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...

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Unseen and unforeseen: measuring nanomaterials in the environment

International interest and investment in nanotechnology is growing—said panelists in this morning’s public forum in Washington, D.C. hosted by RTI International—and development and commercialization of this technology need to meet societal expectations. That is, explained moderator Jim Trainham of RTI, the public is concerned with understanding and controlling nanotechnology since, if it cannot be controlled, the technology is not considered helpful to society. Perhaps surprisingly, nanoparticles are not just synthetic, engineered nanotubes—nanoparticles occur naturally as salt from ocean spray or as ash from a volcanic eruption. “We are exposed to nanomaterials constantly,” said Cole Matson from Duke University’s Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology, “every breath we take.” It is this abundance of tiny materials that makes measuring the engineered nanoparticles more difficult. As Michele Ostraat from RTI’s Center for Aerosol and Nanomaterials Engineering explained, it is almost impossible for researchers to distinguish between background—that is the common, everyday nanoparticles—and engineered particles. Even more complicated, she said, there is a general lack of instrumentation that can perform real-time field measurements. Therefore, the concern with regulating nanotechnology is finding a way to measure how the engineered particles interact with the environment, including how  the environment alters these particles once released. It is a matter of measuring the risk to human and ecosystem health by determining the exposure to and hazard of the materials, Matson explained. “Everything has an impact,” said Matson, “the question is, is it detrimental?” So far there are general answers to these broad environmental questions. According to Matson, nanoparticles will reach the environment, they will be taken up by organisms, they may be toxic, they can alter ecosystems—including “managed” ecosystems such as wastewater treatment facilities—and they do interact with other contaminants. For all that is still unknown, there are some existing tools that are known being used to track the effects of nanomaterials, said Sally Tinkle from the U.S. National Science and Technology Council. For example, she said, “we have a long history of tracking particulate matter.” Matson and Ostraat agreed that aerosol research is the most prepared for tracking the distribution of nanoparticles. “We are farther ahead with air than water and particularly soils,” said Matson. One of the primary challenges is that, like any material, nanoparticles change when introduced to an environment. The physical and chemical properties shift, said Tinkle, “gold becomes red, carbon becomes electric.” As Matson outlined as an example, salt alters particles in a marine ecosystem. Therefore, how nanoparticles are affected by salinity in the ocean determines where the particles will be distributed in the water column. Understanding this dispersal could help determine which marine organisms would likely be the most...

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Brown faces, urban places and green spaces: achieving diversity in environmental fields
Mar30

Brown faces, urban places and green spaces: achieving diversity in environmental fields

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2009 Programme for the International Student Assessment results showed the United States ranking 19th in math and 14th in science out of 31 countries. Following this news, President Obama announced a $250 million proposal to increase funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. As he stated in his budget message, “In a generation, we’ve fallen from first place to ninth place in the proportion of our young people with college degrees. We lag behind other nations in the quality of our math and science education.” The following post, contributed by Kellen Marshall-Gillespie, graduate student at University of Illinois-Chicago and recent recipient of ESA’s 2011 Graduate Student Policy Award, tells how diversity in environmental fields shows promise for the future of science. The student diversity was astounding, beautiful brown faces with shining eyes sat attentive and hanging on every word of the career panelists. This was the scene at last year’s Green College and Careers Fair organized by the Ecological Society of America and The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program. The goal was to diversify environmental and ecological careers by reaching out to underserved communities: The hope is to change the face and fields of environmental careers by providing opportunities to those who traditionally lack access. The career fair was hosted at The New School in New York City—over 100 high school students (from 9 schools around the New York-New Jersey area) were treated to a highly professional career fair, including structured school-to-college workshops. The event was made possible with support from the Toyota USA Foundation. Students received information about environmental and natural resource careers and topics such as research ethics, laboratory work tips, resume guidelines, reference letters and tips on being successful in college. Other sessions included exhibitor presentations, a financial aid workshop, mock job interviews and a career panel. The career panelists—Victor Medina, Kellen Marshall-Gillespie, Charlee Glenn and Ann-Marie Alcantara— were young professionals and alumni of both the LEAF and ESA’s Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS) program. They addressed more than just traditional college talk—they got to the heart of being minorities in fields where they are underrepresented. Glenn, a panelist and SEEDS alumna, shared her story of how ecology became an interest, which subsequently developed into her current position as Diversity Programs Assistant for ESA’s SEEDS program. Medina, a LEAF alumnus, discussed how he uses his educational and personal success to influence others within his community to do better—not only for themselves but for the environment as well. Alcantara, also a LEAF alumna, talked about her goals of being...

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Balancing human well-being with environmental sustainability: an ecologist’s story of Haiti

“Parc National La Visite is one of the few remaining refuges for Haiti’s once-remarkable biodiversity. It is also the only refuge for over 1,000 desperately poor families, the poorest people I have encountered anywhere on this planet. Naked children with bloated stomachs stood next to pine-bark lean-tos and waved shyly to me as I walked through the forest. Their parents eke out the meanest existence from small gardens and, if they are fortunate, a few chickens.” This is how ecologist Norm Christensen from Duke University began the story of his journey in Haiti. Christensen’s article, featured in the “Trails and Tribulations” column from the March issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, touches on a sensitive but vital subject: What does “sustainable development” mean to those who are barely making it day-by-day? “In the context of places like Haiti and the other desperately poor areas, sustainable development—to think of it or define it—is in terms of improving the prosperity of some of the world’s very poorest people in ways that are not going to compromise opportunities for future generations and indeed are going to enhance those opportunities,” Christensen explained in a recent Beyond the Frontier podcast. Last year’s earthquake in Haiti caused severe widespread damage to the country’s already fragile infrastructure. A subsequent cholera outbreak added to the devastation. In times of such palpable human suffering, it can be difficult to imagine the role of the environment; however, Haiti’s history of deforestation is a strong example of the link between people and ecosystems—that is, the connection between infectious disease and a decline in biodiversity. As Ethan Budiansky explained in a Huffington Post article: “Over 98 percent of [Haiti] has been deforested by logging and improper environmental management. The resulting lack of biodiversity leads to impoverished soil, which is more susceptible to erosion. The eroded hillsides cause deadly mudslides during heavy rains and pollute drinking water. Farmers find it harder to grow nutritious food, and Haitians become malnourished, leaving them vulnerable to diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and cholera. The chain of events moves forward with a cold logic; an unhealthy ecosystem results in unhealthy people. Fortunately, it can be reversed by planting trees through sustainable agro-forestry and following basic plant and soil management techniques.” While committing to sustainable development is certainly dependent upon those who choose to practice it, Christensen explained in the podcast and article, it is not solely their responsibility.  Everyone—whether they live in a developed or underdeveloped nation—is a steward of the planet. And our actions affect more than just our immediate environment. Read more in the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment article “The...

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Hybrids in the Arctic
Mar17

Hybrids in the Arctic

Hybridization has led to some of the unique, naturally-occuring species present today, such as the Mallard duck-American Black duck hybrid. Usually this natural process takes generations to produce a new distinct species; however, it is possible for hybrids to emerge within one generation. For example, interspecies breeding could be expedited due to environmental stressors caused by climate change. Species that would not normally come in contact with one another are being pushed into the same habitats—called hybrid zones—due to the removal of physical barriers, like glaciers and ice sheets. The arctic area in particular is experiencing an increase in hybridization due to habitat changes brought about   by climate change. Everyone has seen the photographs of the polar bear clinging to a shrinking piece of ice – the shrinking ice is in fact what is encouraging the influx of non-native species into the Arctic. Polar bears broke off as their own species hundreds of thousands of years ago because they were able to adapt to the colder climate and find food. Charlotte Lindqvist of the University of Buffalo found that polar bears were able to survive the last interglacial warming period; however, Lindqvist added, because the rate of current climate change is so much faster , these Arctic animals are unable to adapt quickly enough. Polar bears are essentially being hit with a 1-2-3 punch. Not only is their habitat diminishing, so too, are their food sources, —negatively impacting their  breeding success. Research has shown that, due to lack of sustenance, female polar bears produce less healthy offspring, and the offspring that survive tend to be smaller in size. Additionally, polar bears may now have to deal with an increased number of grizzly bears. Grizzly bears do not only pose a competitive threat to polar bears but a genetic threat as well. With melting Arctic ice, more polar bears are being forced to remain on land—meanwhile, the warmer temperatures and diverse food sources are enticing grizzlies to move further north. The cross-breeding of polar and grizzly bears could eventually lead to a complete loss of the unique genes of polar bears that have enabled the bear’s survival in the Arctic for so long. Grizzly bears are better suited for the warmer temperatures of the uplands of western North America—that is, compared to Arctic temperatures. With the increase in grizzly population in the Arctic due to warmer temperatures, and the decrease in polar bear population due to habitat constraints, potential cross-breeding could be more likely to occur. While the accepted rule of thumb is that hybrid offspring are unviable—or, unlikely to survive since they are unable to reproduce—there is support in...

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Congress: Dissecting the current federal fiscal crunch

Countless federal programs, including a disproportionately large amount of science and conservation programs, will be on the chopping block this year as Congress and the White House work to reign in federal spending in an effort to lower the deficit. The current debate focus is on discretionary spending which, according to Factcheck.org, accounts for 36 percent of total federal spending. The White House typically releases its budget in February.  The Administration’s proposed FY 2012 budget , in an attempt to keep spending level for the next few fiscal years, cuts spending for every dollar increased. For example, while the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy budgets would see strong increases in the President’s budget, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and countless research programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture would face steep cuts. The U.S. House of Representatives is particularly keen on curbing non-defense, non-security discretionary spending, which comprises 12 percent of the budget. The House Republicans’ recently passed measure to curb spending (H.R. 1), would cut funding for a number of conservation efforts, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gasses and water pollution. The federal budget, which is under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Budget Committees, sets maximum spending levels (or ceilings) for how much the government can spend for the upcoming fiscal year, beginning Sept 30 and ending Oct 1 the next year. The budget resolution is technically non-binding and is not signed by the president. As an authorization measure it does, however, set funding limits and serves as a roadmap in the subsequent crafting of appropriations bills, which allocate specific dollar amounts to the federal agencies, programs and initiatives. Rarely are appropriations bills wrapped up before the close of the fiscal year, Sept. 30. Generally, when appropriations spending levels are not decided before the close of the calendar year (in December), they are usually decided between January and February the following year, prior to when Congress begins debate on the upcoming fiscal year budget. It is uncharacteristic for Congress to continue debating current fiscal year appropriations spending levels well into March, a time during which the focus is typically centered on the budget for the next fiscal year. The current fiscal situation is unique in several ways. First, calendar year 2010 marked the first year since 1974 that the House failed to pass a budget for the coming fiscal year. However, there have been several instances where Congress has failed to come to agreement on a final budget, most recently in 2006, 2004 and 1998. In fall 2010, Congress also did not come to agreement on appropriations spending for...

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ESA Policy News: January 13

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. HOUSE: COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN TO REFOCUS PRIORITIES, PROBE CLIMATE SCIENCE Among the new priorities of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in the 112th Congress will be an  investigation of climate science. Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) opposes cap-and-trade policies and the Environmental Protection Agency’s plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Hall has repeatedly suggested that so-called “Climategate” e-mails between climate scientists posted on the Internet in 2009 raise doubts about the overall quality of climate science, a stance that landed him on the liberal Center for American Progress’ list of “climate zombie” lawmakers who question the scientific consensus on global climate change. Hall said his committee’s vice chairman, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), an outspoken climate skeptic and former committee chairman, will take the lead on the issue. Sensenbrenner also served as the top Republican on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which was abolished this year when his party took control of the House. EPA: HOUSE AND SENATE LEADERS SPAR OVER CLIMATE RULES Committee leaders within the House and Senate have already begun sparing over legislative attempts to block the Obama administration’s global climate change and air pollution rules. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) criticized the House GOP majority for targeting rules covering healthcare and the environment. Chairwoman Boxer asserted that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is following the will of Congress in implementing its carbon regulations, she said, pointing to a 2007 Supreme Court decision that found that the Clean Air Act grants the agency the authority to do so. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) is planning an early series of hearings on the Obama EPA rules that target power plants, petroleum refiners and other major stationary industrial sources. He’s also said that he’s considering legislation that would stop the agency’s efforts until a series of lawsuits have been resolved. PUBLIC LANDS: HOUSE CHAIRMAN TO TARGET BLM ‘WILD LANDS’ POLICY Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT), Chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee,  plans to contest whether the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has the authority to impose temporary wilderness restrictions on federal lands in the West. GULF SPILL: PANEL RELEASES RECOMMENDATION REPORT ON OFFSHORE DRILLING The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, tasked by President Obama to investigate the causes and effects of the disaster in the Gulf, released its final report Jan. 11. The commission report concludes that the...

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Taking a shot at photographing science and nature

Go to Google Images and search for “science.” What are the results? More than likely, the search will come up with beakers, protons, lab coats, double helixes, pulsars, microscopes and perhaps a smattering of trees and images of the globe. Photographs of researchers boot-high in streams collecting samples, for instance, or of a Cayman Island blue iguana in its natural habitat, would probably be few and far between. But images such as these—which show an aspect of the biological sciences, environmental processes or a subject of ecological research—rarely show up, even though they are of course also science.

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