October 22, 2006

In This Issue

USDA AND DOE ANNOUNCE $17.5M FOR BIOFUELS RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Mike Johanns and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Samuel Bodman announced nearly $17.5 million for 17 biomass research, development and demonstration projects to help break U.S. dependence on oil. The grants are intended to develop technologies necessary to help make bio-based fuels cost-competitive with fossil fuels in the commercial market. The projects selected will carry out research, development and demonstrations on biobased products, bioenergy, biofuels, and biopower.

GROUPS GIVE POOR GRADES TO AGRICULTURAL CONSERVATION PROGRAMS

Congress and the Bush Administration have largely failed to implement key agriculture conservation programs and should take advantage of the upcoming 2007 Farm Bill reauthorization to boost incentives for environmental improvements, said a coalition of advocacy groups, including the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group. Nearly 40 different farm and conservation groups comprise the coalitions, including state farmers unions and conservation districts.

The groups are urging Congress to move forward with a new bill, rather than extend the current law. Several large farm and commodity groups have asked Congress to approve a two-year extension of the law.
The scorecard doled out an “F” to Congress and a “D” to the administration for their handling of the Conservation Security Program (CSP). The CSP is the “green payments” program created in the 2002 Farm Bill that pays farmers to make environmental improvements on their land.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and others who fought for its inclusion in the 2002 bill envisioned it as a new environmental entitlement, but Congress has limited its funding and the administration’s rules limit its implementation to several watersheds per year.

The report calls for Congress to restore CSP to full funding in the next farm bill. It also suggests focusing the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to idle land, on high impact buffer zones and wildlife habitat.

ROYAL SOCIETY CRITICIZES EXXONMOBIL’S CLIMATE CHANGE POLICY

The world’s oldest scientific society has challenged the world’s richest corporation over what it sees as an attempt to confuse people about global warming. In a sharply worded letter, the 346-year-old Royal Society criticized the oil giant ExxonMobil for giving money to “organizations that have been misinforming the public about the science of climate change” and for promoting the “inaccurate and misleading” view that scientists do not agree about the influence of human activity on rising temperatures.

ExxonMobil issued a rebuttal, and some climate-change skeptics claimed that the Royal Society is trying to stifle debate. Several groups or individuals who contest the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) view of climate turned fire on the Royal Society. Economist Ruth Lea, director of the Centre for Policy Studies in London, says that the Royal Society was “ill advised” to “wade into the murky world of politics and popular opinion.”

Ward replied that his letter is merely an attempt to ensure a high-quality debate. He added that it springs from the Royal Society’s motto–nullius in verba–which is taken to mean that facts, not assertions, are what matter.

EPA DROPS POLICY ON COAL PLANT CONSTRUCTION

The Bush Administration averted a court fight over whether new coal-fired power plants must be equipped with technologies to mitigate global warming. In a settlement agreement filed in federal appeals court, environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreed to end a lawsuit that questioned whether the agency had set a de facto climate change policy through the permitting of new power plants. The settlement says EPA will take off the books any reference to a nearly year-old letter to an industry consultant that proclaimed power plant builders do not need to consider the most advanced pollution control technology available.

A larger debate still looms on Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology, and whether such technology should be considered in permitting new plants. IGCC technology allows coal plants to produce a fraction of the soot, smog and mercury emissions of a traditional electric utility, and it has been embraced by environmental organizations and some states for the role it promises to play in sequestering greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. These groups said the agreement will negate one method power plant developers have been using to fend off requests to consider IGCC technology during permitting for new facilities, as well as clarify federal policy for state environmental agencies charged with approving new plant permits. Electric utility officials, on the other hand, found little significance in the settlement. John Kinsman, director of air quality programs at the Edison Electric Institute, maintained that IGCC technology is so unique that it does not belong on the checklist of anti-pollution systems that must be weighed when a state approves a new plant’s Clean Air Act permit.

As part of the settlement, the Bush Administration agreed in to hold open discussions with advocates of emissions controls, industry, and other groups on the IGCC technology issue, with an end goal of drafting new policy recommendations. Talks are expected to begin late 2006 or early 2007 through the EPA-sponsored Clean Air Act Advisory Committee.

EPA BUDGET CUTS ELIMINATE ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE PROGRAMS

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Northwest environmental justice program could see budget cuts that could reduce low-income and minority communities’ protection from pesticides, cleanup sites, mining activities and former military sites. The Region 10 EPA office has proposed eliminating the environmental justice director’s position and reassigning members of the program to new divisions, according to EPA officials. Critics said reassigning employees would weaken a program designed to protect Native Americans from mining and military pollution; minority and migrant workers from pesticides in the fields; and low-income residents from polluting businesses and cleanup sites in south Seattle.

NATIONAL EFFORT NEEDED TO MAXIMIZE POTENTIAL OF WOMEN IN SCIENCE

Women face barriers to hiring and promotion in research universities in many fields of science and engineering- a situation that deprives the United States of an important source of talent as the country faces increasingly stiff global competition in higher education, science and technology, and the marketplace, says a new report from the National Academies of Science. Eliminating gender bias in universities requires immediate, overarching reform and decisive action by university administrators, professional societies, government agencies, and Congress.

The report calls upon trustees, university presidents, and provosts to provide clear leadership in changing the culture and structure of their institutions to recruit, retain, and promote more women- including minority women- into faculty and leadership positions. The report also urges higher education organizations to consider forming a collaborative, self-monitoring body that would recommend standards for faculty recruitment, retention, and promotion; collect data; and track compliance across institutions. University leaders, the report adds, should develop and implement hiring, tenure, and promotion policies that take into account the flexibility that faculty members may need as they pass through various life stages- and that do not sacrifice quality to meet rigid timelines.

If academic institutions are not transformed to tackle such barriers, the future vitality of the U.S. research base and economy is in jeopardy, the report says. The following are some of the committee’s key findings that underscore its call to action:

  • Studies have not found any significant biological differences between men and women in performing science and mathematics that can account for the lower representation of women in academic faculty and leadership positions in S&T fields.
  • Compared with men, women faculty members are generally paid less and promoted more slowly, receive fewer honors, and hold fewer leadership positions. These discrepancies do not appear to be based on productivity, the significance of their work, or any other performance measures, the report says.
  • Measures of success underlying performance-evaluation systems are often arbitrary and frequently applied in ways that place women at a disadvantage. “Assertiveness,” for example, may be viewed as a socially unacceptable trait for women but suitable for men.

The full report is available at http://national-academies.org.

ALLOWING WETLANDS DEVELOPMENT ON US GULF COAST A RISK AFTER KATRINA

A plan to ease restrictions on developing the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s federally protected wetlands is under fire from critics who say the proposal would leave a region hit hard by Hurricane Katrina even more vulnerable to flooding from another storm.

The plan, unveiled this month by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, would allow developers to fill in up to 5 acres (2 hectares) of “low quality” wetlands in south Mississippi without an individual permit from the Corps for each project. The proposal, which does not affect wetlands in neighboring Louisiana and Alabama, also would eliminate a requirement that the public must be notified of such development plans.

David Hobbie, Chief of the Corps’ regulatory division in Mobile, Alabama, said increasing the permitting limit — from a half-acre to 5 acres — would streamline the regulatory process in a region where tens of thousands of homes must be rebuilt after Katrina.

ICELAND RESUMES WHALING

Iceland announced it would resume commercial whaling after a hiatus of 20 years. Conservation groups are particularly angered by plans to hunt endangered fin whales despite the assessment of scientists in the World Conservation Union (IUCN) that fin whale stocks are fragile. Iceland maintains numbers are high enough to permit hunting.

A global moratorium on commercial hunting has been in place for 20 years, with only Norway breaking it, having legally lodged a “reservation” to the moratorium when it came into force. Since 2002 Iceland has been catching Minke whales in the name of scientific research, as it is allowed to under International Whaling Commission rules.


Sources: GreenWire, Environment and Energy Daily, Washington Post, The American Institute of Physics, Science Magazine, International Herald Tribune

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