those in Flint, we need to improve clean water protections, not roll them back.

Second, the bill slams the brake on carbon pollution cuts by blocking the Clean Power Plan. This program has been crafted to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants, the largest source of climate-related pollution in the U.S. 

California’s devastating wildfires and ongoing drought, West Virginia’s tragic floods, and severe weather around the country show the urgency of action on climate change. And NASA data indicates that 2016 will be the hottest year on record – surpassing heat records set in 2014 and broken again in 2015. We need to do more to combat climate change, not undo some of the first steps of climate action. 

Lastly, and most incredibly, the House bill includes a little-known provision that would altogether ignore the carbon pollution emitted by burning biomass—trees and other wood products—to generate power.

Logging companies claim that biomass burned for power is “carbon neutral” – thus, not yielding a net pollution increase. They claim that growing new trees absorbs enough carbon pollution to offset the emissions created by burning mature trees. In effect, they assert that wood power is as clean as solar or wind electricity. This is simply not true. The reality is that burning biomass to generate electricity can produce more carbon pollution than it saves by replacing coal.

This biomass loophole would increase carbon pollution at a time when it is imperative that we reduce it. New trees require up to a century of growth to absorb enough carbon dioxide to offset pollution from mature tree combustion. Worse, there is no guarantee that replacement trees planted today to offset the pollution will survive that long. And even if the new trees eventually offset this pollution after a century, climate change is happening now. We can’t wait.

Taken together, the biomass loophole and halting the Clean Power Plan would undercut the pollution reductions necessary to fulfill the United States’ commitment as part of the Paris Climate Agreement. If we undermine our pledge, other nations might too. This would further amplify the threat to us from extreme weather, smog and tropical diseases linked to climate change.

We’ve seen this movie before: the House passes a spending bill loaded with dozens of harmful budget cuts and anti-environment riders. It faces a certain presidential veto. And at the brink of a government shutdown, the House relents by restoring funds and removing riders. 

The House can cut to the chase by promptly eliminating the anti-environment provisions in the Interior spending bill before debate begins this week, and before President Obama issues his veto threat. 


Henry A. Waxman spent 40 years serving in the House of Representatives. He served as chairman and ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and was a lead author of the landmark Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. He currently serves as Chairman of Waxman Strategies.