ESA Policy News: September 30

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


Supporters of a renewable electricity standard (RES) measure are pushing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to take up language that would require utilities to source a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. S. 3813, Renewable Electricity Promotion Act of 2010 has been introduced by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS). The bill boasts 20 bipartisan original cosponsors.

The measure was once considered a shoe-in for inclusion in a Senate climate bill this year, but has failed to gain traction. Reid dashed hopes of passage this summer when he pulled the provision from his energy and oil spill-response package in July. But the Senate never voted on that package, and supporters are still advocating for passage of RES language this fall.

To amend or not to amend

What remains unclear is whether the Senate would take up a stand-alone RES measure. Observers say the language would most likely be included in a larger energy package that could also include oil spill-response language and energy efficiency and natural gas vehicle incentives.

In addition to gaining GOP votes, passage of a RES would also need to overcome the concerns of a handful of Democrats who are not keen on the measure. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) said she would not support a stand-alone RES. She wants to see it coupled with oil spill-response legislation before she will consider it.

RES bill could draw efforts to stymie EPA regs

The RES measure could become a prime target for lawmakers looking to stymie  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) climate rules slated to kick in on Jan. 2, 2011. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), has authored a measure that would block EPA from regulating greenhouse gases from stationary sources for two years. Rockefeller stated he was not planning to offer his measure as an amendment, but he did not rule it out. The coal state lawmaker is concerned about how the standard would affect his state. Rockefeller stated that Reid is promising a vote this year on his bill.

Even if a measure to block EPA climate rules could get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate, it would face an uphill battle clearing the Democratic-controlled House and would likely face a White House veto.

Graham bill could drain RES support

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) plans to float a new bill that would establish a mandate requiring utilities to source a percentage of their electricity from clean energy sources, including renewables, nuclear and “clean coal.” The measure could draw away support from the Bingaman bill, especially luring Republicans from states that generate large amounts of electricity from nuclear and coal.

Climate in conference?

The RES may also present an opportunity to address climate measures in a conference committee during a lame-duck session, although lawmakers see the prospect as unlikely.

If the Senate approves a RES bill this year, the measure could be conferenced with RES language included in the broad climate and energy bill that passed the House in 2009, opening the door for lawmakers to tack on climate measures. But a final package would be unlikely to get the needed 60 Senate votes if it included a price on carbon.


The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling held its 3rd meeting to examine the environmental impacts, response and restoration efforts related of the Gulf spill. The meeting was divided into two segments over Sept. 27 and 28 in Washington, DC.

The first meeting examined the federal government’s response efforts. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson touted the agency’s measured use of dispersants. Jackson noted it was the consensus of federal and local officials and researchers that using dispersants would be less harmful than allowing the oil to creep into the surrounding wetlands.  “Preventing the oil from reaching the shoreline was the number one goal,” she said. Jackson noted there was also a concern over whether cleanup efforts might cause hypoxia (a harmful drop in oxygen levels), already a problem before the spill.

EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard issued a directive May 26 instructing BP to limit the use of dispersants to only what was needed to be effective. BP’s use of dispersants fell 75 percent after the directive was issued, according to Jackson. The EPA administrator urged that more research is needed into the long-term effects of dispersants.


Scientists from around the country studying the BP oil spill will gather in Florida on Oct. 5 at the request of the White House science office to talk about coordination and priorities.

Also, in coming weeks, Gulf states are expected to complete an agreement on how to hand out the $500 million in BP-pledged research money over the next decade. $40 million of it has been given to four large academic institutions in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida as well as the National Institutes of Health, which then divided it among dozens of researchers. In Florida, 233 proposals competed for $10 million in grants with only 27 awarded funding.  The Gulf of Mexico Alliance, a consortium of state officials, is setting up a more permanent process for distributing the remaining $460 million from BP.

Two major types of research are taking place. One involves basic inquiries into questions such as where the oil has gone and what it means for the ecosystem, food web and public health. That is where BP has pledged to spend a half-billion dollars, with all findings to be made publicly available.

The other type of research supports the federal government’s natural resource damage assessment, or NRDA, a part of the legal battle that eventually will determine how much money BP will pay for restoration. In the NRDA process, both sides have hired experts and pledged them to secrecy. Under the 1990 oil spill law written after the Exxon Valdez disaster, both sides hire scientists, economists and attorneys and collect data in a legal process designed to “make the public whole” for loss of natural resources. Billions of dollars are at stake with court fights likely to go on for years.

Earlier this month, the Ecological Society of America and 13 other scientific organizations sent a letter to the Senate requesting an independent source of funding for research into the spill. For more information, see the September 17, 2010 edition of the ESA Policy News at


To put a new spin on a much-coined phrase: If you spill it, he will come. Actor Kevin Costner testified before the House Homeland Security Committee Sept. 22 to outline his $895 million plan to clean up future oil spills.

Costner’s plan calls for a fleet of 200 ships that can be sent out immediately to collect spilled oil. But instead of burning the oily water or bringing it back to port, the ships would be equipped with centrifuges that would separate the oil and water while at sea. The ships could then dump the clean water and continue collecting oil until they had gathered enough to sell back at port, Costner told the House Homeland Security Committee yesterday.

The centrifuges, devices that spin fast enough to separate lighter compounds from heavier ones, are made by Costner’s company, Ocean Therapy Solutions. And they have already been put to use; BP bought 32 in June to gather oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Costner’s new company, Blue Planet Solutions, says it can put the fleet together for about $895 million and charge between $100 million and $150 million annually to keep it ready to go. Costner said his company has presented the idea to BP, Chevron Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp. Costner said Congress should make spill response plans a prerequisite for offshore drilling, but pledged he would move aside if another company came up with a better approach.

Several of the world’s largest oil companies are already collaborating on an approximately $1 billion plan to rapidly contain oil released during accidents like the Deepwater Horizon explosion last April, which was the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Costner has invested $26 million to build Ocean Therapy Solutions’ centrifuges since buying the company in 1995 — the same year he starred in “Waterworld,” a post-apocalyptic action classic where villains ply endless seas aboard the resurrected hull of the Exxon Valdez.


The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing Sept. 23 on H.R. 4817, a bill to affirm states’ ability to spend money out of an abandoned mine land fund for clean up on hardrock sites.

The bill is being pushed by New Mexico Democratic Reps. Martin Heinrich, Harry Teague and Ben Luján. The fund, which is fed by a per-unit tax on coal production and payments from the Treasury, was originally aimed at coal mines. But some states that have cleaned up all of their high-priority coal sites now use it to clean up abandoned mines for “hardrock” minerals such as copper, gold and uranium. The practice has been under fire since the George W. Bush administration in 2006 declared the fund should only be used for abandoned coal sites.

However, the Senate version of the bill (S. 2830), authored by Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), has been opposed by the Obama administration. Bingaman said his bill merely restores a funding arrangement that was in place for nearly three decades. S. 2830 is co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado and Tom Udall (D-NM) as well as Utah Republicans Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett.

The Obama administration wants to end any abandoned mine land fund payments to states that have cleaned up all of their coal sites, trumpeting the proposal as a major cost-saving measure in the president’s 2011 budget.


Three energy powerhouses are backing the Department of Defense in a lawsuit by two environmental groups challenging the Pentagon’s use of Canadian crude extracted from oil sands. The case hinges on Section 526 of a 2007 federal energy bill barring federal agencies from acquiring fuels with higher greenhouse gas emissions than those from “conventional petroleum sources.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association petitioned the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California on September 29 to intervene on behalf of the Pentagon. The case could decrease the amount of Canadian oil used by the federal government, according to legal experts.

National security arguments

The three industry groups claim that oil-sands oil is critical for the nation’s economic health and security. The petition claims that the environmental groups are threatening jobs for oil refiners and businesses supplying, transporting and supporting the fuel. They also claim that it is impossible for the Pentagon to track which of its fuels come from the oil sands, making it impossible to comply with Section 526.

Buy from Canada or the Mideast?

There has been a loud lobbying campaign in recent weeks on both sides. This week, film director James Cameron joined tribal leaders in Canada in warning about the impact of expanding oil-sands production. On the heels of a peer-reviewed study claiming that oil-sands production is polluting a major Canadian waterway with toxic metals, tribal leaders traveled to Washington, DC this month to warn U.S. federal officials about the Alberta-Texas pipeline, known as Keystone XL.

The analysis on oil-sands-related water pollution, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, led to Alberta’s forming an independent panel this month to examine differences in its data versus that of the PNAS study. Meanwhile, congressional lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have been touring the oil sands in recent weeks.


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began a historic crackdown on pollution in the Chesapeake Bay Sept. 24, threatening to punish five mid-Atlantic states with rules that could raise sewer bills and put new conditions on construction. EPA’s proposed Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) levels come with mandates for sweeping reductions in pollution discharged by wastewater plants or washed into the Bay from farms and residential areas.

President Obama signed an executive order in May expanding EPA authority over the Bay program; the agency has set a 2025 cleanup deadline. The move by the federal agency is part of the biggest shakeup in the 27-year history of the Chesapeake cleanup. The agency went after Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware and New York, which together account for more than 70 percent of the pollution that causes “dead zones” in the Bay. The agency told the states that their plans contained “serious deficiencies” and said it could force them to make up the difference with expensive new measures. On the other hand, EPA stated plans from Maryland and the District of Columbia offer a “strong start.”


The Department of Interior (DOI) issued a Secretarial Order Sept. 29, establishing a policy to ensure the integrity of the science and scientific products used in the Department’s decision-making and policy development.

The new policy addresses misconduct issues among all levels of political and career employees. It works to ensure scientists will not be coerced to alter or censure scientific findings, and employees will be protected if they uncover and report instances of scientific misconduct.

The move is the latest in a prolonged effort for DOI to revise its scientific integrity policy. In a March 2009 memo, President Obama called on agencies to ensure that political officials hire scientists for their expertise and never suppress or alter any findings.


EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who grew up in New Orleans, will chair a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force that President Obama will soon create by executive order. Fellow Gulf region native Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, also a former governor of Mississippi, led the effort to craft a long-term recovery plan.

Creation of the task force is among the recommendations in a major strategy for Gulf Coast restoration that Mabus unveiled Tuesday. The plan also calls for steering a large amount of the Clean Water Act penalties against BP and other parties responsible for the Gulf oil spill into restoration. The Obama administration supports the idea, which requires Capitol Hill action.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released its final strategic plan that will guide the agency’s response to climate change.

The plan, titled “Rising to the Urgent Challenge: Strategic Plan for Responding to Accelerating Climate Change,” provides a framework within which FWS will work as part of the conservation community to help ensure the sustainability of fish, wildlife, plants and habitats in the face of accelerating climate change. It calls for federal agencies, states and conservation groups to work together to identify the most vulnerable species, establish a network of landscape conservation cooperatives and compile data on how climate change is affecting plants and wildlife.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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