ESA Policy News: November 18

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here.

APPROPRIATIONS: CONFERENCE AGREEMENT INCREASES SCIENCE INVESTMENT

Congressional leaders recently agreed upon a conference report agreement on a mini-omnibus appropriations measure (“mini-bus”) to for three separate appropriations bills through the remainder of Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. The bill also contains a continuing resolution (CR) that extends through December 16 to allow Congress additional time to come to an agreement on funding levels for the nine remaining appropriation bills.

All together, the mini-bus includes $182 billion in spending for the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, Commerce, Justice as well as the National Science Foundation (NSF). The bill passed the House on Nov. 17 by a vote of 298-121. All but 20 Democrats supported the bill while 101 Republicans voted against it. President Obama is expected to sign the measure.

For NSF, the bill provides $7.033 billion, a $173 million increase from what was enacted for FY 2011. NOAA is funded at $4.9 billion for FY 2012, an increase of $306 million over FY 2011. For programs funded under the Department of Agriculture, the Agricultural Research Service is provided with $1.09 billion, down from $1.133 billion in FY 2011. The National Institute of Food and Agricultural receives nearly $705.6 million, an increase from $698.7 million in FY 2011. The bill provides $844 million for Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) programs, a $45 million decrease from FY 2011.

A detailed summary of the conference report can be found here.

STATE DEPARTMENT: DECISION ON KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE POSTPONED UNTIL 2013

On Nov. 10, the U.S. Department of State announced that it was delaying a decision on the controversial TransCanadian Keystone XL pipeline until the first quarter of 2013, in effect postponing the decision until after the 2012 presidential election.

The State Department said it needed to conduct further investigation of the impact of  Keystone XL on the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, a process it said could not be completed until at least the first quarter of 2013. The agency had previously said it expected a decision by the end of the year. If constructed, Keystone XL would run 1,700 miles from Canada to Texas and would convey a type of oil from Alberta, Canada, that is more carbon-intensive to produce than are other forms.

Environmentalists are strongly opposed to the pipeline, with some asserting that the administration’s decision would significantly impact their support for Obama in 2012. Opposition to the pipeline also attracted a significant proportion of young voters, a key demographic in the president’s election in 2008. Nebraska politicians had also expressed concern with the TransCanada pipeline, specifically related to the proposed route through the state’s Sand Hills region and the Ogallala aquifer, which is a key source of drinking water and irrigation for several states.

BIODIESEL: SUPREME COURT DECLINES TO REVIEW EPA RENEWABLE FUEL STANDARD

On Nov. 7, the Supreme Court decided against taking up the petroleum industry’s challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) biodiesel blending requirements, bringing an end to the fight over the agency’s implementation of the renewable fuel standard.

Under the rule, which went into effect on July 1, 2010, refiners had until Feb. 28, 2011 to show they had blended the required amounts of biodiesel into the nation’s diesel fuel supply for 2009 and 2010. The legal question was whether EPA had the authority to apply the rule retroactively when Congress had not expressly said it could do so.

In Dec. 2010, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously dismissed arguments by the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association that the court should review EPA’s rules on biodiesel blending. The groups had challenged the rules on three grounds, maintaining they improperly combined requirements for 2009 and 2010, that they should not have been made retroactive and that they violated requirements for minimum lead times.

CLIMATE CHANGE: REPORT FUNDED BY SKEPTICS AFFIRMS HUMAN INFLUENCE

House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Ed Markey (D-MA) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) held a Congressional briefing that sought to emphasize a report from a scientist with a reputation for being a climate skeptic that affirmed that humans have contributed to climate change.

The report from Richard Muller of the University of California Berkeley, entitled the “Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) Study,” was partially financed by the Koch brothers, known ideological conservatives and climate change skeptics. While Muller affirmed that human-made emissions play a role in climate change, he simultaneously remained skeptical of the degree of significant contribution. “The amount that’s due to humans is still open, and there are fairly big uncertainties about that,” he said. Muller divided climate skeptics into two camps, those he respects who raise “valid issues,” and deniers, those he claims start with a conclusion and  pull in data that supports their conclusion.

The BEST Study report did not come to the definitive conclusion that humans are making a significant contribution to climate change and called for more study on other potential factors such as volcanoes and ocean variability. Muller’s report does however, refute several claims made against climate change studies conducted by National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Climate Research Unit in the United Kingdom that Muller noted he had embraced prior to conducting his study. Muller concludes that climate change is real and endorsed investments in wind, solar and nuclear energy as practical ways to take action.

Find additional information and a video of the briefing here.

EPA: COMMITTEE HEARING EXAMINES AGENCY’S SCIENCE INFRASTRUCTURE

On Nov. 17, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment convened for a hearing entitled, “Fostering Quality Science as the EPA: The Need for Common Sense Reform.” The hearing examined the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) research and development activities and is expected to be the first in a series of hearings intended to inform Members as the committee formulates the reauthorization of the Environmental Research, Development and Demonstration Act (ERDA), which authorizes science activities at EPA.

Members also referenced reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and EPA’s Office of Inspector General on the agency’s science program. David Trimble, Director of Natural Resources and Environment at the U.S. Government Accountability Office , outlined areas where EPA has not implemented GAO recommendations related to the need to improve facility operating efficiency. EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins, Jr. discussed the need for more rigorous scientific review and improvement on how agency staff report instances of misconduct.

During the 111th Congress, then-Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC) requested that GAO review the EPA’s laboratory infrastructure, staffing, and operations to determine whether they are adequate to meet current and future agency needs. Notably, the report did not call into question EPA’s quality of science data and results. View the full hearing here.

INTERIOR: 18 BACKCOUNTRY AREAS RECOMMENDED FOR CONGRESSIONAL PROTECTION

On November 10, the Department of Interior released a report highlighting 18 backcountry areas in nine states that Sec. of Interior Ken Salazar has identified as deserving protection by Congress as national conservation areas or wilderness areas.

The report includes a preliminary list of areas managed primarily by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) where there is significant local support for Congressional protection as well as potential for bipartisan support in Congress. States with specific areas identified include California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Other states of interest include Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming. In the latter states, Interior contends more work is needed to reach consensus with local stakeholders and policymakers.

According to Interior, congressional designations, such as national conservation areas and wilderness areas, attract additional visitation, tourism, and visitor spending in local communities. To read Sec. Salazar’s cover letter, click here. To read the full Interior recommendations, click here.

AIR POLLUTION: SIERRA CLUB LAUNCHES METRO AD CAMPAIGN

On Nov. 7, the Sierra Club launched an ad campaign to highlight the detrimental human health impacts of mercury air pollution. The Sierra Club states that it is placing the ads on 160 rail cars within the Washington, DC area metro system. The move coincides with an upcoming effort from the Obama administration to issue the first federal protections from mercury.

There are currently no national limits on mercury emissions from coal power plants. The Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set toxic emissions limits for coal plants. The agency is expected to finalize standards by Dec. 16 that it estimates would save as many as 1,400 lives per month by keeping chemical-laden soot out of the air. EPA’s rule is aimed at reducing 90 percent of mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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