Policy News: May 20

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

SENATE: GOP MEASURE TO EXPAND OFFSHORE DRILLING IS REJECTED

On May 18, the U.S. Senate rejected S. 953 by a vote of 42-57.  The Offshore Production and Safety Act of 2011 sought to expedite and expand offshore oil and gas drilling nationwide..  Sponsored by Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the bill–similar to legislation the House passed in recent weeks—would would require new lease sales in the Arctic, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico and set deadlines for several upcoming Gulf of Mexico lease sales.

The bill was opposed by every Senate Democrat. Five Republicans, including Sens. Jim DeMint (SC), Mike Lee (UT), Richard Shelby (AL), Olympia Snowe (ME) and David Vitter (LA), also voted against the bill. Democratic senators from Louisiana and Alaska expressed concerns that the bill does not contain provisions to share oil and gas revenues with coastal states. Sen. Snowe maintained that the measure fails to give states a role in determining what activities are allowed off their coastlines.

HOUSE: APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE RELEASES AGENDA FOR FY 2012 BILLS

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), announced May 11 the schedule for completion of work on the twelve fiscal year (FY) 2012 appropriations bills. The plan also includes the total planned funding for each of the twelve bills, which fund federal agencies.

In total the appropriations bills would reduce spending by over $30 billion compared to FY 2011 and $121.5 billion less than Ppresident Obama’s FY 2012 budget request. The Commerce, Justice and Science spending bill would be funded at $50.2 billion, $3 billion less than the FY 2011 enacted level and $7.4 billion less than the president’s request. The Energy and Water Appropriations bill would be funded at $30.6 billion, $1 billion less than the FY 2011 enacted level and nearly $6 billion less than the president’s request. The Interior and Environment Appropriations bill would be funded at nearly $27.5 billion, $2 billion less than FY 2011 and $3.8 billion less than the president’s request.

NATURAL GAS: SCIENCE COMMITTEE DISCUSSES EPA HYDRAULIC FRACTURING STUDY

The House Space, Science and Technology Committee met May 11 for a hearing examining a draft Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study on hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.”

Hydraulic fracturing involves using high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand to open cracks that release gas trapped in rock deep underground. It’s become a key ingredient of a dramatic surge in gas extraction across the nation, resulting in soaring domestic reserves and low prices. The expansion of the practice has also raised concerns on its effect on water and  climate.

Dr. Paul Anatas, Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development testified in favor of the study. According to Anatas, “the scope of the proposed research includes the full lifespan of water in hydraulic fracturing, from acquisition of the water, through the mixing of chemicals and actual fracturing, to the post-fracturing stage, including the management of flowback and produced water and its ultimate treatment and disposal, an approach EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) agreed was appropriate in their June 2010 review.”

The majority of the hearing’s witnesses testified in opposition to the EPA study and any federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing. Elizabeth Ames Jones of the Texas Railroad Commission stated those expressing concerns of environmental damage or contaminated drinking water are promoting a “fractured fairy tale.” She contended that EPA’s efforts could lead to federal government losses of up to $4 billion in revenue and states losing $785 million in revenue, in addition to lost jobs. Commissioner Jones contended that over many decades there already have been a number of studies on fracturing and stressed the importance of “minimizing duplicative research.”

Committee Republicans accused EPA of attempting to stifle energy production while trying to find a solution to a problem that may not even exist.  “The study intends to identify the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water without ever taking into consideration the probability that such an effect may occur,” said Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX).

Committee Democrats sought to defend the importance of the EPA study. Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) stated “The EPA study is an opportunity to gain more knowledge about hydraulic fracturing, and the opportunity should not be wasted by narrowing the scope so much that we keep ourselves ignorant to the technology’s impacts.”

ENDANGERED SPECIES: FWS ANNOUNCES PLAN TO REFORM LISTING PROCESS

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has announced a six-year plan to address the needs of more than 250 species it believes warrant protections under the Endangered Species Act (E.S.A.).

The “work plan,” filed on May 10 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks to resolve a legal challenge from WildEarth Guardians, one of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s most frequent plaintiffs. The work plan, if accepted, would allow the agency to make listing determinations for each of the species on its 2010 candidate list over the next six years, in addition to making petition findings for a number of separate species that have been the subject of recent petitions.

In its proposed agreement with Interior, WildEarth said that for the next six years it will refrain from litigation compelling 90-day and 12-month findings on new listing petitions the group submits and will limit the number of listing petitions it submits per year. In return, Interior has agreed to make certain 90-day and 12-month petition findings at issue in the litigation, take other specific E.S.A. listing actions over the next two years and take final action to resolve the status of candidate species for E.S.A. listing, WildEarth said.

The E.S.A. candidate list was originally intended to be an administrative tool that would identify species for which FWS would shortly make listing determinations. However a rapid growth in the volume and mandatory nature of court orders, settlement-agreement obligations, and statutory deadlines related to petition findings and other listing-related litigation has threatened to overwhelm FWS’s funding and staff. In the last four years, FWS has been petitioned to list more than 1,230 species, nearly as many species as have been listed during the previous 30 years of administering the E.S.A. FWS’s 2010 candidate list numbered 251 species.

A list of these candidate species is available at http://www.fws.gov/endangered/improving_ESA/listing_workplan.html

WOLVES: IDAHO, OTHER STATES IMPLEMENT PREDATOR ERADICATION MEASURES

The state of Idaho has approved its second wolf kill in two weeks, this time giving approval for sheriff’s deputies in the town of Elk City to kill wolves that have been blamed for preying on pets and elk.

Congress lifted Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for gray wolves within certain states in the northern Rockies through a provision (Sec. 1713) included in the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-10). The provision has subsequently been enforced by the Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The states of Idaho and Montana as well as parts of Oregon, Utah and Washington now have primary authority to manage the species. The delisting marks the first time that a species has been removed from protection through legislation rather than scientific review.

The state agency, Idaho Fish and Game, has declared wolves a “disaster emergency” and gave outfitters permission to kill problem predators. Once the federal safeguards were lifted, Idaho began distributing permits for wolf hunts.

There are roughly 1,200 wolves in Idaho and Montana and the two states plan to kill hundreds of wolves through licensed hunting. Montana last week said it will kill 220 of its estimated 550 wolves, and Idaho is weighing the same quota for its 700 wolves.

BATS: FWS UNVEILS NATIONAL PLAN TO ADDRESS WHITE-NOSE SYNDROME

On May. 17, the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) unveiled a national management plan to address the threat posed by white-nose syndrome, which has killed more than a million hibernating bats in eastern North America since it was discovered near Albany, New York in 2006.

The National Plan for Assisting States, Tribes and Federal Agencies in Managing White-Nose Syndrome in Bats intends to provide a national management strategy to investigate the cause of the syndrome and find a means to prevent its  spread. The FWS considered approximately 17,000 public comments it received on the draft plan. Since the syndrome was first documented, FWS has coordinated a national response that currently includes more than 100 state and federal agencies, tribes, organizations and stakeholders.

Over the last five years, white-nose syndrome, which was named for the presence of a white fungus around the muzzles, ears and wings of affected bats, has spread to 18 states and four Canadian provinces. Bat colony losses at the most closely monitored sites have reached 95 percent within three years of initial detection.

Ecologists and natural resource managers have been concerned because of the critical role that bats play in maintaining healthy ecosystems and in agricultural systems. A recent analysis published in Science magazine’s Policy Forum showed that pest-control services provided by insect-eating bats save the U.S. agricultural industry at least $3 billion a year.

The final document and additional information about white-nose syndrome are available online at http://www.fws.gov/WhiteNoseSyndrome/

SCIENCE: ESA SPONSORS EXHIBIT ON CAPITOL HILL

On May 11, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) was one of more than 30 organizations that participated in the 17th Annual Exhibition and Reception of the Coalition for National Science Funding.  Entitled “STEM Research and Education: Underpinning American Innovation,” the Capitol Hill event drew nearly 300 attendees, including five Members of Congress.  Exhibitors showcased research and education projects made possible by support from the National Science Foundation. Projects ranged from black holes to computer science teaching to restoring imperiled plant communities.

Read more at ESA’s blog, EcoTone:  http://www.esa.org/esablog/ecology-in-policy/a-science-poster-session-for-congress/

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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