ESA Policy News: September 17

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

SENATE: SENIOR DEMS SEEK ACTION ON ENVIRONMENTAL MEASURES

While the Senate seems unlikely to approve an energy bill during the few weeks it reconvenes before the November elections, it may consider measures on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency climate rules, power plant pollution curbs and energy tax incentives.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) acknowledged it’s a “cinch” that climate legislation won’t move this year. But he praised negotiations among some senators in recent months on plans to cap carbon from utilities. Amid election-year politics and an already-crowded legislative calendar, consideration may be punted until a lame-duck session. Reid stated that small business legislation will top the chamber’s agenda this month, but recently suggested that a narrow energy bill could see floor action before the election.

The energy bill will likely include incentives for natural gas vehicles and the “Home Star” energy efficiency retrofits program, two measures Reid has indicated he supports. The “Home Star” legislation establishes a $6 billion rebate program to encourage immediate investment in energy-efficient appliances, building mechanical systems, insulation and energy-efficiency retrofits for households.

Rockefeller challenges climate rules

With climate legislation likely off the table, opponents of the Obama administration’s greenhouse gas rules are planning efforts to hinder EPA’s climate regulations, while environmentalists seek to protect the agency’s authority.

Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has stated he will seek a vote this year on his bill that would block EPA from regulating stationary sources’ emissions for two years. Rockefeller told reporters in July that Reid promised a vote on the measure before the November election. Rockefeller’s bill has six Democratic co-sponsors, including North Dakota Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, Sens. Tim Johnson (SD), Claire McCaskill (MS), Ben Nelson (NE) and Jim Webb (VA).

Reid promised the vote in order to siphon Democratic support away from a more sweeping resolution from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), according to a Senate Democratic aide. There was great speculation that Senator Murkowski would have offered the legislation, which sought to altogether block EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, as an amendment during a mark-up of the Fiscal Year 2011 Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations bill, which was postponed this week.

If Rockefeller’s bill comes up for a vote, several senators may bring up an alternative aimed at draining support from it. White House officials have insisted that Obama would veto the Rockefeller bill if it reached his desk. Many see an appropriations amendment as having a better shot because it would be more difficult for the president to veto.

Carper to push air pollution bill

The Senate may also move forward this fall with legislation aimed at curbing conventional air pollution from power plants. Sens. Carper and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) have introduced S. 2995, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 2010. This legislation would mandate steep cuts in nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury from electric utilities over the next decade. Carper had pushed to have the measure included as part of broader climate legislation, but with slim prospects for that this year, Carper is pushing to move the bill on its own.

Carper, Chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety, hopes to move forward with a markup in the next few weeks. Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has promised a markup, but no date has yet been set, according to a Carper spokesperson.

Another shot at tax extenders?

Another piece of legislation that may see action on the Senate floor this fall is the $30 billion package of tax extenders that failed to pass the Senate in June.

The package includes the research and development tax credit President Obama last week called on Congress to renew and to increase from its previous rate of 14 percent to 17 percent, at a cost of about $100 billion. It also includes a $1-per-gallon production tax credit for biodiesel and renewable diesel along with credits for energy efficiency, steel industry fuel and alternative vehicle fuel. Republicans blocked three previous iterations of the package earlier this year.

Senate Finance Committee staff previewed a slightly modified bill to industry officials earlier this month, although many details were left uncertain, including how to pay for the bill that would cost $30 billion over a decade. Likely to be included — or even increased — as an offset is a 49-cent-per-barrel tax hike on oil companies to raise funds for the oil spill liability trust fund, which pays for economic damages after a company’s $75 million liability cap. The additional funds would relieve the government from paying for most of any future spills, freeing up revenue to support other programs. Republicans argue oil spill liability fees should not be used to pay for anything else.

HOUSE: NATURAL RESOURCES CHAIRMAN REQUESTS INTERIOR DOCS ON OFFSHORE FIRE

Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) requested to see permits related to Mariner Energy’s Vermilion 380 platform, which caught fire Sept. 2 in the Gulf of Mexico.

In a letter issued Sept. 3, Rahall asked for “prompt attention” from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in assembling a variety of documents related to the company and its activities in the Gulf, including inspection and non-compliance reports from the Vermilion 380 platform, and e-mail correspondence between the company, its contractors and sub-contractors, and their government overseers.

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM) Director Michael Bromwich, who has announced that he will launch an investigation into the fire, was copied on the letter. BOEM made it clear that “the current six-month suspension involves drilling rigs in deepwater and therefore does not apply to this platform.” Mariner’s production platform was operating in about 340 feet of water, much shallower water than BP’s oil rig, which was in 5,000 feet of water.

GULF RESEARCH: ESA AND OTHER ORGANIZATIONS WEIGH IN ON INDEPENDENT SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH FUNDING ISSUE

In mid-September, the Ecological Society of America was joined by 13 other professional organizations in sending letters to the Senate concerning the need for maintaining public access to independent scientific research conducted in the Gulf region in the wake of the BP oil disaster. The letter requests that “funding for research of actual or potential industry impacts be available and dispersed from an independent source.”

As part of the ongoing Natural Resource Development Assessment (NRDA), most government research funding is being spent on its own spill damage assessment process while BP is funding research as part of its legal defense in determining how much the oil company will have to pay in fines for restoration.

Many scientists as well as Members of Congress have argued for an independent funding source, separate from the NRDA, to allow widespread coordination throughout the research community and allow studies to be conducted in a timely and more open fashion.

The Senate has introduced, but not yet taken up, legislation to address the oil spill in the form of S. 3663, the Clean Energy Jobs Oil Accountability Act. The multi-society letter also requests that the Senate bill include “additional statutes as needed to ensure that scientists retain their right to independent peer-reviewed study.”

To read the letter, see: http://www.esa.org/pao/policyStatements/Letters/Letter%20to%20Senate%20on%20BP%20Gulf%20Research.pdf

RUSSIAN PLANT COLLECTION: ESA, AIBS URGE CONSERVATION

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) and the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) issued a joint letter this week requesting the Russian government forgo its plans to “bulldoze” the Pavlovsk Experiment Station outside Saint Petersburg.  The letter, not only went to Russian President Medvedev, but also to others, including Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and several others.

According to the letter, the planned auction of the research site covers an area containing 5,000 distinct varieties of fruit trees and plants, most of which are extinct or endangered around the world and have been cultivated since 1926. The living collections at the Pavlovsk Experiment Station have been cultivated in part to serve as a type of insurance against future plant diseases or catastrophic events. Specifically, seed banks, germplasm and living plant collections are critical in reintroducing food sources should humanity experience a global food pandemic, because of a new crop disease or widespread drought.

The letter also calls attention to  the “precarious” state of science collections worldwide where many suffer from insufficient funds leading to deterioration of facilities and loss of expert staff.  In their joint letter, ESA and AIBS recommend that government and non-governmental organizations that fund scientific research increase investments in the physical and human infrastructure of living and non-living natural science collections.

Following a recent audit by a Russian commission, the auction has been postponed, possibly until the end of October according to Russian news reports. The Russian Housing Development Foundation has announced the formation of an independent international commission to evaluate the presence of unique plant specimens housed there.

To read the letter, see: http://www.esa.org/pao/policyStatements/Letters/Letter%20re%20Vavilov%20Institute%20of%20Plant%20Industry.pdf

PUBLIC COMMENT OPPORTUNITY: NATIONAL CLIMATE ASSESMENT UNDERWAY

The US Global Change Research Program has announced the publication of “US National Climate Assessment Objectives, Proposed Topics, and Next Steps” and requests public comments. The document describes the objectives of the National Climate Assessment (NCA) process, provides an initial outline of the next NCA synthesis report (scheduled for publication in June 2013), and describes the next steps in planning for and implementing the NCA process.

The National Climate Assessment (NCA) is being conducted as part of the Global Change Research Act of 1990, which requires a report to the President and the Congress that evaluates, integrates and interprets the findings of the $2.6 billion federal research program on global change (USGCRP) every four years.

Public comments received on these documents will be evaluated and, if appropriate, used to inform the NCA structure and process. Updates on the NCA structure and process will be posted on the NCA Web site: http://globalchange.gov/what-we-do/assessment

EPA: COMPETITVE GRANTS AWARED FOR GREAT LAKES RESTORATION INITIATIVE

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun awarding its competitive grants under President Barack Obama’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which targets the most significant environmental problems in the region. Awards will be published on the multi-agency website at http://greatlakesrestoration.us.

The Great Lakes provide some 30 million Americans with drinking water and underpin a multi-billion dollar economy. President Obama has proposed significant funding as part of his Great Lakes Restoration Initiative since Feb. 2009. The initiative action plan, which covers FY 2010 through 2014, was developed by a task force of 16 federal departments and agencies to implement the president’s historic initiative.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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