ESA Policy News, February 28, 2014: Supreme Court hears EPA challenge, POTUS links CA drought to climate change

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



On Feb. 14, President Obama spoke in Fresno, CA regarding his plans to assist California amid its drought crisis. The president took the opportunity to relate climate change to the incident and discuss his latest proposal to address the issue.

“Scientists will debate whether a particular storm or drought reflects patterns of climate change,” said President Obama. “But one thing that is undeniable is that changing temperatures influence drought in at least three ways:  Number one, more rain falls in extreme downpours — so more water is lost to runoff than captured for use.  Number two, more precipitation in the mountains falls as rain rather than snow — so rivers run dry earlier in the year.  Number three, soil and reservoirs lose more water to evaporation year-round. What does all this mean?  Unless and until we do more to combat carbon pollution that causes climate change, this trend is going to get worse.”

The president’s upcoming budget will include a $1 billion climate resiliency fund for technology “to help communities prepare for a changing climate, set up incentives to build smarter, more resilient infrastructure,” said President Obama. The resilience fund would need to be approved by Congress to take effect.

The US Drought monitor reported this week that nearly three-quarters of the state of California was experiencing either extreme or exceptional drought, the latter being the worst condition. The percentage of the state under exceptional drought increased from 14.6 last week to 26.2 percent this week.

Additional information on the Obama administration’s drought response plan is available here.


This week, the US Supreme Court considered a case that may determine the scope of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulatory power over greenhouse gas emissions.

In Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, a coalition of state attorneys general and industry groups challenge EPA’s permitting process for industry “stationary sources,” including coal-fired power plants, chemical facilities and oil refineries. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is allowed to review permits to determine if necessary technologies that would help limit pollution are being used in the construction and powering of plants. Justices will determine if EPA’s existing authority includes setting permit requirements for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases.

In effect, a ruling in favor of industry will be narrow in scope in that it will not adversely curb EPA’s overall efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The ruling could, however, cause EPA to alter how it issues certain construction and operating permits for polluters as well as reexamine its regulatory proposals for facilities that emit greenhouse gases. Politically, it would also reinforce the sentiments of industry advocates in Congress who assert that the Obama administration’s EPA is overreaching in its efforts to address climate change.

Details of the case and a transcript of the oral argument are available at SCOTUS blog.


On Feb. 25, the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Oversight held a hearing entitled “Natural Resource Adaptation: Protecting Ecosystems and Economies.” The hearing was called by Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

In his opening testimony, Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren asserted that there were 11 weather events in 2012 that cost the US over $1 billion. Holdren noted that the cost of Hurricane Sandy was $65 billion and damages from drought totaled $30 billion in 2012.

“Scientifically, one cannot say that any single episode of extreme weather―no storm, no flood, no drought―was caused by climate change; but the global climate has been so extensively impacted by the human-caused buildup of greenhouse gases that many such events are being influenced by climate change,” said Holdren.

Republicans on the subcommittee took the opportunity to question agency officials on the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulatory efforts to address climate change and promote clean energy sources, and how these efforts might impact wildlife. Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA) inquired whether clean energy sources that take up more land have more of an impact on endangered species. Subcommittee Chairman Whitehouse noted that FWS data suggests that wind power has a minimal impact on wildlife in comparison to buildings, pesticides, feral cats, habitat loss and hunting.

View the full hearing here.


On Weds. Feb. 26, the House Foreign Affairs Committee convened for a hearing entitled “International Wildlife Trafficking Threats to Conservation and National Security.” The hearing garnered bipartisan concern among lawmakers on the need to protect endangered species from poaching and smuggling.

“Future generations will judge our response to this crisis. If we want a world still blessed with these magnificent species, we need creative and aggressive action, working with source, transit, and market countries to confront this challenge,” stated Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) in his opening remarks.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) emphasized the importance of this issue to national security, stating that terrorists are using wildlife trafficking to fund their activities.

House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations Ranking Member Karen Bass (D-CA) noted “international wildlife trafficking is not only a security and conservation issue, but it also undermines the stability and development of many African nations. Throughout the continent, recent spikes in poaching [have] caused instability by providing funds for illicit activities, spreading violence and hurting the nation’s ability to develop indigenousness and local sources of revenue through wildlife tourism.”

For additional information on the Obama administration’s wildlife trafficking strategy, click here. To view the full hearing, click here.


Over these past several weeks, two longtime advocates for federal investment in science and environmental protection announced their retirement.

On Feb. 24, Rep. John Dingell, who holds the record for longest serving Member of Congress, announced he would not be pursuing a record 30th term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Dingell was first elected in a 1955 special election to serve out the remainder of his father’s term, John Dingell Sr. (D-MI).

As a long-term environmental advocate and member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell had a hand in helping pass a number of landmark bills including the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Dingell chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee through the most of recent decades in which Democrats controlled the House, ousted shortly after the Nov. 2008 election by Rep. Henry Waxman, also retiring this year.

On Feb. 18, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), announced that he would not be pursuing a ninth term in Congress. Rep. Holt, a Ph.D. physicist, has been a strong advocate for science. He currently serves as co-chair of the Congressional Research and Development Caucus along with Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), also retiring this year. He also co-chairs the Historic Preservation Caucus, the Biomedical Research Caucus and serves as Vice Chair of the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. He was a reliable attendee at most congressional functions related to science, including the Coalition for National Science Funding Exhibition, which the Ecological Society of America has often participated in.


A recent report from the US State Department’s independent Office of Inspector General (OIG) concluded that the agency fully adhered to its conflict of interest standards in choosing a contractor to develop the finalized environmental review of Keystone XL pipeline.

“Based on the information provided and interviews conducted, OIG found that the process the Department used to select [Environmental Resources Management, Inc. (ERM)] to help prepare the Keystone XL SEIS substantially followed its prescribed guidance and at times was more rigorous than that guidance,” the report concluded. “The Department’s published guidance provides a general outline for the contractor selection process, and Department personnel managing the process drew on their previous experience to implement the process.”

The OIG did find that the State Department process could improve its public discloser and include more documentation to minimize potential misperceptions.

While pipeline proponents used the opportunity to once again call on the president to approve the pipeline, environmental advocates and some congressional Democrats asserted that the inspector general report was too narrow in scope, criticizing the State Department’s overall process as flawed. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) has sent a letter requesting the Government Accountability Office to review the State Department’s contractor selection process.

The inspector general report is available here. The Rep. Grijalva letter is available here.


On Feb. 21, the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced it was considering federal protected status for several dolphin and porpoise species in the New Zealand region.

NMFS is considering threatened or endangered listings under the Endangered Species Act for the Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori), the harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), the eastern Taiwan Strait subpopulation of the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis), and the Fiordland subpopulation of the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus).

Public comments must be submitted by April 22, 2014. For additional information, click here.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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