Congress Mulls Energy Bill, Including Water Quality Provisions

The US House Nov. 6 affirmed a plan to expand oil and gas drilling exemptions to federal stormwater discharge permits.

Dec 1st, 2003

By Maureen Lorenzetti

The US House Nov. 6 affirmed a plan to expand oil and gas drilling exemptions to federal stormwater discharge permits.

Backed by environmentalists, Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA) urged lawmakers to delete the provision, now part of a larger energy bill. But the House rejected his request in a non-binding 210-188 vote.

The House energy bill, HR 6, expands the existing oil and gas industry stormwater runoff exemption under the Clean Water Act. Producers are already exempted from filing permits when they are actually drilling; but under HR 6 producers would also be able to avoid permits when they are getting the site ready for drilling.

Environmentalists said oil and gas construction activities often trigger erosion of polluted soil that in turn creates runoff that can seriously threaten drinking water supplies.

"The requirements were put in place to manage stormwater pollution that threatens lakes, rivers, and streams. Oil and gas construction activities are the source of toxic runoff that can be contaminated with benzene, toluene, and heavy metals," said a coalition of 11 green groups called SaveTheCleanWaterAct.org.

But industry officials and their supporters in Congress said the proposed language simply reduces unnecessary paperwork and in fact reflects the intent of Congress; they further insisted the expanded exemption would not degrade water quality.

"The Clean Water Act requires a permit for contaminated runoff. This provision does not change that requirement," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX). "This provision does not allow contaminated stormwater runoff. In keeping with the existing law, which was enacted as a part of the Water Quality Control Act of 1987, this provision preserves the congressional intent to preclude the necessity of a permit for stormwater runoff that is not contaminated. Congress never intended for EPA to require a permit for the runoff of uncontaminated water or rain over dirt."

Filner meanwhile argued, ultimately unsuccessfully, that the oil industry is asking for special treatment that other developers do not receive.

"Why does every other industrial sector of the country have to comply with this section of the Clean Water Act, but not oil and gas?" Filner asked during debate on the measure.

Along with stormwater runoff there are other provisions in the sweeping omnibus bill that impact water managers. Pending before lawmakers are provisions addressing hydraulic fracturing and liability exposure of the fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, blamed for water contamination in several states and localities.

House and Senate leaders are still working out differences between their two versions; the Republican majority in both chambers predicted that a bill will be ready for President George W. Bush to sign before the end of this year.

With regard to hydraulic fracturing, Senate and House lawmakers tentatively agreed to a House version of the energy bill that amends the Safe Water Drinking Act definition of underground injection (which is deemed harmful to drinking water) to exclude injections pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil or gas production.

But resolution on another important water issue, related to underground storage tank fuel contamination, remained elusive. House leaders continue to press for limited liability for MTBE manufacturers; they say that the legal protection is needed to avoid what they deem to be frivolous product liability lawsuits. Environmentalists, meanwhile, say the House provision is unjustified and could prevent water districts from moving forward with well-justified legal action.

MTBE is a highly soluble clean fuel additive blamed for contaminating water supplies nationwide, although US regulators say the problem is slowly resolving itself as leaking underground fuel storage tanks are repaired.

A sizeable minority of the Senate is resisting the House's request and there is the threat that the energy bill could be talked to death through a filibuster on the issue.

"We are writing to request that you oppose including a liability waiver for MTBE producers in any energy bill that comes out of conference," 42 senators wrote in a letter to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-LA) Oct. 10.

Senate leaders need 60 votes to stop the threat of a filibuster through a "cloture" motion.

National Workshop Held on DOI's Water 2025 Plan.
The Department of the Interior held a national workshop Nov. 4 to develop science and technology recommendations for its "Water 2025" initiative designed to help Western communities develop practical solutions to chronic water shortages.

"The workshop will bring together scientists from across the country to share science-based tools, techniques, and strategies that can help to conserve the West's precious water supplies and develop alternative sources to meet the region's future needs," Interior Secretary Gale Norton said in a press statement before the conference. "Interior's US Geological Survey and Bureau of Reclamation are convening the workshop to address the critical water management decisions facing communities across the West in the next 25 years."

Interior leaders slated to participate in the workshop included Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Bennett Raley; Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Mark Limbaugh; USGS Director Chip Groat; and USGS Associate Director for Water Resources Bob Hirsch. Representatives of the National Weather Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and other federal agencies also took part.

Panel discussions focused on desalination science and technology; invasive vegetation and water management; predicting surface water availability; data networks and monitoring science; and climate variability and its impact on water resources and habitats. Norton launched the Water 2025 initiative earlier this year to focus public attention on the water supply crises facing many western communities because of explosive population growth, the emerging need for water for environmental and recreational uses, and the national importance of the domestic production of food and fiber from western farms and ranches.

Water 2025 establishes a framework to cooperatively address these challenges and help to avert major conflicts among competing users of water. Interior held nine conferences around the West this summer to discuss the proposal; the agency said many participants expressed a desire for a science forum to consider technical issues.

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