April 29, 2005

In This Issue

SENATE CONFIRMS JOHNSON AS HEAD OF EPA

The Senate confirmed Stephen Johnson on April 29 as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 11th Administrator and the first career staff member to lead the agency. Johnson, the Acting Administrator, won the right to the post when the Senate voted to invoke cloture 61-37 and override a “hold” by Senator Tom Carper (D-DE).

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee endorsed Johnson on a 17-1 vote earlier this month, but Carper blocked his progress as a protest of EPA’s failure to analyze three competing legislative proposals aimed at revising the Clean Air Act.

As the lead Senate Democrat in the various efforts to rewrite the Clean Air Act, Carper had asked EPA to conduct an analysis comparing his air pollution bill with the president’s “Clear Skies” legislation and a more stringent proposal from Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT).

EPA officials met with Carper in recent days to try and satisfy his information request but the meetings came to naught when Carper demanded a more thorough analysis. An EPA spokeswoman said the agency made a good-faith effort to provide Carper with everything it could.

Democratic aides say the administration refused to conduct such an analysis because it would show the downside of one of the administration’s high-priority legislative items. Republicans counter that the EPA rarely conducts the kind of research Carper requested, especially so early in the legislative process.

HOUSE PASSES ENERGY BILL

The House of Representatives approved broad energy legislation that seeks to improve the reliability of the electrical grid, increase domestic energy production and save power by extending daylight saving time. Opponents say it is deeply flawed for its emphasis on traditional fossil fuels.

Republican authors of the measure, which was adopted on a 249-to-183 vote, first had to beat back a flurry of amendments, including a last-minute effort to eliminate liability protection for producers of MTBE, a gasoline additive blamed in groundwater pollution nationwide.

The narrow 219-to-213 vote to retain that provision virtually guarantees a clash with the Senate, where opposition to legal immunity for MTBE blocked the energy bill in 2003, sidelining a chief domestic initiative of the Bush Administration.

Many Democrats and some Republicans said the measure, which provides $8 billion in tax breaks to energy producers and billions of dollars more in direct federal aid, was too friendly to industry and gave short shrift to energy efficiency and renewable fuels.

HOUSE PONDERS BUSH PLAN TO REVIEW JUSTIFICATION OF ALL AGENCIES

The House is considering a proposal that contains a provision to give the President the power to abolish any federal agency. The Bush Administration has been pushing the idea since 2001, when it outlined the legislation as the “Federal Sunset Act.” After failed attempts, the White House included the measure this year as part of its budget proposal.

The legislation would mandate the periodic review of federal agencies and abolition of those that are unable to justify their existence. Under the plan, every federal agency would have an expiration date at which it would be abolished unless Congress reauthorizes it. The evaluation process would be undertaken every 12 years by a 12-member Sunset Commission, composed of members of Congress and the public. Under the plan, approval from five commissioners could spell the end of any program or agency.

Republicans said they may give Congress — rather than the president — the power to appoint Sunset Commission members, in an attempt to win more congressional support.

NEPA TASK FORCE HOLDS FIRST HEARING

The House Resource Committee’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Task Force held a field hearing last week in Spokane, WA. The event was the first public hearing of the congressional effort to examine local effects of the 35-year-old law. About a dozen people spoke before the committee, most of them in favor of the law.

NEPA directs agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to conduct environmental studies of projects or permit applications under consideration to assess the potential effects of those proposals, and allows for public input and comment in government decisions. Supporters say it is an important way to limit development on public land and grant protection to endangered species.

A provision in the House energy bill would limit NEPA reviews of renewable energy projects to two alternatives — the project as it is proposed and the “no action” alternative — instead of studying the effects of a wide range of alternatives. The House task force’s six-month review, scheduled to conclude this fall, is aimed at determining the need for these and other changes to NEPA in a stated attempt to streamline the law and avoid litigation and delays.

UPDATE ON ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT REFORM ATTEMPTS

The Chairman of the House Resources Committee, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA), will chair a field hearing Saturday in Jackson, MS, the heart of what lawmakers intent on rewriting the law see as fertile territory for building support for their efforts. Pombo and other Republicans are trying to craft legislation to revise the 30-year-old law.

While the pressure on Capitol Hill for revamping the law comes from Republicans from the West — where the Endangered Species Act (E.S.A.) is the focus of a struggle over use of and access to public lands — the South is home to a large number of listed species. Many of those protected plants and animals are found on private property, and southern lawmakers are beginning to hear more and more from their constituents about conflicts, said the spokesman for the Resources panel, Brian Kennedy. The hearing was requested by Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (R).

Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that found the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has generally followed its priority guidelines in spending money on endangered species’ recovery — but did so mostly by happenstance. FWS’s funding decisions were based to a “significant extent” without its priority guidelines serving as the driving factor, the report says. While most of the agency’s money is spent on high-priority species, FWS places over 90 percent of its species in its top two priority rankings, GAO says. None of the plants and animals in the highest priority category were among the 20 species receiving the most federal dollars.

Resources Committee spokesman Brian Kennedy said the report shows the priority system is almost meaningless and pointed to the report as another argument that E.S.A. is not working and in need of change.

EARTH SCIENCE IN THE BALANCE

A White House push for space exploration threatens federal research efforts on climate science, the leader of a federal science panel told lawmakers April 28.

Berrien Moore, the co-chairman of a National Academy of Sciences panel and a University of New Hampshire professor, told the House Science Committee that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) shift toward space exploration is putting current earth research programs “at risk of collapse.” At greatest risk, he said, are presidential initiatives such as the Climate Change Research Initiative and the subsequent Climate Change Science Program, the umbrella group that directs the administration’s efforts to study global warming.

“Recent changes in federal support for Earth observation programs are alarming,” Moore’s panel concluded. “Opportunities to discover new knowledge about Earth are diminished as mission after mission is cancelled, descoped or delayed because of budget cutbacks.”

Overall, President Bush requested $2.06 billion for earth science programs in his fiscal year 2006 budget, down from $2.2 billion requested last year.

Timothy Killeen, director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, tried to put the NASA funding in perspective for committee members. “In sheer budgetary terms, NASA is the single largest environmental science program supported by the federal government,” he told lawmakers.

NASA’s Associate Administrator Alphonso Diaz contended that the agency is in a transitional phase, shifting some of its earth research responsibilities to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has similar equipment to conduct research.

Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) said it is clear that NOAA is “not ready” for the transition and urged Diaz to work more closely with that agency.

REP. GILCHREST TO INTRODUCE MAGNUSON REAUTHORIZATION

Fisheries Subcommittee Chairman Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) is working on his own reauthorization bill of the country’s largest fisheries law, with the hopes of introducing a bill later this year. Gilchrest said he would like to work on a reauthorization of Magnuson in a way that ensures retention of environmental protections while making sure assessments are done in a timely way.

“Nobody, especially myself and Mr. [Ranking Member Frank] Pallone (D-NJ), wants to see environmental protection rolled back, especially as we move toward ecosystem management. We don’t want to reduce science, public input, alternative or environmental protection,” Gilchrest said. “But we don’t want to make it so cumbersome that reviews are outdated by the time they are done.”

Gilchrest noted the concern that fishery management actions may take too long if all the plans and regulations that Magnuson requires are subject not only to its own review process but also to the full NEPA review. He said one concern is that the reviews take so long, they are outdated by the time they are completed.

Gilchrest joins Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) in the effort to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Stevens has vowed to usher a bill through his own committee this year. Gilchrest said he would work as closely with Stevens as he could and try to parallel his efforts but would definitely have his own bill.

The Magnuson bill dates to 1976 and has formed the basis of U.S. fishery management in waters between three and 200 miles offshore, an area known as the Exclusive Economic Zone. The bill’s funding authorizations expired five years ago, and congressional efforts to reauthorize it have been stymied by debates over how to balance the need to restore depleted fish stocks while ensuring the economic livelihood of the nation’s seafood industry.


Sources: Environment & Energy Daily; Greenwire; New York Times; Science; Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Washington Post

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