ESA Policy News: February 10

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


House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans questioned climate science and asserted new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules would cost jobs while Democrats accused Republicans of ignoring scientists and human health concerns during the first subcommittee hearing concerning carbon emission regulations and the effects climate change since the GOP regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The focus of the hearing was the “Energy Tax Prevention Act,” legislation jointly sponsored by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) that would exempt greenhouse gases from regulation under the Clean Air Act. The hearing was presided over by Ed Whitfield (R-KY), Chairman of the Energy and Power Subcommittee.

Waxman references Bush EPA Admin letter

Prior to the hearing, Ranking Member Waxman sent correspondence to Chairman Upton, which included a January 2008 letter from former President George W. Bush’s third U.S. EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson.

In the private letter to the president, Johnson stated “the latest science of climate change requires the agency to propose a positive endangerment finding, as was agreed to at the Cabinet-level meeting in November. The state of the latest climate change science does not permit a negative finding, nor does it permit a credible finding that we need to wait for more research.”

The letter was sent six months before Johnson overrode EPA scientists’ determination and announced the agency would continue to evaluate evidence to determine whether a positive endangerment finding was warranted. Subsequently in 2009, current EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson finalized an endangerment finding for carbon and other greenhouse gases, paving the way for their regulation under the Clean Air Act.


House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rodgers (R-KY) announced a partial list of spending cuts on February 9 that will be included in the upcoming appropriations Continuing Resolution (CR) for Fiscal Year 2011. The CR would fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2011. Overall, the proposed CR represented a cut of $32 billion from the levels enacted in the temporary CR passed by Congress last December, which expires March 4.

Republican appropriators were forced to modify their efforts Thursday, Feb 10, after coming under pressure from Tea-Party freshman Republicans to fulfill their pledge to cut $100 billion in spending this year, according to House aides. The spending cuts originally released by Chairman Rogers based its numbers on the White House’s FY 2011 budget request, which was never enacted. For many agencies, this makes the size of the decreases appear somewhat larger than they actually are. In some cases, a few federal agencies would actually see increases over what was enacted in the FY 2010 Budget.


In a recent letter circulated to Members of Congress, 18 scientists from various universities and research centers called for lawmakers to take a “fresh look” at climate change. The letter notes that “every one of the leading national scientific academies worldwide – have concluded that human activity is changing the climate. This is not a ‘belief.’ Instead, it is an objective evaluation of the scientific evidence.”

The letter, circulated Jan. 28, highlights that the effects of climate change are already having serious implications.  “Our coastal areas are now facing increasing dangers from rising sea levels and storm surges; the southwest and southeast are increasingly vulnerable to drought; other regions will need to prepare for massive flooding from the extreme storms of the sort being experienced with increasing frequency…Our military recognizes that the consequences of climate change have direct security implications for the country that will only become more acute with time, and it has begun the sort of planning required across the board.”

The letter also references the U.S. Climate Impacts Report, commissioned by the George W. Bush administration, which states: “Climate change poses unique challenges to human health…There are direct health impacts from heat waves and severe storms, ailments caused or exacerbated by air pollution and airborne allergens, and many climate-sensitive infectious diseases.”

The scientists write that specific legislative action should be left to elected leaders but that “as scientists, we have an obligation to evaluate, report, and explain the science behind climate change.”


The U.S. Department of Interior has become the first agency to update its scientific integrity policy after the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a memorandum to federal agency heads to do so.

The updated policy establishes new rules to protect scientists and their work from interference from communications staff and political appointees. It also seeks to ensure that the selection of employees in scientific and scholarly roles is based on merit and encourages the participation of government scientists in professional scholarly societies and organizations.


House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) offered a small glimmer of hope that consensus between House and Senate leaders on a clean energy standard was a possibility in the current 112th Congress. The remarks came at a Feb. 8 event sponsored by the National Journal.

While holding his cards on whether he would ever support or oppose a clean energy mandate, Upton stated he is interested in “bring[ing] a cleaner energy standard to the U.S. without the greenhouse gas emissions standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency,” and is “anxious to see the details” of the clean energy proposal announced by President Obama in his recent State of the Union address. In early February, President Obama held a White House meeting with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), a key player in the implementation of a “clean energy” standard. Bingaman and Upton have also met to discuss policy this year.

Chairman Upton noted, however, that there are currently 28 states, including Michigan that already have renewable energy standards. “We’re at the beginning of this process. We’re going to see where this takes us,” he said, noting that this week was the start of his committee’s first official hearings since he became chairman.


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced a decision to move forward with new federal drinking water standards for the rocket fuel component perchlorate, linked to thyroid problems and other developmental problems.

The Feb. 2, 2011 decision to undertake a first-ever national standard for perchlorate reverses a decision made by the previous administration and comes after EPA Administrator Jackson charged EPA scientists with undertaking a review of the emerging science of perchlorate.  In October 2008, the Bush administration, disregarding the advice of its own EPA scientists, announced that it would not regulate perchlorate.

A Washington Post investigation at the time found that Bush administration officials heavily edited an EPA report to play down the risks of perchlorate. An August 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report also found that the Department of Defense (DoD), which along with NASA is a heavy user of perchlorate, sought to derail any perchlorate standards. The study reported perchlorate contamination at 70 percent of DoD facilities.

The GAO study also found perchlorate occurs naturally as well as in man-made form across 45 states in water supplies that are used by between five million and 17 million Americans. A 2006 Food and Drug Administration study found perchlorate in 74 percent of a wide range of food items it tested. Scientific research indicates that it may impact the normal function of the thyroid, which produces important developmental hormones. Thyroid hormones are critical to the normal development and growth of fetuses, infants and children.

Environmental groups have called on the EPA to set a standard of one part per billion, which California adopted last month. A 2010 study of 500,000 California newborns reported disrupted thyroid function in infants whose mothers had been exposed to drinking water with at least five parts per billion of perchlorate. The study did not assess effects at lower concentrations.

The agency is also moving towards establishing a drinking water standard to address a group of up to 16 volatile organic compounds that can cause cancer, only half of them currently subject to regulation. As part of the Drinking Water Strategy laid out by Administrator Jackson in 2010, EPA committed to addressing contaminants as a group rather than one at a time.

The decision is supported by environmental organizations as well as Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) who has introduced several bills that would set limits on perchlorate in drinking water.


On Feb. 7, the U.S. Senate began its second week debating S. 223, a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The bill includes several provisions intended to make air-travel more environmentally friendly.

The bill’s proposal for the NextGen system, which would switch the ground-based air traffic control system to GPS, is an attempt to reduce congestion by curtailing mid-air rerouting and providing more information about where planes are at any given moment. Proponents of the measure contend the system can also reduce trip times and taxiing before takeoff, reducing fuel use and emissions.

The measure, sponsored by Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), also includes a number of pilot and research programs centered on alternative fuels for aircraft, including biofuels and clean coal. Among other provisions, the Senate bill instructs the FAA administrator to create a research program aimed at reducing airline emissions. The bill lays out the goal of creating airline technology that reduces fuel use by 33 percent, lowers nitrogen oxide emissions during takeoff and landing by 60 percent and makes alternative jet fuel 20 percent of the commercial market.


The Ecological Society of America (ESA) announced its 2011 Graduate Student Policy Award winners. Kellen Marshall (University of Illinois-Chicago), Michael Levy (West Virginia University), and Daniel Evans (University of Washington) will travel to Washington, DC in March to participate in a congressional visits event sponsored by the Biological Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC) and co-chaired by ESA.

The ESA Graduate Student Policy Award is one of several ways the Society works to offer its graduate student members opportunities to gain public policy experience.

For more information on the students and the GSPA award, see:

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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1 Comment

  1. With respect to the Graduate Student Policy Award winners visiting Congress, I urge ESA to ponder how to find time for the awardees also to visit ESA members in the various Federal agencies. Such visits would help awardees see more of the life cycle of Federal policy – being made in Congress, being implemented in the agencies, and being affirmed or rejected in the courts. I suspect that many of us agency employees who are ESA members would be happy to find time in the work day to visit with the awardees and explain how their various agencies implement the policy that Congress legislates. John Dennis

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