March 11, 2010

In This Issue

REQUESTS FOR PUBLIC COMMENT: OPPORTUNITIES TO INFORM AGENCY GUIDELINES WITH ECOLOGICAL EXPERTISE

Several federal agencies are requesting public comment on proposals that may be of interest to the ecological community. To comment, visit www.regulations.gov and enter the docket number under “Enter Keyword or ID”

Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ):

  • Water resources project planning Comments due April 5, 2010 Docket Number: CEQ-2010-0004 Possible area for input: Though the guidelines recognize the value of natural systems and require federal agencies to value ecosystem services, they continue to place economic development as the driver for all water planning. For more information see: www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ceq/initiatives/PandG
  • Considering climate change under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) evaluations Comments due May 24, 2010 Docket Number: CEQ-2010-0002 ceq.hss.doe.gov/nepa/regs/Consideration_of_Effects_of_GHG_Draft_NEPA_Guidance_FINAL_02182010.pdf Possible area for input: CEQ has expressed particular interest in comments on the possibility of evaluating land management techniques based on their contribution to carbon release and/or sequestration. Currently the guidance does not include any language that would require land-use considerations in climate-related analyses – no federal protocols for such evaluations currently exist. For more information on this proposal, see the February 26 edition of the ESA Policy News at: www.esa.org/pao/policyNews/pn2010/02262010.php

Fish and Wildlife Service:

  • Designating nine nonnative snake species (the Burmese python, reticulated python, southern African python, yellow anaconda, DeSchauensee’s anaconda, green anaconda, and Beni anaconda) as “injurious wildlife” under the Lacey Act. This designation would make it illegal to import the snakes or transport them between states. According to a US Geological Survey assessment, all nine species pose a high or medium risk to ecosystem health in the United States. Comments due May 11, 2010
    Docket Number: FWS-R9-FHC-2008-0015

    For talking points on nonnative species, please see the February 5, 2009 edition of the ESA Policy News at: www.esa.org/pao/policyNews/pn2009/02052009.php

SENATE CLIMATE BILL: KERRY-LIEBERMAN-GRAHAM TO TAKE SECTOR-BY-SECTOR APPROACH; OBAMA ENTERS DEBATE AMIDST PUSH TO RELEASE DRAFT THIS MONTH

Advocates of climate legislation are pushing to have a draft Senate bill finished before the spring recess begins on March 26. The bill’s authors, Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), are now in the drafting stages but continue to meet with senators and interest groups in an effort to arrive at a politically viable carbon-pricing scheme.

As things stand, the draft will take a sector-by-sector approach to reducing emissions – a marked departure from the economy-wide cap-and-trade strategy employed in the House-passed bill (HR 2454) and its Senate counterpart, passed by the Environment and Public Works Committee. Under the strategy, electric utilities will be the first to have their emissions capped, something industry representatives say they are open to, so long as they see a legislative guarantee that others, like the manufacturing industry, will begin to share the burden in the future. Uncertainty, they say, could be more costly than cap-and-trade – the current lack of economic parity makes companies hesitant to invest in expensive alternative energy projects, even though such investments are likely vital to long-term success. Utilities are also requesting support in meeting new emission targets – requests include funding for carbon capture and sequestration projects and free emissions permits (40 percent in current negotiations) during the early stages of the program. Graham heralded the shift in strategies with his much-discussed assertion that “cap-and-trade is dead.” Still, he and his co-authors will likely use a cap-and-trade or cap-and-dividend mechanism to regulate utilities and later manufacturers.

Graham’s remark, analysts say, was largely political, aimed at moving the discussion away from what opponents have referred to as “cap-and-tax” – a rhetorical change that Kerry and other climate proponents have been attempting to make for months, albeit unsuccessfully.

Graham sees a larger shift in the debate, however, particularly as climate skepticism apparently grows. “[T]he momentum around this large cap-and-trade bill to save the planet has been replaced by a business model,” he said. “How do we create jobs and stay ahead of the Chinese and clean up the air? Once you start changing your perspective from ‘Iowa is going to be beachfront property’ to ‘How do you create jobs and clean up the air?’ you have a completely different focus.” The remarks also serve as a reminder of the vastly different constituent expectations that the senators face. Like many lawmakers engaged in bipartisan efforts, Graham’s work on the climate bill has earned criticism from his party back home. For a bill to pass, it will have to give 60 senators both the assurance that their state interests will be protected and the flexibility to frame the strategy in a politically palatable way.

The new focus Graham speaks of may be critical to winning bipartisan support for a comprehensive bill, but the emphasis on competitiveness and technology spending could also hinder international negotiations, depending on how it impacts the strategy’s mechanics. And many opponents of cap-and-trade remain unmoved – “Cap and trade or a first cousin of cap and trade won’t pass this year, in my judgment,” said Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), an advocate of an energy-only bill.

So far, efforts to find a middle ground have won at least tentative support from 41 senators, while 29 remain generally opposed to the bill. Efforts now will focus on the additional compromises necessarily to win over undecided lawmakers – 19 Democrats and 11 Republicans.

Reaching a compromise will be far from simple, since the demands of some senators are deal-breakers for others. For example, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) says she won’t consider a bill unless it includes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – something she says is necessary for energy security, but that has been off the table in negotiations because it would cost the support of several liberal Democrats. Murkowski, generally regarded as a centrist, supported last year’s energy bill in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which would require utilities to begin using more renewable power sources. More recently, though, she has resisted efforts to move forward with a climate bill at the pace supporters think is necessary, and she is leading an effort to strip the US Environmental Protection Agency of its power to regulate emissions.

On March 9, President Obama made his first formal attempt to advance climate legislation in the Senate, something that supporters have been urging him to do for some time. In a meeting with administration officials and key players in the Senate, the President again called for a consensus on a comprehensive bill this year, underscoring the importance of pricing carbon – not just focusing on energy measures, as many moderates have proposed – and pledged to make drilling and nuclear power concessions in return.

Meanwhile, Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham continued negotiations, meeting with major trade associations including the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, and the American Farm Bureau.

ENDANGERMENT FINDING: COAL-STATE DEMOCRATS INTRODUCE BILL TO DELAY EPA REGULATIONS

On March 4, Senate Commerce Chair Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and House Natural Resources Committee Chair Nick Rahall (D-WV) introduced companion bills in their respective chambers aimed at delaying greenhouse gas emission regulations from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The bills call for a two-year delay, meant to give Congress the necessary time to pass climate legislation. Rahall was joined by Representative Alan Mollohan (D-WV), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee in introducing the bill; Representative Rick Boucher (D-VA) is an original co-sponsor.

Meanwhile, two Democratic and eighteen Republican governors sent a letter to Congress, supporting action to block the regulations, but stressing that the kind of delay proposed by Rockefeller would be insufficient in guarding against the economic devastation about which they are “gravely concerned.”

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has recently attempted to assuage concerns from Congress by promising a final “tailoring” rule to protect smaller sources, and initially raising the threshold from 25,000 to 75,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. For more information on the tailoring rule, see the February 26 edition of the ESA Policy News at: www.esa.org/pao/policyNews/pn2010/02262010.php. When asked whether she would support the proposed two-year delay, Jackson reiterated that she agrees a legislative approach is best, but that “the law says that EPA has to move forward on these issues.”

Notably absent from the coalition is West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd (D), who said he has been sufficiently encouraged by Jackson’s efforts. “I am continuing to have significant discussions about how to ensure the future of coal as a long-term energy resource,” he said. “I am reluctant to give up on talks that might produce benefits for West Virginia’s coal interests by seeming to turn away from ongoing negotiations.” In an op-ed last fall, Byrd said that it would behoove his state to cooperate with rather than resist federal regulatory agencies, thereby increasing industry stability and attracting investors. The senator has lately taken a progressive stance on energy, continuing to champion coal interests but pointing to increased sustainability (both from “clean coal” and renewable energy projects) as central in West Virginia’s economic future.

Meanwhile, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is attempting to block regulatory action with a resolution to overturn the EPA endangerment finding (for more information on the finding, see the April 23 edition of the ESA Policy News at: www.esa.org/pao/policyNews/pn2009/04232009.php). Murkowski currently has 41 Senate co-sponsors, including three Democrats, and may push for a vote later this month. Although the resolution could clear the Senate with as few as 10 more votes, President Obama will likely veto it, should it arrive at his desk. As in West Virginia, the Alaskan senators are split on the issue, with Democratic Senator Mark Begich opting not to sign on to Murkowski’s or Rockefeller’s proposals. Last month, Begich joined a half-dozen other Democrats in signing Rockerfeller’s letter to EPA, expressing concern about the regulations. But, like Byrd, Begich says he is satisfied with Jackson’s plan, which he thinks will give Congress sufficient time to act.

ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT: SAGE GROUSE NOW CANDIDATE FOR FORMAL LISTING

On March 6, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the greater sage grouse will join 249 other species on the Endangered Species Act candidate list, a holding area for species that merit federal protection but are prioritized below more urgent cases. Sage grouse habitat coincides with many of the prime areas for energy and agricultural development in the West. Protections for the species have been a source of conflict between regional stakeholders for more than a decade, and environmentalists first petitioned for its listing in 2003.

Though candidate listing offers no legal protection, it gives the federal government discretion over additional conservation actions, which could impact projects on up to 100 million acres of federal land. It also moves the grouse closer to formal listing, which would make it illegal to harm the bird or destroy critical habitat without a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

The “warranted but precluded” finding has seen lukewarm reception from both sides of the debate – environmentalists want the species listed immediately, while industry groups say they’re already doing their part to protect the birds. The environmental group whose legal actions originally forced the government to consider sage grouse protection has already filed a lawsuit, challenging the “precluded” portion of the finding. The Western Watersheds Project called the finding a “non-scientific, politicized and arbitrary determination” – an argument that it also used in 2006, when it successfully challenged the Bush administration’s decision not to protect the grouse. Meanwhile, those opposed to the candidacy hope to see FWS issue a “not warranted” decision during future yearly assessments, which would remove the grouse from the candidate list.

When evaluating a candidate species, FWS considers its scarcity along with the magnitude and immediacy of any threats to rank it on a scale of 1 to 12. The sage grouse received a ranking of 8, placing it about two-thirds of the way down the list in terms of priority.

MOUNTAINTOP MINING: FACED WITH WIDESPREAD OPPOSITION, EPA DELAYS RELEASE OF MINING PROPOSAL

Since being leaked to Alabama regulators last month, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal for reducing the environmental impacts of mountaintop mining has circulated widely among state regulators in coal-producing states. The proposal has been largely ill-received, both by the regulators and other government agencies like the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, prompting EPA to delay the release of new guidelines – originally scheduled for early March – for a minimum of several weeks.

The proposal calls for tighter water pollution standards and permit requirements, and would expand downstream monitoring for mining operations. Of particular issue is new language in the leaked version that would require additional monitoring in cases where water conductivity – a key indicator of many harmful pollutants – measures above 400 micro-siemens per centimeter. Many regulators consider this threshold unworkably low, particularly because EPA is also expected to release a report establishing 300 micro-siemens per centimeter as the maximum advisable conductivity to protect water quality and aquatic life. To achieve compliance under such regulations, companies would have to reduce mine size or curtail operations. According to Randy Huffman, Secretary of West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection, “You can’t do anything with that. You can’t clean off a parking lot with that. There is just concern there.”

For more information on mountaintop mining, see the November 6, 2009 edition of the ESA Policy News at: www.esa.org/pao/policyNews/pn2009/11062009.php

CURRENT POLICY: ALGAE RESEARCH, BIRD CONSERVATION OK’D IN FLOOR VOTES

Legislation to reauthorize and expand research on toxic algae blooms has passed in the House, after it failed to reach the two-thirds majority necessary to move forward under expedited rules earlier in the week. HR 3650 – the work of Representatives Brian Baird (D-WA) and Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) – is a top priority for ocean advocates and had been generally well received throughout the committee process. Supporters touted it as a jobs bill, saying it could help the seafood and tourism industries by preventing fishery and beach closures that cost coastal communities more than $80 million each year. The Senate version (S 952) is awaiting a floor vote after clearing the Commerce Committee.

Across the Hill, the Senate voted in favor of HR 3433, a bill to expand the North American Wetlands Conservation Act to increase Canadian participation. The measure awards federal grants for buying or conserving wetland habitat – critical to waterfowl and other migratory birds – in the US, Mexico, and Canada. It has received broad support from conservation groups, both parties, and the Obama Administration, and it easily cleared the House last fall.

ESA ANNOUNCES 2010 GRADUATE STUDENT POLICY AWARD WINNERS

On March 2, the Ecological Society of America announced the winners of its 2010 Graduate Student Policy Award: Alexis Erwin (Cornell University), Colin Phifer (University of Hawaii), and Patrick Shirey (University of Notre Dame).

Erwin, whose PhD research is supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, is involved in a number of science outreach efforts and has been active in a project to synthesize socio-ecological data for use in monitoring the health of one of New York’s Finger Lakes. Phifer is working towards his Masters’s in conservation biology, and is likewise committed to sharing what he calls “the stories of science” with the public through his work as a museum guide and communications coordinator. Shirey, who also holds a law degree, is a PhD candidate working on freshwater ecology and natural resources policy, and is a fellow with the NSF Global Linkages of Biology, the Environment, and Society program.

The ESA award is designed to showcase the vision and achievements of students committed to interfacing science and public policy, and to provide these students with the opportunity to build their experience on Capitol Hill. Recipients visit Washington, DC for two days of science policy activities, including networking, training sessions, and meetings with congressional offices.

Erwin, Phifer, and Shirey will be in town this April to participate in the congressional visits day event co-organized by ESA. For more information on the students and the award, see: www.esa.org/pao/newsroom/press2010/03022010.php


Sources: Environment and Energy Daily, Greenwire, ClimateWire, Politico, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Charleston Gazette

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