ESA Policy News: October 29

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


President Obama plans to tackle a renewable electricity standard, fuel efficiency and green buildings as part of a “bite sized” strategy to work with Republicans to address climate and energy policy when the 112th session of Congress convenes early next year.

The move is intended as more of a consensus approach catering to Democrats, Republicans and a skeptical public worried about any policy “perceived as reducing job growth,” Obama told National Journal in a recent interview. The president identified legislation supporting nuclear power, natural gas and investment in “clean technology” research and development as areas where bipartisan consensus could be reached.


U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan wants the Department of Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to clarify whether polar bears are correctly classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act as opposed to the “endangered” listing, which would provide the species with stronger protections.

Justice Department attorney Clifford Stevens defended the Bush administration’s listing in court, arguing that the decision is valid because the polar bear isn’t facing an “immediate danger” of extinction. That phrase, Sullivan pointed out, is not in the statute. Sullivan indicated that a written order was pending, but that the government would have 30 days from the Oct. 20 ruling to explain its decision.

The threatened listing for polar bears was approved in 2008 when the Department of Interior acknowledged melting ice as the reason for it. However, then-Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne simultaneously approved a rule stating the Endangered Species Act could not be used to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Upon taking office in 2009, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar retained the Bush-era rule, known as the 4(d) rule, while stating that efforts would be made to improve polar bear habitats.

The case could have lasting ramifications for the broader debate over climate change. Environmental groups involved in the case, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, say the melting ice that is threatening the long-term future of polar bears is attributable to global warming. They want the Endangered Species Act to be used as a tool to curb emissions as a way to protect the polar bear habitat. The Obama administration would prefer that Congress pass legislation dealing with climate change.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) have announced the first-ever national standards to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and improve fuel efficiency of heavy-duty trucks and buses. According to EPA, the program is projected to reduce GHG emissions by about 250 million metric tons and save 500 million barrels of oil through the vehicles produced in the program’s first five years.

The new standards would apply to three categories of heavy trucks: combination tractors, heavy-duty pickups and vans, and vocational vehicles. The draft rules would mandate cuts in fuel consumption and emissions by up to 20 percent for long-haul tractor trailers, up to 15 percent for large pickup trucks and vans and up to 10 percent for vehicles such as garbage trucks and school buses. The rules would apply to trucks for model years 2014 through 2018 and would provide $41 billion in net benefits over the lifetime of model year 2014 to 2018 vehicles, according to DOT and EPA estimates.

The rule marks the latest in a series from EPA and DOT to curb greenhouse gases from the transportation sector. In April, the administration finalized the first national greenhouse gas limits for cars and light-duty vehicles. Heavy-duty trucks, including vehicles ranging from large pickup trucks to 18-wheelers, are responsible for about 20 percent of U.S. transportation emissions.

Some members of the trucking industry have signaled support for the new rules. However, the announcement got a mixed reception from environmental groups, which had sought steeper reductions. Legislation to block the agency’s climate rules can be expected to move through Congress if Republicans regain the majority following the upcoming mid-term congressional elections.

EPA and NHTSA are providing a 60-day comment period that begins when the proposal is published in the Federal Register. The proposal and information about how to submit comments is at: and Comments may be submitted on the Draft EIS through January 3, 2011.

To read a fact sheet outlining the proposal, click here:


The federal government should create a new research program to investigate geoengineering, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office, released Oct 26.

“Few geoengineering experiments or modeling studies have been conducted, and major uncertainties remain on the efficacy and potential consequences of geoengineering approaches,” says the new report. It further recommends that the appropriate White House entities, “such as the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), in consultation with relevant federal agencies, develop a clear, defined, and coordinated approach to geoengineering research in the context of a federal strategy to address climate change.”

House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN), who requested the GAO report, said earlier this year he was considering offering legislation to establish a federal geoengineering research program. Meanwhile, several major scientific societies have issued cautious calls for more research — even as they warn that geoengineering alone won’t be enough to solve the climate problem. Scientists who support research into geoengineering often argue the field could provide a planetary “Plan B,” for use in the event substantial cuts in planetary greenhouse gas emission fail to mitigate global climate change.

The GAO report says that developing a centralized research plan would not only jump-start geoengineering development but identify existing aspects of federal agencies’ $2 billion annual climate science research effort that could apply to geoengineering. -ClimateWire

Click here to read GAO’s report:

A symposium session held during the Ecological Society of America’s 2009 Annual Meeting explored the potential benefits and risks of geoengineering.  See: “The promise and peril of geoengineering” at


Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Ken Salazar recently announced two new regional Climate Science Centers and selected the Colorado River Basin for the launch of the first U.S. water census since 1978.

The Southwest Climate Center is the fourth of eight planned regional Climate Science Centers—or CSCs–to be established by the Department. With the University of Arizona in Tucson as home base, the center will be led by a consortium of that school and others — University of California, Davis; University of California, Los Angeles; Desert Research Institute, Reno; University of Colorado, Boulder; and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

The North Central Climate Center is the fifth such CSC. With Colorado State University as home base, the center will be led by a consortium of that school and others—University of Colorado, Colorado School of Mines, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Wyoming, Montana State University, University of Montana, Kansas State University and Iowa State University.

The University of Arizona will receive a five-year $3.1 million grant for the Southwest Climate Center to research the water needs of communities and river ecosystems, part of a larger U.S. Department of the Interior project called the Water Census. DOI’s U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) will oversee the university’s water study, and Interior will oversee the center itself.


The Ecological Society of America sponsored a field trip to the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES) Oct. 22. Participants included representatives from science and education organizations, federal agencies, and Congress.

The BES is funded by the National Science Foundation with support from the USDA Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency Its mission is to demonstrate how an urban area functions as a socio-ecological system. The overall focus of the trip, as one speaker put it, was to introduce the concept of “Baltimore as a city within a park.”

The trip began at the Gwynn Falls stream within Carroll Park. Local officials and scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) told participants about watershed research and “stream-gaging.” Hydrologist Ed Doheny demonstrated how stream-gaging is used to measure stream-flow discharge and how identifying long-term trends can inform land-use and other management decisions.

Beth Strommen, with the Baltimore City Department of Planning’s Office of Sustainability, discussed how her office was working in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development on watershed sustainability issues, making the most of their tight budget and the need for a greater federal focus on storm water management. She also discussed her work with public works officials, and other city departments to restore the water quality and habitat to make the city a healthier place in which to live.

In addition to the stop at Gwynn Falls, site stops included USGS’s Baltimore office where participants heard from University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) administrators as well as BES scientists and researchers and then toured the research labs at UMBC.

The final stop at Franklin Square Elementary School, featured representatives from the Parks and People Foundation who discussed their efforts to promote a Baltimore Green Schools Network.  The program seeks to engage and educate grade-school children on environmental science as it relates to the local urban ecosystem. Five young students from “KidsGrow,” an afterschool program geared towards 2nd to 5th graders, enthusiastically recounted their experiences learning about different ecosystems, studying microorganisms, animal populations, and taking field trips to state parks.

The KidsGrow program was the first of several environmental education programs students graduate to as they advance into their secondary education. Project B.L.U.E. (Baltimore Lessons in Urban Ecosystems) targets middle school students while the Building Resources & Nurturing Community Health and Environmental Stewardship (B.R.A.N.C.H.E.S.) program caters to high-school students and young adults ages 14-21.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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