March 05, 2009

In This Issue

2009 BUDGET: WITH DEADLINE APPROACHING, SENATE PREPARES TO VOTE, SCIENTIFIC REVIEW LIKELY TO RETURN TO THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT, POLAR BEAR RIDER CAUSES CONTROVERSY

The Senate is preparing to vote on the fiscal year 2009 omnibus spending bill, following its February passage in the House. The $410 billion measure covers the nine appropriations bills that stalled in Congress last year and will provide funding for virtually all energy- and environment-related programs, which have been funded at 2008 levels under a continuing resolution set to expire on March 6. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) recently expressed concern that the bill would not have enough votes to pass, indicating that Congress would extend the continuing resolution until the end of FY 2009 if the bill is voted down.

Republican lawmakers have criticized the bill’s spending levels, which they hope to trim down in the Senate after having little success under the House’s stricter rules. Reid, who expressed a willingness to bring Republicans on board and to accept amendments to the extent possible under the tight deadline, filed for cloture on March 4 and expects a vote on Friday morning.

Spending levels aside, the bill was designed to be largely uncontroversial, ensuring its quick passage. Still, the massive package includes language that would give the Obama administration the authority to quickly reverse some of the Bush administration’s last-minute changes to the Endangered Species Act, thus providing a legislative workaround for the normally lengthy process of overturning finalized regulations. This kind of language, often termed a rider, allows appropriations bills to modify laws governing the programs they fund. Two riders in the present bill have raised objections from Republicans who argue that they reduce transparency and public scrutiny by removing the opportunity for debate.

Polar Bear Rider: GOP lawmakers are particularly concerned over the polar bear rider, which they say could open the door to using the Endangered Species Act as a means of regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, the Interior Department listed the polar bear as a threatened species due to its melting sea ice habitat, prompting outgoing Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne to issue a last-minute regulation preventing the use of the Endangered Species Act as a tool for regulating power plant emissions. The regulation also limits restrictions on harming or killing the bears and waives some requirements for habitat protection. Under the new spending bill, Interior could withdraw the polar bear rule within 60 days “without regard to any provision of statute or regulation.”

Scientific Review in the Endangered Species Act: The language in the bill would also allow the administration to remove the Bush administration’s controversial rule allowing agencies to bypass scientific review when determining how their projects will affect endangered species (see August 18 edition of  Policy News  at: www.esa.org/pao/policyNews) President Obama took the first steps toward undoing this rule on March 3, when he signed a memorandum requiring that federal agencies continue to consult government biologists while Interior and Commerce departments review the regulations. The memorandum, which the president said will “help restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act,” is not sufficient to overturn the rule completely, but will ensure that scientific review remains a requirement until Interior can proceed with a reversal.

2010 BUDGET: WHITE HOUSE BUDGET PROPOSAL TO INCREASE SCIENCE FUNDING, SUPPORT ENVIRONMENTAL PROJECTS

President Obama’s $3.5 trillion budget blueprint provides a significant boost over fiscal year 2008 spending levels for many agencies dealing with environmental initiatives. This funding increase comes on top of funds already provided through the recently passed stimulus law. Of particular note:

National Science Foundation: $7 billion (a $950 million increase). The Obama administration has pledged to double funding for basic research over ten years, and to provide funding for:

  • A new climate education program aimed at developing future scientists and engineers in the field
  • Increased support of promising, high-risk research proposals
  • Increased support for NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship and Faculty Early Career Development programs

Environmental Protection Agency: $10.5 billion (a $3.0 billion increase), including $19 million to establish an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposal also assumes that $78.7 billion in cap-and-trade revenue will be available in 2012 to fund green energy projects and help offset rising energy costs for businesses and the public, placing additional pressure on Congress to pass cap-and-trade legislation.

Department of Agriculture: $26 billion (a decrease of $100 million) of which $250 million will go toward loans and grants for the development of alternative fuels such as biofuels and wind power in rural areas.

Department of Commerce: $13.8 billion (a 75 percent increase, largely due to the $4 billion required to conduct the 2010 Census), including $1.3 billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop and acquire weather satellites and climate sensors.

Department of Interior: $12 billion (a $300 million increase), with $50 million for environmental evaluations and technical studies required for renewable energy projects, alternative resource assessments, and the mitigation of the environmental impacts of development.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration: $18.7 billion (a $1.5 billion increase), which is not yet specifically allocated. It is likely, however, that NASA will focus heavily on developing space-based research sensors to support the Obama administration’s plans for a global climate change research and monitoring system.

Housing and Urban Development: $47.5 billion (a $400 million increase), a yet unspecified amount of which will go towards creating an Energy Innovation Fund in partnership with the Energy Department. The fund would spur private-sector investment in housing energy efficiency projects.

Department of Labor: $13.3 billion (a $1.5 billion increase), some of which will go towards enhancing existing programs to prepare workers for “green” jobs.

Department of Transportation: $72.5 billion (a $1.9 billion increase), which includes $1 billion a year in state grants through a new 5-year high-speed rail program designed to make rail travel a practical and environmentally sustainable transportation option. The investment would go towards creating high-speed rail corridors linking population centers throughout the country.

The budget proposal projects a fiscal 2009 budget deficit of $1.75 trillion, a level unseen since the 1940s. Still, White House officials maintain that they will follow through on Obama’s pledge to slash the budget deficit in half by the end of the first term.

2010 BUDGET: OBAMA PROPOSAL ADDRESSES WATER, SUPERFUND, NUCLEAR ISSUES

President Obama’s budget proposal has received a great deal of support from Democratic lawmakers. Many have pointed specifically to its focus on water infrastructure and hazardous waste cleanup, areas that they allege were severely neglected during the Bush administration.

Water infrastructure: $3.9 billion for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds ($2.4 billion higher from the House mark)—this funding comes on top of the $6 billion received from the stimulus package and includes $475 million for a new, interagency Great Lakes restoration initiative led by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hazardous waste cleanup: The proposal calls for the reinstatement of Superfund excise taxes that expired in 1995—these polluter fees could generate more than $1 billion per year for cleanup efforts at Superfund sites. Although increases in clean water funding received broad support, the reinstatement of polluter fees is likely to be the source of considerable debate, even though they would be deferred until 2011 to allow the nation time to recover from the economic downturn. Opponents argue that the taxes would cost American jobs without contributing significantly to cleanup activities, and that 70 percent of Superfund sites have already been cleaned up and paid for by the responsible parties. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) noted, however, that while a great deal of progress was made during the 1990s, cleanup efforts stalled when the taxes were cancelled. He is currently considering introducing the legislation necessary to reinstate them.

Also at issue is the fate of the geologic repository site at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. The president’s proposal cuts funding to the minimum needed to answer questions about the site’s license application. Some Yucca Mountain opponents have applauded this move, while others have expressed concern that the project was not stopped completely.

Although Obama vowed during his campaign to end the project, doing so immediately could create a liability issue: Over 100 commercial nuclear reactors have signed contracts and paid more than $20 billion to have waste hauled away from their power plant sites. The Energy Department has already paid millions for failing to take away the waste by 1998 and could face more than $11 billion in additional fines if the waste is not removed by 2020.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the policy organization for the nuclear industry, has threatened additional litigation if the license is pulled. Like the Obama plan, however, NEI also called for the creation of a panel of governors, regulators, and industry and environmental representatives, which would to develop a backup plan while the license is under examination.

CLIMATE: BOTH CHAMBERS, WHITE HOUSE PREPARE FOR CLIMATE ACTION

The House and the Senate are preparing to debate energy and climate change issues, but with different approaches. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is planning an energy debate during the next six-week work period, followed by a more extensive climate debate before the end of summer. In the House, however, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is likely to take up both issues in a single bill. A number of committees will help steer the House legislation, which Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) plans to have marked up before Memorial Day. Congress will likely pursue a cap-and-trade system as opposed to a carbon tax, but many economists have advocated the latter option and Reid has remained open to either approach.

President Obama’s 2010 budget proposal also assumes new revenue from a cap-and-trade program, raising questions about whether Democrats will push to include the resulting revenue in the annual budget resolution. Estimates from the Senate’s energy debate last year suggest the permits from a cap-and-trade program could raise around $50 billion in the initial years of its operation and up to $300 billion a year by 2020.

Moving a climate bill via the budget process could allow proponents to avoid a filibuster, should Congress opt to pass a budget reconciliation bill rather than the more traditional nonbinding budget resolution. Since budget reconciliation bills cannot be filibustered in the Senate, cap-and-trade legislation would not need to cross the 60-vote threshold for passage. Still, bypassing Senate legislative procedure is politically risky and likely to fan the flames on what is already shaping up to be a contentious debate. Climate legislation supporters hope that strong leadership from the White House will be sufficient to see the budget resolution through without the need for a budget reconciliation bill.

Both chambers have a majority vote within sight but are bracing for heated debates along regional and party over the impacts on local economies and international trade, as well as how to distribute the projected billions of dollars in emission allowances.

Many fiscally conservative lawmakers support funneling the money back to taxpayers to compensate for high energy bills. Others have argued that the funding should be directed toward mitigation and adaptation projects, such as the deployment of low-carbon energy technologies or the assistance of communities and habitats especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Still others have advocated using the new cash for unrelated initiatives, such as Obama’s health care reforms. The president’s proposal directs some revenue toward clean or sustainable energy projects, but returns the majority to lower income households to help offset increasing energy costs.

Time is of the essence as the Obama Administration prepares for UN-led negotiations on a climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which will culminate this December in Copenhagen, Denmark. The president has made it clear that the domestic debate must be wrapped up by the December conference, and that this deadline is driving his agenda, even in the midst of the economic downturn. “My hope,” he said “is that we can show leadership so that by the time the international conference takes place in Copenhagen that the United States has shown itself committed and ready to do its part.” Still, policymakers agree that while the Copenhagen conference is setting the pace for the congressional climate debate, producing sound climate policy will take precedence over the December deadline.

RENEWABLE FUELS STANDARD: QUESTIONS OF BIOFUELS MARKET, IMPACTS DOMINATE DEBATE

After being briefly suspended by the White House, the rule to expand the national renewable fuels standard (RFS) is back under review, and a proposal could be out within the next month. The 2007 energy law included an expanded RFS mandate, which calls for annually increasing levels of renewable fuels in the US motor mix, topping off at 36 billion gallons by 2022, including a mandatory 21 billion from next-generation biofuels with lifecycle emissions 50 to 60 percent lower than conventional fuels. Cellulosic ethanol is one such fuel—its target will increase from 1 million gallons next year to 16 billion gallons by 2022.

The term “lifecycle emissions” remains ambiguous, however. At question is whether the figure should include additional emissions associated with producing and refining the fuels. In particular, industry and environmental representatives are concerned with the impacts of the “indirect” land-use changes that result from increased biofuels production (clearing forests, for example). Biofuels companies have argued that the science is not mature enough to quantify the impacts of indirect land-use, while environmental groups have lobbied aggressively to incorporate these impacts into biofuels’ final emissions profiles.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) remains open to changing the methods by which emissions are measured, and will consult EPA’s Science Advisory Board and seek external peer review on the lifecycle analysis.

Meanwhile, the ethanol industry is suffering from weakened demand and the financial crisis. With some plants already closing their doors, the industry is urging EPA to expand the market for ethanol by allowing higher concentrations in gasoline. Under the current 10 percent limit, the industry is heading toward what they call a “blend wall”—the point at which ethanol production exceeds the gasoline market’s capacity for it. But if the ethanol industry continues its decline, it might soon face the opposite problem: not being able to meet the demands of the new RFS mandate.

To help keep the industry afloat, the Obama administration allotted an extra $250 million in loans and grants at the US Department of Agriculture for renewable fuels, including biofuels and wind power. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said his department would put some of this investment towards ethanol infrastructure, making plants available for the production of cellulosic ethanol and other next-generation biofuels. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson says that the agency could have a decision on ethanol blend within months.

Also under evaluation is the definition of “renewable biomass” laid out in the 2007 energy bill, which prohibits the use of materials from national forests and other federally protected areas. Lawmakers from states with significant national forest land want to ensure that markets can develop for woodchips, slash, and other wood waste produced during routine forest management practices.  In the House, a bipartisan group of representatives recently introduced legislation that would significantly broaden the definition of cellulosic ethanol to include biomass gathered from federal lands. The bill seeks to avoid the elimination of valid energy sources and projects that might be stifled under overly stringent requirements.

MERCURY: GLOBAL BAN ON MERCURY EMISSIONS PLANNED

On February 20, more than 140 countries agreed to negotiate a global ban on mercury emissions, following the Obama administration’s announcement that it would push for immediate action on an international treaty to reduce mercury in the environment.

The United States would like negotiations to begin this year and conclude within three years. The treaty, which will be legally binding starting in 2013, is expected to include actions to cut global mercury pollution and human exposure by reducing intentional use of mercury in industrial processes and products, and by reducing emissions from coal plants.

Mercury can travel thousands of miles through air and rivers, making international cooperation imperative. The recent US efforts to begin negotiations were preceded by legislation—signed into law last year—to curtail national mercury exports, particularly to developing countries, where limited pollution controls and waste management infrastructure can lead to the element’s release. The bill, which Obama introduced while in the Senate, instituted an immediate ban on government sales, and a 2013 deadline to stop all private sector exports.

AQUATIC RESOURCES: WATER RESEARCH AND CORAL REEF CONSERVATION BILLS INTRODUCED IN THE HOUSE; WASHINGTON TO FOCUS ON GREAT LAKES RESTORATION

The National Water Research and Development Initiative Act (HR 1145): In the House, Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) introduced a bill to coordinate and improve federal water research programs. The legislation would codify and authorize funds for an existing interagency Water Availability and Quality Subcommittee, attempting to address growing concerns over water shortages throughout the nation, as well as a recent National Academies report indicating that poor coordination was resulting in the inefficient use of research dollars.

 “If we are to meet the water crises of the future, we need an effective research and development effort that provides tools and information to manage our water resources effectively,” Gordon said. “Coordination of the twenty federal agencies responsible for water programs is a logical place to start.”

Gordon announced began drafting the bill last year (see the July 28 edition of the Policy News at: www.esa.org/pao/policyNews)

The Coral Reef Conservation Act (HR 860): Introduced by Representative Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), the bill would expand federal coral reef conservation efforts and give the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration more authority to respond when corals are threatened. In 2007, a previous version of the Act passed in the House but stalled in the Senate. Although HR 860 has received praise from Democrats, many Republicans say that it does not address the concerns that prevented its passage in the Senate. For example, the bill would give additional authority to the Commerce and Interior Departments to act preemptively on potential sources of reef damage. Some lawmakers are concerned these measures could delay dredging or construction projects.

Ocean warming and acidification are among the principle threats to coral reefs, but would not be addressed by the Act, which focuses on direct threats such as ship strikes and the improper use of corals.

Great Lakes Restoration Efforts: Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, has named Great Lakes restoration a top agency priority, stating that it will play a large role in shaping water policy nationwide. She placed particular emphasis on toxic cleanups, long pushed for by Great Lakes lawmakers. President Obama has also made his commitment to the Great Lakes clear—during his campaign, he pledged $5 billion in restoration initiatives, including cleanups and water treatment plant upgrades. Meanwhile, Nancy Sutley, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality, has praised the concept of a Great Lakes Trust Fund with sustainable funding for restoration efforts.

In Congress, many lawmakers from Great Lakes states have formed a bipartisan coalition with several goals:

  • Increase funding for the Great Lakes Legacy Act, which has already contributed to the cleanup of almost 1 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment.
  • Authorize funds for the Great Lakes regional collaboration strategy, which includes initiatives to keep invasive species out of the ballast water of oceangoing vessels
  • Restore full funding to an EPA fund that provides local governments with loans for rehabilitating sewage treatment infrastructure.
  • Urge agencies that received some of the stimulus package’s $6 billion clean water infrastructure allotment to direct some of the funding toward the lakes.

TRANSITION: OBAMA DEMONSTRATES CONTINUED SUPPORT FOR ENVIRONMENT, SCIENCE THROUGH NEW NOMINATIONS

EPA Deputy Administrator: A member of Obama’s transition team, Jon Cannon is an EPA veteran who has served under both Republicans and Democrats and earned praise from both parties. He currently heads the environmental and land-use law program at the University of Virginia, although he recently took a leave of absence to work on a National Academy of Sciences climate project.

While serving as general counsel for the agency during the Clinton administration, Cannon authored a memo on greenhouse gas (GHG) regulation that played an integral role in prompting the 2007 Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA, a ruling that tasked EPA with determining whether GHG emissions endangered human health and, in the event of an endangerment finding, regulating these emissions under the Clean Air Act. Cannon’s memo acknowledged EPA’s legal authority to regulate emissions in this way, but went on to say that such an approach would not be conducive to a market-based cap-and-trade program.

Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks: Tom Strickland, a former US attorney, has been serving as chief of staff for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar under the new administration, and will maintain this post if he is confirmed. The assistant secretary position carries a great deal of influence, but has also contributed to demands for an ethics overhaul at the Interior Department. Last year, Julie MacDonald, who occupied the position from 2002 to 2007, was found to have exerted undue political influence in at least 13 endangered species decisions.

Secretary of Commerce: Former Washington Governor Gary Locke represents President Obama’s third attempt at filling the post, which focuses significantly on climate and oceans issues. As governor, Locke took a number of actions to link economic development and environmental policy, issuing executive orders to establish efficiency standards for state operations and to require the state to make environmentally conscious purchasing decisions. Locke was also one of the original authors of the West Coast Governors Global Warming Initiative, which laid the foundation for the Western Climate Initiative.

Deputy Secretary for the Department of Agriculture (USDA): Sustainable agriculture expert Kathleen Merrigan is Obama’s choice for the number two post at USDA. Merrigan is a former USDA official and longtime advocate of local and organic foods—if confirmed, she will be positioned to promote “green” foods through her central role in leading USDA policy and working with lawmakers on the Hill.

ECOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICAN ANNOUNCES 2009 GRADUATE STUDENT POLICY AWARD WINNERS

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) today announced the recipients of its 2009 Graduate Student Policy Award.   The Award affords ESA graduate students the opportunity to participate in two days of science policy activities, including meetings with congressional offices. This year’s winners are: Ari Novy (Rutgers University), Jennifer Moslemi (Cornell University), Colin Quinn (Colorado State University), and Tanya Skurski (Montana State University).

All four students have demonstrated commitment to interfacing science and public policy, and the ESA Award will allow them to build on their experiences.   Novy, Moslemi, Quinn, and Skurski will travel to Washington, DC in April to participate in a congressional visits event sponsored by the Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC), a coalition co-chaired by ESA. The four will meet with congressional staff and Members, be briefed by policy leaders on federal funding issues, and meet other scientists from across the country.  The BESC event, co-sponsored with the Coalition on Funding Agricultural Research Missions, will focus on the need for strong federal support of biological and agricultural research and education.

Ari Novy, a plant biologist, has participated in an endangered species review for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and has made ecological restoration recommendations to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Jennifer Moslemi’s research focuses on understanding threats to freshwater ecosystems, which face unprecedented demands.  She previously worked as a fisheries biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as part of a team to support the recovery of salmon populations.  Colin Quinn’s research explores the role plants can play in the cleanup of sites polluted with heavy metals, such as abandoned mines in Colorado.  Quinn has participated in a local community elections committee and in environmental campaigns.  Tanya Skurski’s research looks at the ecology, economics, and public policy implications of non-native plants in Greater Yellowstone.  Skurski previously worked for the U.S. Forest Service, the Fish & Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service where she witnessed first-hand how research is translated into policy. 

The ESA Graduate Student Policy Award is one of several ways the Society works to offer its graduate student members opportunities to become involved in public policy at the start of their careers.  Graduate students also may run—through ESA’s Student Section—to serve on several ESA standing committees, including the Public Affairs Committee, which works closely with ESA’s Washington, DC-based Public Affairs Office and focuses on activities to effectively convey ecological science to policymakers and the media.


Sources: Environment and Energy Daily, Greenwire, Politico, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, American Mathematical Society, State Science & Technology Institute Weekly Digest, RotorNews

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