Quick Hit Ashlee Rezin Friday March 29th, 2013, 3:02pm

Amendments Attached To Senate Budget Resolution Upset Environmental Advocates

Environmental advocacy groups are speaking out against “anti-environment” amendments attached to the Senate’s budget resolution. Although the amendments are non-binding, a representative from Environment Illinois said it’s “unfortunate” to see some lawmakers use a budget proposal for “reckless attacks” on the environment.

“It’s not right to see senators taking the opportunity, during the proposal of a budget resolution, to attack the environment,” said Seth Berkman, federal field associate for Environment Illinois. “These amendments have nothing to do with passing a budget resolution. Unfortunately, our opponents use any opportunity they have to attack environmental protections.”

The Senate’s fiscal year 2014 budget resolution, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), was narrowly passed on March 23 by a 50-49 vote, making it the first budget the chamber has passed in four years.

Although several of the 12 amendments under criticism from Environment Illinois have received cosponsors, only Amendment 494 passed last week by a 62 to 37 vote.

Amendment 494, sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), would advance construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline through the establishment of a “deficit-neutral reserve fund.”

“The pipeline is a backwards idea,” said Berkman. “We should not be taking dirty tar sand fuel from Alberta (Canada), instead we should be moving forward and limiting carbon-pollution from power plants.”

The Keystone XL Pipeline would expand the existing TransCanada Keystone Pipeline network with a 1,179-mile, 36-inch-diameter, crude oil pipeline extending from Canada’s oil sands to Nebraska. The Gulf Coast Pipeline Project would expand the network to the U.S. Gulf. Overall the expansion would carry up to 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day. The plan is awaiting government approval.

Tar sands oil has been deemed by critics as one of the most polluting and carbon-intensive fuels in the world. Researchers have attributed climate change and weather patterns unique to 2012, such as the Midwest drought and the low water levels of Lake Michigan, to pipeline gas emission.

“Fortunately this vote is non-binding and would not require the President or his administration to approve the building of the Keystone XL Pipeline,” Berkman said. “But it’s unfortunate to see our senators take this opportunity to push their agenda during a budget proposal.”

According to Jennifer Hensley, program manager for the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, this was an opportunity for legislators to “rubberstamp a big oil project.” She said the debate over the Keystone project doesn’t belong in the federal budget.

“Passing this amendment was a bad idea, and just shows how eager people are to have big oil dictate policy for us here in the U.S.,” she said, adding that it would be “game over for climate” if the pipeline were constructed. 

“We need to start really look at climate and addressing those concerns, and this vote for the pipeline is just a step in the wrong direction,” Hensley said, adding that the amendment was “dangerous and unnecessary.”

Other amendments receiving reproach include Amendment 458, which would create a point of order against legislation enforcing high standards for carbon dioxide emissions. Sponsored by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the amendment has received eight cosponsors.

Amendment 458 would “weaken or block" the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to restrict carbon pollution, according to Environment Illinois.

The environmental advocacy organization also claims that Amendment 322, sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), "instructs the Obama administration to abandon proposed protections for headwater streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act." The legislation has received six cosponsors.

Hensley, of the Sierra Club, called the Clean Water Act one of the “greatest success stories in U.S. environmental history.”

“I think we’ve been fairly successful in beating back attempts to weaken the Clean Water Act before, and we’ll keep fighting and working to educate our elected representatives to tell them that this is not the direction that we should be heading,” she said.

But one expert said the Senate’s budget resolutions and its amendments are just statements of intent from the chamber and are not as weighted as appropriations bills that, once passed, will eventually have force of law.

“These amendments are basically legislators saying, ‘here’s how we think we should go about doing this’, but what really mattes is which programs get funded in the appropriations bills,” said Kurt Thurmaier, professor and director of the division of public administration for Northern Illinois University.

He said what’s happening right now is just resolution posturing from congressional chambers.

“The budget resolutions’ idea is that the framework, the outline of revenues and expenditures will be agreed upon by the members of Congress before they go about creating the appropriations legislation that actually funds the government,” he said.

Environment Illinois called on U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) to join U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) in opposition of the budget resolution’s “anti-environment” amendments. While Durbin voted against advancing construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, Amendment 494, Kirk supported it.

“Illinoisans send their leaders to D.C. to protect their interest. It couldn't be clearer that more asthma attacks, more polluted water, and threats to our treasured landscapes are not in Illinoisans' best interest,” Berkman said.

“These attacks have nothing to do with the budget and everything to do with checking as many items as possible off big polluters’ wish-lists.”


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