E&E: Sen. Daines wants conferees to take up disputed drought bill

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is pressing House and Senate conferees to consider controversial drought legislation for inclusion in any compromise energy bill.

In a lengthy letter to top conferees, Daines yesterday urged the adoption of a bill, S. 2902, that seeks to overhaul the Army Corps of Engineers’ forecasting methods to improve planning for water storage in times of drought.

“This legislation would improve the efficiency of existing water supply infrastructure, ease the regulatory burden on new projects and protect water rights that are critical to the prosperity of the western United States,” Daines wrote, noting that it would authorize the Dry-Redwater Rural Water System and Musselshell-Judith Rural Water System in his state, which would provide water to 22,500 Montana and North Dakota residents.

The Obama administration and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) have raised concerns over a provision in the bill that would streamline National Environmental Policy Act reviews for logging, as well as language that would prevent the Interior and Agriculture departments from acquiring private water rights in exchange for land-use permits.

Cantwell called the provisions “veto bait” during the July markup, during which it passed the panel by a 12-10 margin (E&ENews PM, July 13).

Daines told E&E Daily last night that he wanted to make sure that conferees understood his views on the bill. “We’ve done a lot of work on this, and I think we’re the closest to healthy forests management reform probably in 10 years,” he said.

Cantwell has also signaled a willingness to tackle drought and wildfire issues in the energy conference, telling reporters last week that she favors allowing controlled burns and forest-thinning (E&E Daily, Sept. 16).

Daines also called for the adoption of provisions to address “chronic litigation” surrounding forest management in the West.

“Simply put, the litigation we are seeing over and over again is obstructing the very type of science-based, community-driven projects that the Forest Service seeks to encourage and implement,” he wrote. “Unless Congress passes critically-needed reforms, this kind of litigation will only further demoralize collaborative participants and continue to limit the value of the collaborative process.”

Daines outlined his own recommendations that he said are in spirit with the pledge by conferees to negotiate a bill that President Obama will sign.

He called for closing “loopholes” that environmentalists use in litigation, including by codifying the Obama administration’s “position that federal agencies are not required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service at a programmatic level when new critical habitat is designated or a new species is listed.”

Additionally, Daines wants to see “strong deference language” that pays heed to the Interior secretary’s views, featured in a draft wildfire bill put forth by Cantwell and Energy Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). However, he calls for it to be strengthened to “further limit the ability of judges to override the science-based findings of federal agencies in their development of projects.”

Daines called for the adoption of House-passed language that limits injunction motions for new critical response and other emergency designation powers, as well as requirements for objectors to meet with the Forest Service to resolve issues before filing litigation.

He also called for caps on attorney fees under NEPA and the Clean Water Act and the creation of a “binding arbitration pilot process” to serve as the sole method for judicial review of certain collaboratively developed projects.”