ESA Policy News: March 23

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


On March 20, House Republicans unveiled their proposed budget resolution for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. Sponsored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the budget bill sets an overall discretionary spending limit of $1.028 trillion in FY 2013, $19 billion below the spending caps established in the Budget Control Act.

Among its provisions, the House budget resolution includes significant cuts to Department of Energy programs while expanding oil and gas drilling. It also supports the sale of 3.3 million acres of federal lands identified in a 1997 Department of Interior report that were deemed suitable for sale or exchange to benefit the Everglades restoration effort in Florida. The White House released a statement asserting that the Ryan plan would cut clean energy programs by 19 percent and slash $100 billion from science, space and technology programs over the next decade.

The budget also proposes to cut the federal government workforce by 10 percent, providing $368 billion in savings. Under the proposal, federal employee retirement contributions would also rise from 0.8 percent to 6.3 percent. The bill would also extend the current federal pay freeze to 2015.

View the full FY 2013 House budget proposal here. The White House response to the House budget proposal can be viewed here.


On March 20, the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety met for a hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency’s new mercury rules for power plants. EPA finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), the first national standards to protect American families from power plant emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollution like arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide on Dec. 16, 2011.

“I believe it’s possible to have a clean environment and a strong economy. I think it’s a false choice to say that we have to have one or the other; we can have both. That is especially true for cleaning up our air pollution,” declared Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) in his opening statement. “In fact, as the EPA has implemented the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, our nation’s air has gotten cleaner, while electricity rates have stayed constant and our economy has grown by 60 percent. For every dollar we spend cleaning the air, we’ve seen $30 returned in reduced health care costs, better workplace productivity, and lives saved.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member James Barrasso (R-WY) asserted the closure of coal-fired power plants would lead to increased layoffs, lost revenue from property taxes and ultimately increase household power rates. “EPA has put those workers and their families on the unemployment line in the middle of a recession,” he said. Barrasso has joined James Inhofe (R-OK), the full committee’s ranking member, in supporting legislative efforts to overturn EPA’s mercury rules.

According to EPA Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy, the new standards will prevent over 100,000 heart and asthma attacks annually. She also questioned whether the 57 power plant closures that Barrasso attributed to EPA rules did not in fact have more to do with other changes, such as inexpensive natural gas that is spurring utilities to shift power sources.

View the full hearing here.


The week of March 19, President Obama took to a four-state energy tour in the wake of growing discontent over rising gas prices.

The president expressed support for continued federal investments to help develop more bio-fuels, green-electricity sources and efficient vehicles to complement expanded oil-and-gas drilling. The four-state energy tour included visits to Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Ohio. His March 22 visit to Ohio State University touted his administration’s investments in energy research and development, bio-based products and advanced vehicles.

The president’s energy tour began at the Copper Mountain Solar 1 Facility, which the White House said was the largest photovoltaic solar power plant in the country. The president used the forum to counter arguments from opponents of the administration’s energy investments, specifically Solyndra. While the president didn’t mention the company, he reiterated his position that investments in the renewable energy industry will boost the economy and create thousands of jobs.

While in Oklahoma, the president also announced his intention to issue an executive order that would expedite approval of the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline. The White House, however, has remained firm in its decision not to come to a final decision on the northern portion that runs through Nebraska until TransCanada and the state determine a new route and the environmental review process has been completed.

To view the White House’s fact sheet on energy, click here.


On March 21, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing property owners that violate the Clean Water Act to seek judicial review.

Specifically, the justices held that Mike and Chantell Sackett of Priest Lake, Idaho can challenge the Environmental Protection Agency order that prevented the couple from disturbing wetlands on their land that fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. The Sacketts intended to build a three-bedroom home early in 2007. They had filled part of the property with rocks and soil, in preparation for construction, when federal officials ordered a halt in the work.  Maybe add a sentence about the steep fines they were accumulating (on paper?) daily? Under the non-compliance penalty, the Sacketts were faced with government fines that could have totaled $75,000 per day.

In an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court rejected EPA’s argument that allowing property owners quick access to courts to contest orders like the one issued to the Sacketts would compromise the agency’s ability to deal with water pollution. The court held that they should be able to contest EPA’s findings under the Administrative Procedure Act, a statute used to challenge agency decision-making.


Environmental groups have filed federal lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) intended to force the government to curb water pollution from cities and farms that seep into connecting waterways that flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

The lawsuits, spearheaded by the Gulf Restoration Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council, contend that runoff in the Mississippi River Basin containing nutrients from agriculture and wastewater treatment plants stimulates excessive algae growth that has helped foster a “dead zone” in the Gulf the size of Massachusetts. The environmental groups said they filed the lawsuits after petitions to the EPA in 2007 for stronger wastewater treatment rules and in 2008 on water quality standards went unfulfilled.

Currently, the federal government lets states set limits on nutrients. EPA has set a goal of reducing nutrients in the Mississippi by 40 percent through collaborating with farmers and state governments, an effort the environmental groups contend does not go far enough.

The legal filings can be found here. Information on EPA’s current efforts to manage water pollution from runoff can be found here.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently announced that it is designating over 10,000 acres in Arizona and New Mexico as critical habitat for the threatened Chiricahua leopard frog.

The final rule designates 39 sites within the frog’s range in 13 counties: Apache, Cochise, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, Pima, Santa Cruz and Yavapai counties in Arizona, and Catron, Grant, Hidalgo, Sierra and Socorro counties in New Mexico. All but one of the sites are currently occupied by the frog. Of the approximately 10,346 acres designated, 6,958 are on federal land, 348 are on state land and 3,040 acres are on private land.

The frog species once occupied wetlands and waterways in central and southeastern Arizona as well as southwestern New Mexico, in addition to areas south of the U.S. border in Mexico. According to FWS, the species has disappeared from 80 percent of its habitat.

The full designation can be read here. Additional information on FWS chiricahua leopard frog management efforts can be found here.


On March 16, the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) announced over $4.2 million in Tribal Wildlife Grants to 23 Native American tribes in 17 states to fund a wide range of conservation initiatives, including salmon restoration and invasive species control. The effort is part of the Obama administration’s “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative.

The grants provide technical and financial assistance for the development and implementation of projects that benefit fish and wildlife resources and their habitats. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Director Dan Ashe, Native American Tribes manage over 100 million acres of fish and wildlife habitat across the nation.

View the full DOI announcement here. Additional information on the FWS Tribal Wildlife Grant program can be found here.


The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) has announced that it will begin construction on three sites that will serve to collect information on a continental scale on issues such as climate change, land use, invasive species and biodiversity.

The three specific sites, which break ground early this summer, include Ordway-Swisher Biological Station in Florida, Harvard Forest in Massachusetts and Central Plains Experimental Range in Colorado. NEON expects the National Science Foundation (NSF) to put forward $60 million in Fiscal Year 2012 towards the effort. NEON also plans to use the funding for construction of six to eight additional sites by the end of the year.

NEON’s construction funding is provided through NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities (MREFC) budget account. In order for a project to qualify for MREFC funding, NSF requires that it represent an exceptional opportunity that enables research and education and advances scientific understanding.

The initial three sites are expected to be completed by late 2013 with fully operational status expected sometime the following year. View the full press release here.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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