September 21, 2008

In This Issue

ENERGY DEBATE: DEMOCRATIC PLAN PASSES IN THE HOUSE; POLITICS, ECONOMY LEAD TO UNCERTAINTY IN THE SENATE

In the House:

On September 16, the House voted 236-189 in favor of HR 6899, the Democratic energy bill, which includes a provision to widen offshore oil and gas exploration while expanding renewable energy incentives.

This legislation would:

  • Relax coastal leasing bans to allow drilling 100 miles away from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and within 50 to 100 miles with state consent. It would continue to prohibit drilling throughout much of the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
  • Roll back $18 billion in oil industry tax breaks in order to fund renewable energy tax credits for wind and solar projects, as well as work on other conservation projects ranging from energy-efficient homes to plug-in hybrid cars.
  • Require power companies to provide 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Companies would have the option of meeting up to one-fourth of this requirement by increasing efficiency.
  • Sell 70 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve
  • Remove the ban on commercial oil shale leasing in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming, so long as the states approve.
  • Expand conservation and mass transit programs.
  • Improve ethics at the Interior Department agency in charge of royalty collections.

Democratic leaders have long opposed weakening current leasing bans, but revised their stance in light of increased public support for drilling and a strong GOP push for even more aggressive measures. In addition, current leasing bans are set to expire at the end of the month, and drilling opponents likely lack sufficient support to renew them through this year’s appropriations process.

Before the vote, the House voted down the GOP energy bill (HR 6709), whichwould have permitted leasing as close as 25 miles from state coastlines. Although the legislation would have allowed states to extend this boundary to 50 feet from their coastlines, it would have also given them a share of the revenues from offshore production as incentive to allow the additional leasing. One of the major Republican criticisms of the Democratic measure is that it does not provide any such incentive for states to opt-in to leasing in the 50-100 mile range. Democrats countered that the promise of new job-bearing industries associated with offshore development would be reason enough for some coastal states to allow leasing.

In spite of its passage in the House, the energy plan still faces major hurdles before it is enacted into law. The White House threatened a veto over several of its provisions, particularly the repeal of oil industry tax breaks and the national renewable electricity mandate.

In the Senate:

The Gang of 20 (formerly the Gang of 10), a bipartisan group of senators that has spent the last two months preparing legislation for the Senate energy debate, announced on September 18th that they would be shelving their plan until after the November elections.

“The thinking here is that the partisanship in Congress is stifling the debate we need to have on this. It is just too close to the presidential elections,” said spokesman Chris Thorne, who says the group instead plans to release a “statement of understanding” next week.

The legislation, which falls somewhere between the Democratic and Republican plans in terms of offshore drilling restrictions and funding for conservation and renewable energy programs, has been under revision following two key developments in the energy debate:

  • Renewable energy tax credits: The Senate is poised to pass broad bipartisan tax legislation next week, which would extend the renewable energy tax incentives currently set to expire at year’s end. Although the energy plan passed in the House includes an extension of these incentives, the White House’s threats to veto the plan indicate that it may still be up to the Senate to push the tax incentives through.
  • Offshore drilling: Democrats have grown more open to limited offshore drilling in recent months, and their plan, which just passed in the House, lifts a number of drilling restrictions.

In order to remain competitive, as it were, the Gang of 20’s revised plan will therefore likely contain more expansive offshore drilling than originally envisioned, and will be smaller in both scope and cost. According to Thorne, the revised plan will be in the $20 billion range, which represents a considerable price tag reduction.

Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leaders still plan to hold votes on the Democratic and Republican energy policy packages after passing the renewable energy tax legislation. Some aides have said, however, that the energy debate could be squeezed or scrapped as lawmakers respond to the Wall Street meltdown.

APPROPRIATONS: CONTINUING RESOLUTION LIKELY, LARGE TAX PACKAGE CONTAINING ENERGY MEAURES UP FOR VOTE IN SENATE

As Congress enters the homestretch, current levels of funding will likely be extended through a continuing resolution, the duration of which could be anywhere from a month to six months. The general consensus on the Hill is that lawmakers will hold off on the 2009 budget until after they know the outcome of this November’s elections.

Congress must, however, address several issues prior to adjourning at the end of the month, particularly those dealing with disaster relief and the crisis on Wall Street. Both Hurricane Ike and the recent economic tumult have delayed the Senate’s attempts to vote on a tax package. A vote is now scheduled, however, for September 23. The $17 billion package to be considered would include number of important energy provisions. In particular:

  • Extensions of renewable energy tax credits
  • Biofuels incentives
  • Credits for carbon sequestration

These energy provisions are fully offset with revenue-raisers, which include a freeze on some oil industry deductions. Other portions of the package lack comprehensive offsets, however, which may deter House Democrats. According to a Democratic leadership aide, the House will likely divide the tax package into two measures.

The package is expected to pass easily in the Senate, however, so many environmentalist groups who have opposed some of the energy provisions are now turning to House lawmakers. These provisions include an extension of tax incentives for refinery expansions, specifically for projects to process oil shale and oil sands, as well as coal gasification credits, which could be applied toward coal-to-liquid projects, and alternative fuel credits, which could be applied toward coal-based fuels.

ETHICS: EPA'S SCIENTIFIC INTEGRITY IN QUESTION FOLLOWING REPORTS OF EXCESSIVE POLITICAL INFLUENCE IN AGENCY DECISIONS

On September 18, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee met to discuss the role politics has played in the U.S. EPA’s scientific decisions. The committee also examined why EPA altered a key chemical database, the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS,) which determines safe levels of toxic chemicals and contains EPA’s scientific position on the potential human health effects of exposure to hundreds of different chemicals.

The meeting followed an April report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stating that secrecy and political interference hamper EPA’s ability to adequately assess health dangers of toxic chemicals. Specifically, the report pointed to Bush administration changes to the assessment process that allowed other agencies, including the Defense Department, to participate in the risk assessment process earlier on, and added two more mandatory reviews by the White House Office of Management & Budget. GAO concluded that these additions could delay action on harmful chemicals by years, while EPA argued that the changes will streamline the process and allow IRIS to catch up on chemical assessments.

Another April report, this one from the Union of Concerned Scientists, found that political appointees had meddled with the work of hundreds of EPA scientists over the past five years. According to the report, almost two-thirds of the 1,600 staff scientists surveyed reported experiencing political interference in their work.

Central to the meeting was the theme of transparency and its importance in the scientific process. Many of the controversies addressed drew parallels with the recently proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act’s scientific review process, which would eliminate mandatory scientific review, and thus leave room for political intervention.

ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT: PUBLIC COMMENT PERIOD EXTENDED, ECOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA RESPONDS TO PROPOSAL

In response to the White House proposal to weaken the requirements for independent scientific review in the Endangered Species Act (see August 1 Policy News Update, www.esa.org/pao/policyNews/pn2008/08182008.php) ESA distributed a press release (www.esa.org/pao/newsroom/pressReleases2008/08262008.php) and submitted a public comment letter (www.esa.org/pao/policyStatements/Letters/EndangeredSpeciesAct_PublicComment2008.php) from President Sunny Power.

Following multiple requests, the Interior Department extended the public comment period by an additional month. The extension represents a victory for proponents of the current Endangered Species Act, since the Bush administration will now have even less time to finalize the rules before the end of the year. Once the comment period closes, officials from the Interior Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will have to review and respond to all the comments received, a process that has previously taken anywhere from a few weeks to several months.

Interested ESA members now have until October 15th to submit their comments in one of two ways:

  1. Through the Federal eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov.
  2. By U.S. mail or hand-delivery to: Public Comment Processing

Attention: 1018-AT50, Division of Policy and Directives Management,

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 222, Arlington, VA 22203.

My Toggle Title

In a 293-109 vote, the House passed the “No Child Left Inside” (NCLI) Act on September 18. This legislation (HR 3036) is aimed at improving environmental education by:

  • Extending the National Environmental Education Act through fiscal 2009, funding it at $14 million.
  • Using separate funds to establish a “national capacity environmental education grant program,” wherein the Secretary of Education would award competitive grants to state and local education agencies and to nonprofits for environmental education programs.
  • Including provisions to encourage individuals from backgrounds underrepresented in environmental education to pursue careers in the field
  • Taking measures to facilitate interaction between educators and working professionals in the environmental fields.

Three amendments were added to the bill, including one to clarify that funds can be used to teach environmental justice.

Some Republicans argued that the bill was taking up floor time needed to address more pressing topics like the energy debate, while others criticized the legislation itself, claiming that by allowing grants to nongovernmental organizations the act would allow groups pushing single-issue agendas to use government funds for their causes. The GOP thus offered a motion to recommit, which excluded organizations with lobbying operations from qualifying for funds. This motion failed, however, and 68 Republican senators voted with Democrats in support of NCLI.

The Ecological Society of America issued a statement in 2007 on No Child Left Inside, available at: www.theadvisorygroup.com/index.php?page=erich-bloch


Sources: Environment and Energy Daily, Greenwire

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