Northwest leaders: coal export proposal deserves environmental review

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst A proposal to develop new marine coal export terminals in Oregon and Washington, which could ship between 75 million and 175 million tons of Powder River Basin coal annually to Asia, has drawn concern from environmentalists in the region. The National Wildlife Federation and the Association of Northwest Steelheaders have released a report outlining various environmental concerns to local communities brought on by coal production in the region. The six export terminals would be located in Cherry-Point, Grays Harbor, Longview, Port of St. Helens, Port of Morrow and Coos Bay. In the report, entitled “The True Cost of Coal,” the authors state that the proposed projects would pose threats to public health and set back decades of successful environmental recovery efforts in the region.  Among the detriments cited in the report are air pollution from coal dust, noise pollution and congestion from increased train traffic, increased risk of invasive species from tanker traffic as well as mercury deposition and ocean acidification, which could lead to the loss of salmon and steelhead, critical to the regional economy. A number of local communities and organizations, including Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility and Oregon’s Environmental Justice Task Force and the American Indian Yakama Nation tribe, have called upon Governor John Kitzhaber (D-OR) to delay any coal-export projects until a comprehensive health impact assessment is completed. The effort is being pushed by mining corporations, including Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Cloud Peak Energy and Ambre Energy North America. The Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, which advocates for the aforementioned entities, contends that “the proposed terminals would create thousands of new jobs and generate tens of millions in additional tax revenue for schools and other services in Washington and Oregon. The group’s website further maintains that the six proposed coal export terminals “can be built in a safe and environmentally responsible way.” The issue has garnered attention from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) has introduced H.R. 6202, the True Cost of Coal Act. The bill imposes a $10 per ton tax on coal and establishes a Coal Mitigation Trust Fund to mitigate potential negative environmental impacts of coal transportation. The bill is unlikely to advance in the Republican-controlled House. Reps. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Denny Rehberg (R-MT), both supporters of Powder River Basin coal production, have been joined by leading Republicans and some Democrats in calling on the Obama administration to initiate project-specific permit reviews rather than the broad environmental impact assessments environmental advocates endorse. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has issued a letter requesting that the Bureau of Land Management and...

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ESA Policy News: June 22

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: HOUSE COMMITTEE MOVES AGRICULTURE, INTERIOR SPENDING BILLS  This month, the House Appropriations Committee has continued work on its Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 spending bills. Most recently, it has released legislation funding environmental and agricultural federal programs. On June 19, the committee approved its Agriculture Appropriations Act for FY 2013. That day, the committee also released its FY 2013 Interior and Environment appropriations bill, which was marked up by subcommittee the following day. Agriculture In total, the Agriculture Appropriations Act for FY 2013 includes $19.4 billion in discretionary spending, a $365 million reduction from FY 2012 and $1.7 billion less than Obama’s FY 2013 budget request. Agricultural research programs, including the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, would be funded at $2.5 billion, a $35 million reduction from FY 2012. The Natural Resources Conservation Service would receive $812 million, a $16 million decrease from FY 2012. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service would receive $787 million, $33 million below FY 2012. A funding program to help farmers make environmental improvement on their lands was cut by $500 million compared to the current farm bill’s authorized levels. Interior The House Interior and Environment Appropriations Act for FY 2013 contains $28 billion in funding, a cut of $1.2 billion below FY 2012 and $1.7 billion below the president’s FY 2013 budget request. The bill funds the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Forest Service and related environmental initiatives. EPA funding undergoes a particularly high number of cuts in the House bill. The bill funds EPA at $7 billion, a $1.4 billion (17 percent) cut from FY 2012. This brings total funding in the bill below FY 1998 levels. The legislation continues a cap on EPA’s personnel at the lowest number since 1992 and cuts the office of the EPA administrator by over 30 percent. The EPA Congressional Affairs office receives a 50 percent cut. For additional information on the Agriculture bill, click here. For additional information on the Interior bill, click here. OSTP: SCIENCE COMMITTEE REVIEWS WHITE HOUSE PRIORITIES On June 20, 2012, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee hosted White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren for a hearing entitled “Examining Priorities and Effectiveness of the Nation’s Science Policies.” During the hearing several Republicans inquired if the U.S. was maintaining investment in certain areas, including space technology and high-energy physics, relative to other countries. Holdren responded that the U.S. remains “on the cutting edge” and “unmatched”...

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Managing non-native invasive plants

 This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst Many invasive species can have a domino effect of throwing an entire ecosystem off balance by diminishing native plant or animal species that function as an important resource for both natural ecosystems and human communities. According to the Nature Conservancy, the estimated damage from invasive species worldwide totals over $1.4 trillion, five percent of the global economy. Invasive species that have gained notoriety in the United States include the Burmese python, Asian carp, Northern snakehead fish,Asian tiger mosquito, emerald ash borer and  brown marmorated stink bug. Non-native  invasives from the plant kingdom can be just as damaging, if not more so. Invasive plant species have the ability to reduce the amounts of light, water, nutrients and space available to native species in an ecosystem. Their ability to affecthydrological patterns, soil chemistry, soil erosion and fire frequency can also have disastrous economic consequences for human society, particularly the agricultural industry. Federal management of invasive species is primarily handled by the United States Department of Agriculture along with the National Park Service.  According to the U.S. Forest Service, invasive exotic plants constitute eight to 47 percent of the total flora of most states in the nation. Of the approximately 4,500 exotic species currently in the U.S., at least 15 percent cause severe harm. Examples of the detriments of invasive plants include alteration of food webs, degradation on wildlife habitat, changes of fire and hydrological regimes and increases in erosion rates. The Forest Service estimates that the United States spends approximately $145 million annually in its attempt to control non-native invasive plants. In a recent edition of the Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, ESA Graduate Student Policy Award winner Sara Kuebbing discusses her work on invasive plant species at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. In addition, Kuebbing serves on the Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council (TN-EPPC). Her work has included some of the most problematic invasive plant species in the state of Tennessee and the greater United States. During the podcast, Sara touches on her research and efforts by TN-EPPC and affiliated state entities to educate communities on invasive plant species and manage both existing and potential threat species. Perhaps among the most renowned invasive plant species is kudzu, which currently inhabits 30 states and the District of Columbia. According to scientific studies, kudzu’s nationwide invasion costs about $100-500 million per year in forest productivity loss. Kudzu can grow on top of structures and even other plants, including trees, basically suffocating them by obstructing their access to light and other necessary resources.  Power companies spend about $1.5 million annually to control...

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ESA Policy News: March 23

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. HOUSE: FY 2013 BUDGET PROPOSAL CUTS INNOVATION, FEDERAL WORKFORCE On March 20, House Republicans unveiled their proposed budget resolution for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. Sponsored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the budget bill sets an overall discretionary spending limit of $1.028 trillion in FY 2013, $19 billion below the spending caps established in the Budget Control Act. Among its provisions, the House budget resolution includes significant cuts to Department of Energy programs while expanding oil and gas drilling. It also supports the sale of 3.3 million acres of federal lands identified in a 1997 Department of Interior report that were deemed suitable for sale or exchange to benefit the Everglades restoration effort in Florida. The White House released a statement asserting that the Ryan plan would cut clean energy programs by 19 percent and slash $100 billion from science, space and technology programs over the next decade. The budget also proposes to cut the federal government workforce by 10 percent, providing $368 billion in savings. Under the proposal, federal employee retirement contributions would also rise from 0.8 percent to 6.3 percent. The bill would also extend the current federal pay freeze to 2015. View the full FY 2013 House budget proposal here. The White House response to the House budget proposal can be viewed here. SENATE: COMMITTEE REVIEWS EPA MERCURY STANDARDS FOR POWER PLANTS On March 20, the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety met for a hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency’s new mercury rules for power plants. EPA finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), the first national standards to protect American families from power plant emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollution like arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide on Dec. 16, 2011. “I believe it’s possible to have a clean environment and a strong economy. I think it’s a false choice to say that we have to have one or the other; we can have both. That is especially true for cleaning up our air pollution,” declared Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) in his opening statement. “In fact, as the EPA has implemented the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, our nation’s air has gotten cleaner, while electricity rates have stayed constant and our economy has grown by 60 percent. For every dollar we spend cleaning the air, we’ve seen $30 returned in reduced health care costs, better workplace productivity, and lives saved.” Subcommittee Ranking Member James...

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Great Lakes Worm Watch

By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer. RYAN Hueffmeier wants to talk to you about the humble earthworm. Trusty fish bait, friend to schoolchildren, gardeners and composters, the earthworm is no friend to the hardwood forests of the Great Lakes. It is a European invader, and its decomposition services, well known to gardeners, are not helpful to the forest ecosystems that have evolved without them. Hueffmeier is program coordinator for Great Lakes Worm Watch, a citizen science project based at the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota, and he is well versed in explaining the earthworm situation to audiences of a broad range of ecological and vermicological familiarity. There are no earthworms native to the northern reaches of North America. Land that lay under heavy ice during the last ice age lost any worms it may have had (the fossil record is thin on soft-bodied creatures). Native earthworms do trawl the soils farther south, but their advance is slow; they had not re-colonized the upper Midwest and Canada at the time Europeans began to colonize North America. Researchers suspect the worms hitchhiked across the Atlantic in the ballast of ships and the root balls of imported shrubs. Earthworms have now arrived in the Great Lakes vicinity—not everywhere, some earthworm-free places remain, but the worms are spreading, and humans are their vector. Ecologists can sometimes see the advance of the worm front in the drought-like symptoms of infested forests. The European species seem to do well everywhere they go, even pushing into the historical territory of native earthworms. To understand how earthworms affect the ecosystems of the Great Lakes, it would be great to know where the worms are and are not, and in what abundance and species variety. But sampling all of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Indiana is a vastly labor intensive task. “The beautiful thing about citizen science is that you can get a lot of people to collect a lot of data,” said Hueffmeier. UM researcher Cindi Hale chartered the project in 2000 as Minnesota Worm Watch, and it has expanded to the entire Great Lakes region and beyond. They now have so much data that the problem has become how to organize and display it without a dedicated data manager on the job. By next year, they hope to have developed a more muscular interactive map, interconnecting different kinds of information. But their website has plenty of information and project ideas to poke through already— and there is still plenty of territory to cover on the way to understanding earthworm ecology and gaining public help in managing the spread of the worm....

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In Ecology News: Python vs the Everglades

Are exotic pythons devastating Florida’s Everglades National Park? By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer Sometimes the snake wins. The exotic Burmese python is a new and deadly predator allegedly squeezing the wildlife of Florida’s already environmentally pressured Everglades. Large snakes have been observed swallowing American alligators and 80-pound deer, but more common prey are small mammals like raccoons, rabbits, and ‘possums, which have been disappearing. Credit, Lori Oberhofer, National Park Service. ________ A WAXING population of Burmese pythons has suspiciously paralleled waning sightings of native critters in Florida’s Everglades, says a paper out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Following on the tail of an announcement two weeks ago (Jan 17th) that the U.S. will ban imports and interstate sales of the exotic python and three other large constrictor snakes (yellow anacondas and northern and southern African pythons), the story has been attracting plenty of media attention. The case against the python is not a slam dunk, but the authors amass circumstantial evidence of its guilt in connection to the missing native fauna, and legislators are buying it. [See: EcoTone, 21 Sep 2011, “Deregulation of protections against invasive species can have dire long-term economic consequences.”] Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) are native to the warm latitudes of Southeast Asia, and arrived in Florida as pets. The python has an eclectic appetite, dining on more than forty varieties of evergladian mammal, bird and reptile, including other carnivores, endangered species, and the occasional alligator. Visitors and rangers have sighted pythons in the park for thirty years, but the park only began to view them as a resident population in 2000. A short decade later, the python had risen to the disreputable distinction of “conditional reptile,” and was officially blacklisted. Hopes that the cold winter of 2010 would kill off the pythons have been disappointed, as Terence explains in Tuesday’s EcoTone post. In July 2010, Florida Fish and Wildlife forbade acquisition of new pythons, required grandfathered owners to microchip their pets and obtain a license, and instituted a permitting system for civilian python hunting in the public parks. The US has imported 112,000 Burmese Pythons since 1990, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Owners have been known to release their sinuous darlings after the snakes, which can reach almost 20 feet, grow too large to cohabitate comfortably in the house. But park managers speculate that the 1992 category 5 storm Hurricane Andrew may be the primary source of the python population explosion. An internal Fish and Wildlife study found little genetic variation in the python population—a sign of a small, closely related foundling group. “At...

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Wintering pythons? Unlikely, but not impossible

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst A commonly held sentiment is that cold winters prevent established non-native constrictors like the Burmese python in southern Florida from extending north. However, a recent report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggests that adaptability may eventually punch a hole in this notion. The FWS report studied the impacts of the January 2010 winter on the Burmese python and  found that, while the severe cold temperatures caused a decline in populations, the non-native python species also exhibited signs of adaptability. The report also highlights a study that observed ten radio-tracked pythons. Nine of the ten snakes died, but  the study authors also observed non-radio-tracked snakes using underground burrows, deep water in canals, or similar micro-habitats  micro-habitat features of the landscape to sustain themselves. The FWS report also references another study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in collaboration with Florida scientists that focused on the 2010 winter. The study was quick to note that that particular winter was unusually cold and severe, leading scientists to conclude a number of factors may have been at play.  “It is unclear whether python mortality was exacerbated by the duration of the cold event, the extremely cold temperatures at the end of the period, the sequence of events including a long persistent rain prior to plunging temperatures, or some combination of these factors.” It is worth noting that in the mountainous portion of their native range in Southeast Asia, Burmese pythons do experience cold winters and have been known to hibernate. It has been speculated that only certain northern populations of Burmese pythons are cold-adapted and that these have not yet found their way into the pet trade. The FWS report concludes: “Given the climate flexibility exhibited by the Burmese python in its native range (as analyzed through the U.S. Geological Survey’s climate-matching predictions in the United States), new generations within the leading edge of the population’s nonnative range could become increasingly adaptable and able to expand to colder climates.” While doomsday scenarios of pythons spreading as far north as South Carolina currently appear far-fetched, scientists would note that a wild animal’s natural adaptability mechanisms over time should not be underestimated. Consistently warmer winters brought on by climate change would also greatly aid in the establishment of the Burmese python and other non-native constrictors. Wintering pythons in the U.S. sounds like science fiction now, but every day we are learning that various aspects of science fiction are quickly becoming science facts-of-life. Photo Credit: William Warby  ...

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ESA Policy News: January 27

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. STATE OF THE UNION: PRESIDENT HIGHLIGHTS CLEAN ENERGY, RESEARCH GOALS For his third formal State of the Union address, President Obama outlined a set of proposals and initiatives for the 112th Congress to act upon in its final year. These included energy investment ideas and  increased funding for research and infrastructure. Many of these ideas came wrapped in the shroud of a populist tone, a style of messaging the president is expected to repeat as he seeks a second-term this year. “We’ve subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough. It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that rarely has been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that never has been more promising.  Pass clean energy tax credits.  Create these jobs.” The president also sought to strike a consensus tone by avoiding touching extensively on controversial issues and focusing on areas where there has been demonstrated bipartisan consensus, like clean energy. “We can also spur energy innovation with new incentives.  The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change.  But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation,” said Obama. The president’s call for increased investment in infrastructure, is also an issue that has won bipartisan approval in past years.  “During the Great Depression, America built the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge.  After World War II, we connected our states with a system of highways.  Democratic and Republican administrations invested in great projects that benefited everybody, from the workers who built them to the businesses that still use them today,” said President Obama. “Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.”   KEYSTONE PIPELINE: OBAMA REJECTS PERMIT IN LIEU OF CONGRESSIONAL MANDATE On Jan. 18, President Obama announced that he was rejecting approval of a permit to construct and operate the Keystone XL pipeline, which would extend from Canada’s oil sands to refineries in Texas. The decision was the result of a provision included in the Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-78), which mandated that the administration come to a decision on the Keystone pipeline within 60 days of the legislation being signed into law. The administration contends that the deadline, inserted by congressional Republicans, would not allow enough time to carry out...

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