In This Issue
The federal appropriations process for Fiscal Year 2006 is still underway. The Ecological Society of America encourages ecological scientists to contact their Member of Congress and Senators-especially if they serve on an appropriations committee-and urge support for agencies that fund scientific research. Instructions for sending letters, as well as template letters for several agencies of interest can be found at www.esa.org/pao.
Before adjourning for a month-long August recess, the Senate drafted appropriations for all federal research and development (R&D) funding agencies except the Department of Defense, while the House approved all of its appropriations. The House and Senate will resolve their budget differences in conference committees this fall.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) budget, after declining in 2005, would barely increase by 1.1 percent to $5.5 billion in Fiscal Year (FY) 2006 in the latest Senate plan, falling short of the $5.6 billion in the House and Administration proposals, and bringing NSF R&D to below the 2003 funding level in inflation-adjusted dollars. Most NSF research directorates would receive increases between 1 and 3 percent in 2006. Most of NSF’s education and training programs, however, would suffer steep cuts for the second year in a row under the House, Senate, and Administration plans.
The House and the Senate disagree strongly on R&D funding in the FY 2006 budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The House would slash NOAA R&D by 23 percent, while the Senate would boost it by 6.5 percent to $693 million.
The House approved $526 million for the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Biological and Environmental Research programs in FY 2006, $60 million above the Administration’s request and $22 million above the Senate mark. Both the House and Senate declined to earmark funds for the DOE’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL). While DOE agreed to restore $4.3 million to SREL in FY 2006, its funding nevertheless would fall short of the FY 2005 level of $7.7 million.
The House and Senate came to an unusually early conference agreement on the final FY 2006 budget for the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Congress restored the Administration’s proposed budget cuts to EPA’s R&D budget, which will instead increase slightly by 1.2 percent to $579 million in FY 2006. Within Interior, Congress reversed the Administration’s proposed cuts to the U.S. Geological Survey and instead agreed on a 4.3 percent increase to $976 million.
President Bush signed into law a long-sought energy bill that his administration has been pursuing since entering the White House in 2001. At his side during the signing ceremony were many of the lawmakers who played a pivotal role over the last five years in shepherding the bill through Congress, including Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM), House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) and the Senate’s top Democrat on energy policy, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM).
The bill will provide tax breaks and loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants, clean coal technology and wind energy. It will require utilities, for the first time, to comply with federal reliability standards for the electricity grid, instead of relying on self-regulation, an effort to avoid power blackouts, like the one that struck the Midwest and Northeast in the summer of 2003. It will also provide $1 billion in coastal impact assistance for six offshore oil and gas producing states; more than two-thirds of the funding will go to Texas and Louisiana.
Despite its bipartisan backing, the measure drew objections from some quarters that it granted too many subsidies to industry and that it did little to curb a growing national appetite for gasoline.
The new energy law ends several years of deadlock among lawmakers. Earlier attempts to pass an energy bill died for various reasons, most famously in 2003 when Northeast Republicans opposed a provision granting liability protection to producers of the fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).
Congress cleared the energy bill in July after conference negotiations produced legislation that is silent on the MTBE liability issue, as well as drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
President Bush signed into law a $286.5 billion transportation bill, a measure that critics say is loaded with thousands of earmarks that were not fully disclosed until after Congress approved the measure. The bill also contains language that could dramatically change the review process for transportation projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The bill makes the Department of Transportation (DOT) the lead federal agency for NEPA reviews of transportation projects, tightens deadlines for comment periods and filing decisions, and allows officials to develop the preferred alternative before a final decision is made, among other changes.
Dave Bauer of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said the language expands upon efforts started with the 1998 transportation bill to streamline NEPA reviews that fell through in the regulatory process. Road builders and construction companies have complained it can take up to nine years to complete the planning process for federal projects.
But Trish White of Defenders of Wildlife’s Habitat and Highways Campaign said environmentalists are particularly concerned with provisions regarding the preferred alternative.
NEPA requires agencies to develop a range of alternatives, including a “no-action” plan, and then designate one as the preferred alternative before sending the environmental impact statement out for public comment. This is generally the action the agency wants to take and is not required to be the most environmentally friendly alternative.
The transportation bill will now allow DOT to develop the preferred alternative to “a higher level of detail than other alternatives," potentially giving that plan a leg up on the competition. White said this is unfair because one plan will be more developed than the others, limiting the ability of the public and other stakeholders to compare and contrast.
The changes to NEPA implementation in the transportation bill are part of a recent trend to limit the scope of the law via authorization measures. Most notably, the 2003 Healthy Forests bill calls for limiting the number of alternative assessments to be studied, streamlining the administrative appeals process, and increasing the use of categorical exclusions.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is extending the period for the public to weigh in on its controversial proposal to rewrite federal guidelines for restoring depleted fisheries, extending the comment period for National Standard 1 Guideline changes to Oct. 21, 2005.
The changes, first proposed in June, would overhaul some of the guidance for how the nation’s eight regional fishery management councils must meet the overall goals of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the landmark law that forms the basis of fisheries management. See ESA Policy News for June 24, 2005:
Countries plagued by severe haze from Indonesian forest fires have asked for assistance from China, Japan and South Korea, said senior representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The organization also called for strong actions against those responsible for the blazes. The fires, normally used by farmers to clear land for growing, are burning at what officials believe are ten independent plantations, eight of which are Malaysian-owned. However, none of the plantations have admitted to using such techniques.
In Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi declared a state of emergency in areas where the haze reached toxic levels. Officials said they are worried dry weather and monsoon winds could cause smog to worsen through October, urging the assistance of surrounding nations.
Both Malaysian and Chinese officials advocated a more coordinated response from ASEAN on the haze that engulfs Asian skies each year.
Sources: AAAS R&D website (www.aaas.org/spp/rd); Environment & Energy Daily; Greenwire; The New York Times