Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by ESA’s Science Policy Analyst, Piper Corp. Read the full Policy News here.
Following a long series of hearings on the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, legislators are beginning to craft and review measures with which to take action. The need for stronger drilling regulations and increased federal oversight is broadly accepted by both parties, though it remains to be seen which strategies will gain traction and how the final bill(s) will be packaged for a floor vote. Democratic leaders recently indicated plans to bundle offshore drilling reform with a more controversial climate and energy package—a move that promises to increase bipartisan tension as Congress scrambles to take action before disbanding for elections. For more information, see the “CLIMATE DEBATE” article in this edition.
Congressional work on offshore drilling currently includes:
Oberstar bill (HR 5629): On July 1, the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee approved by voice vote a bill from Chair Jim Oberstar (D-MN) to overhaul the offshore oil drilling industry and revise spill response and liability polices. Republicans offered hesitant support, saying that care should be taken to keep the offshore oil industry in the Gulf, where it employs thousands and provides a partial alternative to imported crude. Both parties agree that the bill will need additional revisions before it’s ready for the floor.
Bipartisan Minerals Management Service Restructuring (S 3516): On June 30, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee cleared a bipartisan proposal from Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) that would add congressional approval to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s recent secretarial order, which divided the Minerals Management Service (MMS) into three separate offices for leasing, enforcement, and revenue collection.
Revised Rahall bill: On June 24, House Natural Resources Chair Nick Rahall (D-WV) unveiled legislation to build upon an offshore drilling bill he introduced last year (HR 3534). The new language is crafted largely in response to the ongoing disaster in the Gulf and is based on Rahall’s belief that domestic oil and gas drilling should continue, albeit with significant revisions to regulatory and management protocols.
Like the HR 3534, the new language would also establish a competitive program for wind and solar leasing on federal lands. Though the environmental community was generally supportive of the original legislation, representatives from both the fossil fuel and renewable energy industries had argued that it would create problematic delays; renewable groups were especially concerned about grouping all energy leasing into a single office.
Rahall was supportive of the Oberstar bill, though he maintains that Interior—not the Coast Guard—is better suited for overseeing offshore drilling.
Deepwater risk reduction: On June 30, a House Energy and Commerce panel held a hearing on a discussion draft from Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA).
President Obama and Senate climate leaders have both expressed their willingness to compromise on key details of a climate and energy package, so long as it puts a price on carbon.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats say they have a restored sense of unity following a June 24 caucus meeting, where they devised a new strategy for moving forward with a climate and energy package this year. Though leadership has been quiet on the details, and the legislators have yet to determine the best bill with which to move forward, the basic approach appears to be bundling climate and energy with legislation to overhaul offshore drilling regulations. Given the broad support for the latter initiative, such a move would force Republicans to either move forward with pricing carbon or block efforts to reform offshore drilling regulations—a move that would likely be presented as siding with “Big Oil.” This strategy echoes that of the financial reform debate, where Senate Democrats harnessed public outrage at big business to force Republicans to the table, ultimately winning the support of four Republicans—enough to offset the two Democrats who voted against the measure.
Republicans, meanwhile, are attempting to turn the tables by accusing Democrats of bogging down urgent and necessary reforms with what they say is a political ploy.
Indeed, the connection between offshore drilling and climate legislation is not a straightforward one. While Democratic leaders have been working to tie the disaster in the Gulf to the need for new climate and energy policies, the majority of US energy consumption is associated with the electric utility sector—natural gas, coal, nuclear power and renewable resources make up 63 percent of US energy use. Petroleum products account for the remaining 37 percent.
A cap-and-trade system, such as the one laid out in the House-passed climate and energy bill (HR 2454) would have only a small impact on petroleum use, at least until technology advances and the carbon price increases. According to a US Energy Information Administration analysis, consumption would drop by only 5 percent by 2030—less if the economy improves rapidly, more if technological advancements make alternative energy more efficient.
The Interior Department recently issued a stop-work order on Louisiana’s efforts to build an offshore sand wall east of the Mississippi River to limit the passage of oil. The rushed coastal re-engineering, pushed by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R), has prompted many concerns about unintended environmental impacts since it was proposed. Still, the Army Corps of Engineers issued an emergency permit on May 27 for a smaller barrier (45 miles, compared to the proposed 128). Interior ordered the project shutdown after state officials failed to meet an already-extended deadline to draw sand from the approving dredging area 2 miles away from the Chandeleur Islands, deteriorating barrier islands that serve as nesting grounds for thousands of pelicans. According to federal officials, further dredging will cause irreversible damage to the very islands that the barrier seeks to protect. The barrier and its construction could block coastal currents and disturb or destroy nests. Further, as the process continues and oil makes its way to shore, dredging will contaminate the remaining clean sand needed for future coastal restoration efforts.
Louisiana officials disagree. Jindal and other state leaders are portraying the conflict as the latest example of what they see as out-of-touch Washington regulators delaying urgent and common-sense defense efforts by the state. But Interior has denied demands to continue dredging, creating the most tense standoff in the disaster response efforts so far, a conflict that has spilled over into Congress.
On June 21, the Supreme Court overturned a 2007 ruling from the US District Court in San Francisco, which had banned the sale of pesticide-resistant alfalfa seeds pending a federal environmental impact study. The Supreme Court ruled 7-1 in favor of lifting the ban.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) originally approved the seeds—developed by Monsanto, an agricultural biotechnology company, to resist the herbicide Roundup—in 2005. This approval prompted legal action from environmental groups, farmers, and consumers, who argued that the genetically modified (GM) crops could contaminate conventional alfalfa fields via cross-pollination, and that they would lead to the overuse of Roundup and therefore impaired soil and water quality, as well as potentially Roundup-resistant “super-weeds.” Though USDA conducted an environmental analysis, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the analysis did not, according to the district court ruling, address the concerns raised in the lawsuit. The lower court ruling added that “A federal action that eliminates a farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer’s choice to eat non-genetically engineered food, is an undesirable consequence.” Another court upheld this decision, before the case went to the Supreme court.
USDA has since agreed to conduct the environmental impact study, though it has not yet provided a timeline. Monsanto, meanwhile, petitioned for review, claiming that USDA’s actions would have reduced the risk of cross-pollination to a fraction of a percent.
The case marks the Supreme Court’s first ruling on GM crops. Environmental and industry groups beyond agriculture closely watched the alfalfa case because of its potential implications for NEPA lawsuits. In asking the Supreme Court to take the case, Monsanto had pointed to a decision last year in which the majority ruled that a possibility of irreparable harm to whales was insufficient to affirm a nationwide injunction.