ESA Policy News: January 28

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

HOUSE: REORGANIZED COMMITTEES TAKE SHAPE

Congressional leadership has spent the past few weeks reorganizing House committees, which will now be led by Republican chairmen. In proportion to the new majority gains, minority committee rosters will also shrink as many Democrats who survived re-election will still loose slots on top committees. Membership on committees in general will decrease slightly as Republicans had pledged to reduce their overall size. The following committees are expected to play some role in science and environmental issues as they are debated in the 112th Congress:

Appropriations

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rodgers (R-KY) intends to follow the GOP’s pledge to ban earmarks as part of its agenda to cut federal discretionary spending, a sentiment recently echoed by President Obama. The first order of business for the committee could be the Continuing Resolution, which expires March 4. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has stated the House could take up an extension covering the remainder of FY 2011 the week of Feb. 14.

Energy and Commerce

Chairman Upton has divided the former Energy and Environment Subcommittee into two different panels. Rep. Whitfield will chair the Energy and Power Subcommittee while Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) will serve as the subcommittee’s ranking member. Rep. John Schimkus (R-IL) will chair the Environment and Economy Subcommittee while Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) will serve as the ranking member.

Upton and Whitfield have already joined with Senate Environment Public Works Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe in strategizing a proposal to permanently block EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural Resources

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) has been critical of the Department of Interior’s current land management and energy regulatory efforts. Many of the views of the new subcommittee chairmen also forecast a dramatic ideological shift from the previous Congress.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) will chair the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee. Rep. Bishop has pushed for increased access to mineral resources on public lands. Rep. Raul Grijalva will serve as the subcommittee’s ranking member.

Science, Space and Technology

Representative Ralph Hall (R–TX), the new chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee announced this month that freshmen will lead four of the five subcommittees on his panel. The unusual lineup, for a body in which seniority is still the best ticket to leadership positions, is the result of senior members on the science panel holding subcommittee chairs on more prestigious committees.

The lone holdover from the previous Congress, when Republicans were the minority party, is Representative Paul Broun (R-GA), who will chair the oversight subcommittee. As ranking member, Broun was critical of many Democratic and White House initiatives as well as a vocal skeptic of the need for federal action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) will serve as the subcommittee’s ranking member.

Agriculture

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) takes the chairmanship from Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) who will now serve as the ranking member. Unlike other committees, the agenda may not change significantly as policy differences within the committee tend to be more regional than partisan.

Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-PA) will chair the Conservation, Energy and Forestry Subcommittee, which oversees conservation, small watershed programs, energy and bio-based energy, rural electrification and forestry. Rep. Thompson is also a member of the House Natural Resources Committee. Rep. Tim Holden (D-PA) will be the ranking member.

Transportation

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has named freshmen Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH) to head the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. As the former president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, Gibbs was active in opposing many clean water initiatives and Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY) will act as ranking member of the Water Resources Subcommittee. Rep. Bishop succeeds Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson in the top Democratic spot as Johnson will now serve as the Ranking Member on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

CONGRESS: PRESIDENT’S ADDRESS OUTLINES INNOVATION AGENDA

President Obama’s second State of the Union address was highlighted by the proposal of a five-year spending freeze while seeking to maintain, if not ramp up, investments in education, scientific research, infrastructure and clean energy. The president tied such investments as key to job creation in the nation’s rebounding economy.

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology…an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people,” said the president.

Obama unveiled a plan to promote renewable energies from sources like wind and the sun by slashing $4 billion annually in government subsidies to oil and gas companies. The cash would finance an effort to obtain 80 percent of the nation’s electricity from renewable sources and also nuclear, “clean coal” and natural gas by 2035. Under the plan, new standards for electricity generators would create incentives to invest in renewable resources, nuclear power, natural gas, and in technology that strips carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

GULF SPILL: EMAILS SHOWCASE RIFT BETWEEN WHITE HOUSE, FEDERAL SCIENTISTS

The White House may have ignored the advice of federal scientists when crafting a heavily criticized draft report last August accounting for oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Several scientists raised concerns about the draft of the so-called oil budget, according to e-mails between scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

An interagency oil spill report from Aug. 4, 2010 claimed that all but 26 percent of the oil could be accounted for at that point. The Obama administration used the document to paint an optimistic picture of the situation in the Gulf, a move that was criticized by academics, lawmakers and environmentalists who said the report and the administration’s presentation downplayed the severity of the spill. WHITE

HOUSE: BROWNER TO STEP DOWN AS CLIMATE CHANGE ADVISER

Carol Browner has announced Jan. 24 her intention to step down as head of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy. Browner had served for eight years as the Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the Clinton administration (1993-2001).

During her time at the Obama White House, Browner was a key adviser on energy and environmental issues, including the aftermath and cleanup of last year’s massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Her primary role was to help guide the administration’s response to climate change.

Among her successes, Browner helped to broker a 2009 deal between automakers, states and other stakeholders that led to the first nationwide regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. She was also involved in negotiations that eventually led to the 2009 House passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which later died in the Senate.

It is speculated that her departure is symbolic of a shift in the president’s agenda, away from advancing new climate change programs to defensive approach of existing policies as well as a renewed focused on more centrist renewable energy issues. The move seems to parallel other apparent internal shifts toward the center within the administration, such as the president’s naming of former banking executive William Daley as his new chief of staff.

Browner has attracted heavy criticism from Republicans, in part because she’s one of President Obama’s “czars,” high-level policy advisors who are not confirmed by the Senate. Critics contend that czars are a way to wield executive power outside of Capitol Hill oversight and the federal agency structure, although presidents of both parties have used them.

It has not been made clear yet whether President Obama will appoint someone to replace Browner or eliminate the office altogether.

CLIMATE: GOP WEIGHING OPTIONS ON LIMITS TO EPA AUTHORITY

Republicans members of the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Environment and Public Works Committees are currently formulating strategies to stop the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating greenhouse gases, according to insiders who attended the meetings.

During closed-door conversations with industry representatives and technical experts, aides from the respective committees made it clear that their goal is to eliminate EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The aides told those at the meetings that Republicans are evaluating whether to “make a political statement” and seek a vote on a permanent block of EPA, even if they lack the votes for passage. To stop EPA entirely, a bill would state that greenhouse gases are not pollutants that can be regulated under the Clean Air Act or something similar to that, several people said.

The Senate likely will have at least two bills that would prevent EPA from regulating greenhouse gases.   A bill from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) would put a two-year stay on EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases from stationary sources like power plants. A bill from Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) would seek to prevent the administration from regulating carbon under all existing environmental laws. If Barrasso’s bill passed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would not be able to say that polar bears are endangered by global climate change in order to regulate carbon under the Endangered Species Act, for example. The GOP probably does not have the votes for the Barrasso approach, but could bring enough Democrats over to have the 60 needed for success on Rockefeller’s bill.

INTERIOR: HOUSE DEMS LEND SUPPORT TO WILDERNESS PLAN

House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Ed Markey (D-MA) and 46 Congressional Democrats defended a recent decision by Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to allow temporary roadless protections on millions of acres of western public lands in a letter to the agency.

“The decision by former Secretary [Gale] Norton to settle litigation in Utah by unilaterally declaring that the Department of the Interior would no longer seek protection for new areas of public land exhibiting wilderness characteristics exceeded the scope of the litigation and abdicated the Department’s statutory responsibilities,” the Jan. 19 letter states.

“The Bush Administration’s eight-year campaign to subjugate all other uses of public land — recreation, water quality, habitat, ranching — to rampant energy development has been well documented and former Secretary Norton’s ‘No-More-Wilderness’ policy is one of the most destructive examples,” the letter adds.

ESA CONGRESSIONAL VISITS: PROMOTING DIVERSITY IN SCIENCE EDUCATION

On Jan. 20, education and public affairs staff of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) met with congressional staff of the House Education and Workforce Committee and House Science, Space and Technology Committee to discuss ESA’s interest in education for a competitive and diverse workforce.

The meetings with both the Republican (majority) and Democratic (minority) staffers promoted the growing need to invest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education (STEM) programs that achieve the following: 1) Opportunities for integrated math and science education to meet the needs of the nation in the areas of agricultural production, ecosystem health and energy 2) Mentoring for diversity in the sciences and 3) Bridge programs between K-12 and college supporting a career pathway in the sciences.

The recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2009 Science Report Card for students in grades four, eight, and twelve shows that while the majority of the nation’s students performed at or above the basic level of science, there remains a significant discrepancy between the scores of whites and minorities as well as poor and more affluent students.

To view the NAEP report, click here: http://nationsreportcard.gov/science_2009

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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