Legislative Announcements

Lawmakers Continue Negotiations on COVID-19 Package

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

House leaders rejected the idea of passing a clean extension of unemployment benefits as the authorization for such payments expired, preferring instead to continue negotiations with the White House and Senate Republicans on a grand bargain for COVID-19 aid. There is now no deadline driving action and the parties are still far apart on the scope and urgency of the bill. President Trump is reportedly exploring three executive orders to delay the collection of payroll taxes, use unspent funds to resume the expired unemployment benefits, and reinstitute an expired eviction moratorium. However, the parties have said they are aiming to reach a deal by week’s end that would remove the need for unilateral action.

Sens. Feinstein, Daines Introduce Forest Management Bill

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

On August 4, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) introduced the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020, a bill to reform forest management by streamlining bureaucratic procedures and reducing litigation that can often prevent active forest management needed to reduce the threat of wildfires on federal lands. Specifically, the bill directs the Forest Service to complete three landscape-level collaborative projects proposed by western state governors and would accelerate post-fire restoration and reforestation through new statutory authority that streamlines federal environmental reviews. The three projects would receive additional protection from litigation by requiring plaintiffs in a lawsuit targeting these projects to show they are likely to succeed on the merits in order for courts to enjoin the projects.

Among the numerous benefits to electric providers, the bill would establish a 3,000-acre categorical exclusion for reducing forest fuels alongside Forest Service roads, trails, and transmission lines. The bill would also establish a new program to improve energy resilience and energy efficiency by authorizing federal funding to assist communities to mitigate power disruptions from large-scale power shutoffs used to reduce wildfire risk during severe weather conditions.

Sens. Feinstein and Daines first announced their intention to develop bill language last year and have spent nearly a year negotiating the details in order to agree to a bill that could receive additional bipartisan support and potentially advance through a divided Congress. In the House, Reps. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) and Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.) plan to introduce companion legislation. NWPPA has urged Congress and federal land management agencies to address the threat of wildfire on public lands in various outreach efforts, and has endorsed several similar provisions contained in the Feinstein-Daines bill, including conducting wildfire risk reduction activities near existing transmission line rights of way, expanding the use of categorical exclusions, and using technology solutions to improve forest management.

House Passes Spending Minibus

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

The House passed a six-bill package of FY21 funding bills on July 31 by a vote of 217-197. No Republicans voted for the measure, and 12 Democrats voted against it. Included in the package were: Energy-Water; Defense; Commerce-Justice-Science; Labor-Health-Human Services-Education; Transportation-Housing; and Financial Services-General Government bills. Combined with the four-bill package passed on July 24, the House has approved 10 of 12 spending bills for FY21, leaving only the Homeland Security and Legislative Branch bills unconsidered. Republicans uniformly expressed their frustration with the addition of emergency funds aimed at economic recovery that appeared in many of the bills. Roughly $250 billion in supplemental funds in total were included, busting the budget caps agreed to in last year’s Bipartisan Budget Act. These extra funds, as well as a number of policy riders, made the package unpalatable to Republicans. With work winding down in Congress ahead of a lengthy recess, the Senate has yet to schedule any markups for their FY21 funding bills. A continuing resolution extending FY20 levels through the fall will become necessary as the end of the fiscal year (September 30) looms in the not-very-distant future.

Administration Proposes New Definition of “Habitat” under the ESA

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

On July 31, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a proposed rule to define the term “habitat” for use in Endangered Species Act critical habitat designations. The new proposed definition identifies habitat as “the physical places that individuals of a species depend upon to carry out one or more life processes,” and that habitat “includes areas with existing attributes that have the capacity to support individuals of the species.” In making the announcement, FWS and NOAA stated that the new definition “is intended to add more consistency to how the Service designates critical habitat under the ESA.” However, the announcement was met with strong resistance from the environmental community, members of which expressed concerns about the new definition being restrictive in terms of protecting critical habitat for a species that is currently unoccupied by the species. Environmental groups also queried whether the effects of climate change will be taken into account by the new habitat definition. The habitat definition change follows broader action in 2019 to make numerous revisions to the implementation of the ESA. The proposed rule was published in the Federal Register on August 5 and will be open for public comment for 30 days following publication.

Water Infrastructure Bill Passes in House

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

On July 29, the House of Representatives passed HR. 7575, the Water Resources Development Act of 2020. The bill enjoyed broad bipartisan support and was approved on the House floor by voice vote. The WRDA bill authorizes the construction of 34 pending Corps Chief’s Reports received since 2018 and authorizes 30 water resources feasibility studies across the country. WRDA bills are typically passed by Congress every two years and sometimes contain language affecting hydropower broadly, including Reclamation facilities. There remains a possibility that a Reclamation title could be added to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee version of WRDA legislation, which was approved by the committee in May but has not yet been brought up for consideration by the full Senate.

Menezes Confirmed to DOE Deputy Role

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

The Senate confirmed Mark Menezes for the Deputy Secretary role at the Department of Energy on August 4. Menezes has served for several years in the Department as under secretary of Energy, in which he was responsible for overseeing the DOE’s energy programs and driving energy technology innovation. Prior to joining the administration, he worked in the private sector and also previously served as chief counsel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The nomination was approved on a bipartisan vote of 79-16.

Senate Energy Panel Examines Cybersecurity in the Electric Sector

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on August 5 to examine efforts to improve cybersecurity for the energy sector. The hearing focused on improving critical infrastructure protection initiatives and improving collaboration and communication among the federal government and electric infrastructure owners and operators. Federal witnesses included Alex Gates, senior advisor for the Department of Energy’s Office of Policy for Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response; and Joseph McClelland, director of the Office of Energy Infrastructure Security at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Gates highlighted several DOE initiatives, including the Bulk Power Executive Order to protect the bulk power system and emphasized the Department’s efforts to reach out to stakeholders to better inform agency decisions. McClelland focused his testimony on FERC’s role in approving and enforcing reliability standards for the nation’s bulk power system. He stated that the Commission is working to mitigate cyberthreats to grid reliability through “employing mandatory reliability standards to establish foundational practices while also working collaboratively with industry, the states, and other federal agencies to identify and promote best practices.” Statements and questions from committee members focused on the challenge of restricting the disclosure of sensitive information and how to be establish incentives and standards that are able to address rapidly evolving cyberthreats.

EPW Holds Hearing on American Nuclear Infrastructure Act

Update provided by Meguire Whitney

On August 5, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a legislative hearing on draft legislation known as the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act. The bill would streamline permitting for advanced reactors, including the creation of a prize to incentivize next generation technologies and fuels. It would also create a uranium reserve and limit the amount of uranium that can be imported from Russia, as well as create a credit program to preserve plants at risk of premature closure, among other things. Members of both parties spoke favorably about nuclear power and the need to support it, although Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.) expressed some concern that the draft bill would walk back some important safety regulations.

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