Sage grouse, biomass riders trip up omnibus spending bill

Negotiations on year-end funding come to "full stop," aide says

Two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers strand next to a sign promoting conservation of the greater sage grouse. Spending bills for years have prevented the Interior Department from applying protections for the prairie bird. (Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers strand next to a sign promoting conservation of the greater sage grouse. Spending bills for years have prevented the Interior Department from applying protections for the prairie bird. (Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Posted December 4, 2020 at 7:55am

Protections for the greater sage grouse and language addressing the carbon neutrality of forest biomass have thrown a wrench into negotiations on a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending package that is also expected to carry pandemic aid.

Negotiators still have numerous open items to resolve, according to two sources familiar with the negotiations who weren't authorized to speak publicly. But these people said Democrats' push to remove two provisions that have been in spending law for years could stall the talks.

The matter has been kicked upstairs for congressional leaders to resolve. Until appropriators hear back from leadership, the omnibus talks have come to a “full stop,” according to a GOP aide familiar with the situation.

A House Democratic aide countered that "negotiators have been making good progress" on the package overall and pushed back on the notion that the two Interior-Environment policy riders would hamstring the talks.

“But as with all congressional talks there are differences between the two sides over a number of policy issues,” the aide said. “To narrow those differences, Democrats presented a new offer to Republicans this afternoon that narrowed the gap between the two sides, and we are hopeful that Republicans will swiftly provide a constructive response.”

The Interior-Environment spending bill for years has included a provision that would prevent the Interior Department from applying the Endangered Species Act to the greater sage grouse, a prairie bird native to the western U.S. and Canada. The fiscal 2021 draft Senate version, unveiled last month by Republicans in that chamber, is no different.

A group of House Democrats in an October letter urged Democratic leaders and appropriators to strip the “sage grouse rider” from the final Interior-Environment bill.

“The greater sage-grouse is a keystone species in the Sagebrush Sea ecosystem, which stretches across eleven western states and supports more than 350 other species of conservation concern,” the Democrats wrote, using a term for an animal whose presence in an ecosystem is so vital that its demise could spell the collapse of that ecosystem. “Today, sage-grouse range is half of what it once was, and populations have declined precipitously in recent years.”

The Trump administration has consistently sought to weaken habitat protections for the sage grouse, a flightless bird with an unusual mating dance. To attract mates, the males strut around while fanning their tails and puffing in and out yellow air sacs on their chests.

In March 2019, the Bureau of Land Management unveiled a rule to weaken Obama-era protections for the bird. A federal judge halted the implementation of that rule in October of that year.

As urbanization spread in the West, sage grouse have declined in population due to disease and habitat loss from oil and gas drilling and other land development.

A study published in 2017 in the Journal of Wildlife Management places the start of "dramatic declines" in the sagebrush habitat in the 1950s, primarily because of human activity. The decline in the sage grouse population is due to a "variety of disturbances including the more recent threat of oil and gas development," a summary of the study reads.

Fossil fuel companies have often bristled at the birds because their habitats and drill sites frequently overlap, at times resulting in vacated leases and stopped drilling.

In May, a federal judge in Montana, Brian Morris, an Obama appointee, struck down 440 oil and gas leases sold in Western states, holding that the Trump administration had not properly protected sage grouse habitats.

How sharply the species has declined in population varies by state, but the drop has been steep.

In the 1800s, 13 states and three Canadian provinces had sage grouse, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Now, the bird is thought to have vanished from Nebraska, Arizona and British Columbia. The drops in population also varies by state. At their historic peaks, sage grouse boasted an estimated 1.6 million to 16 million animals in North America. By 2000, those numbers across the continent fell to between 100,000 and 500,000 across their broad range, according to USFWS.

Congressional Republicans have for years chafed at new protections for the birds because they can delay oil and gas production.

Biomass dispute

Recent Interior-Environment spending laws have also included language directing the Energy and Agriculture departments and EPA to “establish clear policies that reflect the carbon neutrality of forest biomass.”

Biomass broadly refers to the burning of organic matter, like food scraps and residue, scrap wood, trees, mill debris and anything that came from some sort of foliage, to generate electricity.

Electric utilities and the lumber and paper products industry often pitch biomass as an environmentally-friendly power source due its wide availability. The industries use it to power their own facilities, which they say reduces carbon emissions by avoiding the use of dirtier power sources like coal.

Environmental groups argue biomass is of questionable benefit, however, since the process emits climate-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and often means the elimination of trees that absorb heat-trapping carbon emissions.

The Democratic aide said that the sage grouse and forest biomass provisions weren’t the only issues the two sides trying to resolve.

The aide said Republicans have proposed negating House report language on a number of topics, including support for $1 million for a National Academies study on reducing racial and ethnic inequalities in the justice system.

Other sections of report language that Republicans oppose would require the U.S. Capitol Police to provide a report on the types of training its academy uses to eliminate unconscious bias and racial profiling, and bolster a call center for female veterans who need help accessing health care.

Negotiators don’t have much time to negotiate a compromise on some type of spending package before stopgap funding (PL 116-159) expires on Dec. 11.

Several appropriators have floated the idea of using a short-term spending bill to give negotiators more time to reach agreement on the dozen fiscal 2021 appropriations measures as well as emergency COVID-19 relief.

Hoyer's been pushing for the parties to reach agreement on the package by Saturday at midnight so that Congress can meet the Dec. 11 deadline without a temporary extension. But he acknowledged Thursday that timeline might be ambitious.

“I said to [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.] yesterday, there's no magic about the 14th through the 18th. What we can agree on between the 14th and the 18th, we can agree on between the 7th and the 11th,” he said. "I don't know whether we'll make it. But I'm pushing very hard."

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.