Canada under the influence of oil

Grave consequences for ecology, democracy, and environmental protection   This post contributed by Sean Hoban, a post-doc in conservation biology at the University of Ferrara, Italy The past year has seen some forward-thinking environmental policies in the US: pro-science budgets, automobile fuel efficiency standards, coal power plant and fracking regulations, a recent (though rough) climate commitment, and rejection (for now) of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. We might expect our neighbor Canada, often pictured as a realm of clean water and majestic forests, to at least keep pace. Instead we see the opposite, a worrisome erosion of environmental regulations, depreciation of science, and disregard for democratic process from a conservative and proudly pro-oil government. The following regressive changes matter to ecologists, and just about everyone, worldwide. Budget cuts The recently passed 2013 Canadian federal budget enacts steep cuts to environmental agencies including Parks Canada and Environment Canada, which will reach beyond layoffs to changes in agency priorities and abilities, especially to pollution monitoring and mitigation. Scientist Peter Ross writes an eloquent response here. Another victim is the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, an independent, interdisciplinary panel that studied and offered recommendations on air, water, biodiversity, economic, and energy policy. Disturbingly, the government openly admits the reason for disbanding the panel is only partially budgetary- its recommendations on carbon taxes were not in line with government and public opinion: “It should agree with Canadians. It should agree with the government,” said Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Most problematic is that the budget bill extended far beyond apportionment of funds to radically change dozens of environmental regulations. Even Conservatives say that it was undemocratic to amalgamate so much in a budget bill, that each change deserved separate debate and voting. Fisheries Protection For example, the bill re-words the Fisheries Act, one of Canada’s strongest environmental protection measures, which banned activities resulting in “harm” to any fish habitat. New wording focuses only on “serious harm” (permanent alteration or destruction) to “commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries, or the fish they depend on.” A letter written by the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution states that this will remove protection of most endangered fish and other organisms in the food web, and devalues the inherent importance of habitats and biodiversity, though conservatives defend the measure as re-focusing agency efforts. The change was enacted in spite of opposition from hundreds of scientists, including fisheries organizations. Environmental Assessment In addition to a 40 percent cut in funds for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the government has enacted several changes to environmental review of energy development projects: a cap of one to two...

Read More

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”...

Read More

Scientists discuss federal role in hydraulic fracturing research

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA science policy analyst   The issue of hydraulic fracturing, a fairly new energy production method, has spurred intense debate, in part due unfamiliarity with the overall process. Recently on Capitol Hill, a group of federal scientists discussed their research in an attempt to inform the ongoing policy debate by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. On June 9, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) sponsored a briefing entitled “Hydraulic Fracturing: the State of Science.” During the briefing, federal scientists highlighted recent research  findings on  hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and also touched on  potential ecological impacts of the process. The speakers noted that while information to date suggests that the overall process is safe with proper monitoring efforts, additional research is needed to quantify its long-term effects. Speakers noted that groundwater contamination from imperfect cementing, existing wells, cracks in rock and levels of seismic activity are all variables that present some potential environmental risk factors of fracking. Brenda Pierce, Coordinator for the Energy Resources Program at USGS, discussed the program’s lead role in assessing energy resources for the onshore United States.  She  noted that assessments of recoverable energy resources change over time due to technological advancements and improved geologic understanding, among other factors. Rick Hammack, Natural Systems Monitoring Coordinator for the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory discussed the multifaceted role his agency and others, including the USGS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, play in monitoring the environmental impacts of shale gas development. Hammack stressed that the overall process takes five years, including one year of scientific study before fracking begins, several years of monitoring and assessment during energy production and a period of assessment after production is completed. Consequently, Hammack noted, it may be some time before we have a full picture of the environmental impacts from fracking and continued investment in research is important. Bill Leith, Senior Science Advisor for Earthquakes and Hazards at USGS, touched on the research USGS, other federal agencies and universities are conducting to better understand human-induced seismic activity from oil and gas production. Noting that mid-continent earthquakes have increased significantly in recent years, Leith clarified that the risk is manageable and that the fracking process itself has not triggered an earthquake large enough to raise safety concerns. Leith’s presentation, however, noted that the subsequent wastewater injection, which transmits wastewater from fracking into deep disposal wells, can cause earthquakes large enough to be felt and cause damage, though only a small fraction have caused earthquakes large enough to be of public concern. Leith believes that further research...

Read More

What’s your number?

This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs Many of us still operate under the notion that, as responsible car owners, we should get our vehicle’s oil changed every 3,000 miles to keep our engines running smoothly.  But it turns out that this engrained wisdom is not true if you own a vehicle that is about ten years old or younger.  Newer car models have cleaner-running engines and usually only need oil changes every 5,000 to 10,000 miles. In addition to saving money and time, the main reason this is important is because of how much oil is unnecessarily wasted and also contributes to water pollution by people who incorrectly dispose of oil  filters. An article in February’s Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment by Robin Meadows reports on this topic and on a recent survey administered by California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle).  The survey revealed that about half of all non-commercial drivers in the Golden State change their motor oil much too frequently. And while most of us are responsible—according to the article, 80 percent of used motor oil is recycled in the U.S.—the remaining 20 percent is not disposed of properly, ending up contaminating water.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 40 percent of the pollution in U.S. streams, rivers, and lakes is from motor oil. The CalRecycle survey also showed that many of us don’t bother looking up the recommended oil change frequency in our car manuals.  To raise awareness and encourage better practices, CalRecycle has started a campaign called Check Your Number.  As described in the Frontiers article: “Related kick-off events entailed giving free parking spots in crowded venues to drivers who check their owner’s manuals and display the recommended oil-change intervals on their windshields.” CalRecycle hopes to next focus on do-it-yourselfers who don’t properly dispose of oil filters. Photo credit:...

Read More

Pondering America’s energy future

I went to a New Republic briefing this morning on the future of U.S. energy policy.  What stood out most were the rather impassioned remarks from Senator Kerry (D-MA), who is not generally known for displaying much emotion.  He opened his comments by describing America’s “ostrich-like” approach to energy: “I’ve had it up to here,” he said, motioning to just below his chin.  Every prediction made years ago about this issue is coming true but even faster, said Kerry.  We’ve been receiving countless “postcards from the edge,” he said; warnings and evidence that we are bringing about undesirable changes with our energy demands: pine beetle outbreaks no longer held in check by cold temperatures, lobsters and other marine life threatened by ocean acidification, record breaking heat waves and hurricanes.  And in response to all these warnings, asked Kerry, what have we done?  The answer: “Business as usual.” And while Kerry allowed himself a few partisan digs—for example, we have a growing “flat Earth caucus”—he did quickly move on to more pragmatic arguments that echoed those made by others, such as former Republican California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. That is, we should use common sense to move forward on cleaner energy sources because doing so will be good for our health, jobs and the economy, and national security.  Declaring that “we’re our own worst enemy,” Kerry said that he believes “America’s greatness, America’s capacity to lead, is really on the line.” He pointed to the global competition in clean energy, noting that, according to a recent Pew study, China holds first place, leading the way in solar panel and wind turbine production.  Solar panel technology was invented in the U.S. decades ago by Bell Labs, yet China now exports this technology around the globe, selling it also to the U.S.  Germany has recently jumped to second place, bumping the U.S. to third.  While Germany is a far smaller country than the U.S., it has doubled its investment in cle an energy to $42.1 billion, while the U.S. invests $34 billion. Earlier in the briefing, several other speakers offered their views on America’s energy future.  Jacques Besnainou, Chief Executive Officer with the nuclear power services provider AREVA Inc. argued that the U.S. must come to grips with its aging nuclear fleet, the “oldest in the world.”  Doing nothing is not an option, said Besnainou; if no action is taken, these plants will have to be retired in ten years.  Yet another panelist, Christopher Guith, Vice President for Policy at the Institute for 21st Century Energy, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued that because natural gas is currently very cheap, the option...

Read More

Gulf seafood safety and the government’s response

Since oil began leaking from a rig in the Gulf of Mexico last April, concerns regarding the safety of the region’s seafood abounded. Now, more than two months after the leak was sealed, public officials, federal scientists and even President Obama have all been saying that seafood from the Gulf region is safe to eat. So why aren’t consumers digging in? Several local leaders from the region impacted by the oil spill addressed this topic last week during the most recent hearing of the National Commission on the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling in Washington, D.C.

Read More

ESA Policy News: September 30

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

Read More

Officials discuss oversight issues, lack of science in offshore drilling

The second meeting of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling highlighted both deficiencies in the Obama Administration’s and British Petroleum’s handling of the spill, as well as methods to improve coordination between those two parties.

Participants in the hearing, which occurred August 25 in Washington, DC, sought to examine regulatory oversight issues in offshore drilling. One point of consensus between both commissioners and several of the panelists was that scientific input into the review process needed to be increased.

Read More