ESA Policy News: December 22

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: CONGRESS PASSES BILL FUNDING AGENCIES THROUGH FY 2012 The week of Dec. 16, Congress passed H.R. 2055, an omnibus bill which funds the government through the remainder of the current fiscal year (FY) 2012, which ends Sept. 30, 2012. The bill passed the House by a vote of 262-121 and the Senate by a vote of 67-32. The omnibus bill incorporates the remaining nine appropriations bills that were not included in the “minibus” that passed earlier this year (P.L. 112-55). The new omnibus bill includes funding for the Departments of Interior and Energy as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. Energy and Water Overall, energy and water programs are funded at $32 billion for FY 2012, a $328 million increase over FY 2011. For Department of Energy science programs, the bill includes $4.9 billion, an increase of $46 million from FY 2011. The bill also includes $769 million for nuclear energy research and development, $43 million above FY 2011. For environmental management activities, the bill includes $5.7 billion, a $31 million increase over FY 2011. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is funded at $5 billion, a $145 million increase from FY 2011. The FY 2012 funding level for the Corps is also $429 million above the president’s request, one of the few agencies to enjoy this distinction this year. Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): $8.4 billion for FY 2012, $233 million below FY 2011.The conference agreement cuts $14 million (six percent) in clean air and climate research programs; $12 million (9.5 percent) in EPA’s regulatory development office; and $14 million (five percent) to air regulatory programs. The bill also reduces the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund by $101 million. Bureau of Land Management: $1.1 billion, $5 million below FY 2011. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: $1.5 billion, $28 million below FY 2011. National Park Service: $2.6 billion, $32 million below FY 2011. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement: $60 million (this agency was formalized in FY 2011). Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement: $76 million, including $15 million for oil spill research for this agency, formalized in FY 2011. U.S. Forest Service: $4.6 billion for the Forest Service in FY 2012, $91 million below FY 2011. Department of Defense Research and Development: $72.4 billion, $2.5 billion below FY 2011. Click here for the House summary of the omnibus bill or here for the Senate summary of the omnibus bill. A comprehensive listing of policy riders included in the bill...

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Psychologist, green building manager, religious leader urge ecologists to move beyond their own scientific community

The Ecological Society of America’s 96th Annual Meeting is taking place in Austin, Texas and kicked off on Sunday, August 7 with an Opening Plenary Panel featuring Richard Morgan, Austin Energy’s Green Building and Sustainability Manager, social psychologist, Susan Clayton of the College of Wooster, and the Executive Director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, Matthew Anderson-Stembridge.  Joining the trio, was ecologist Laura Huenneke, ESA Vice President for Public Affairs, who moderated the discussion.  The group explored the management, psychological, and religious and moral aspects of ensuring that Earth’s life support systems remain resilient in the face of human demands. In her opening remarks, Huennke said that the ecological community understands it has much to learn from other communities and that advancing the goal of stewardship of the planet will require multiple efforts by many different communities.  She said that ecologists should “listen very deeply” and work collaboratively with others. Richard Morgan explained that because Austin Energy is a city-owned electric utility, it must be responsive to its citizens, who want to see the utility take environmentally responsible actions.  Increasing energy efficiency and reducing waste are a key part of Earth stewardship, said Morgan.  The old fashioned way in which building permits are still issued, he said, are holding back the degree of progress that would be possible if these were updated.  The same prescriptive codes used in the 1980s are still in effect; if the real impact of a building in a community were taken fully into account, said Morgan, it would dramatically reduce energy consumption using already-existing technology. Matthew Anderson-Stembridge expressed his gratitude to ESA in inviting him to the Plenary and said that the open letter members of the scientific community send to religious leaders in 1990, set a course for many communities of faith to embrace care for the environment as part of their charge.  He said the term ‘steward’ is particularly meaningful to communities of faith and helps define our relationship to each other and to the environment.  Anderson-Stembridge encouraged ecologists to use the “universal human venue” of storytelling and then provide the facts. Susan Clayton recommended that ecological scientists be mindful of language choices in speaking about environmental issues.  She reminded the audience that because many people react negatively to well-known but politically affiliated people such as Al Gore, one should avoid associating such people with an issue because doing so can prevent an audience hostile to someone such as Gore from hearing your message.  It’s important to learn something about your audience and find a way to connect with their values, said Clayton; find language that resonates with where they...

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Weighing potential costs of hydraulic fracturing

The recent expansion of hydraulic fracturing across the nation has set off a debate among oil and gas industry officials and conservationists and environmental scientists. During a recent House Space, Science and Technology Committee hearing, Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) outlined the points of contention: “You have one group that’s got long experience with hydraulic fracturing [contending] it’s very safe” and “you have another group that’s new to it and is having to analyze the potential of risks associated with it.” Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking” involves using high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand to open cracks that release gas trapped in rock deep underground. Advances in fracturing technology have led to a dramatic surge in gas extraction nationwide. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the United States has 2,119 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, about 60 percent of which is “unconventional gas” stored in low permeability formations such as shale, coalbeds, and tight sands. In 2010, production of this “shale gas” doubled to 137.8 billion cubic meters, up from 63 billion cubic meters in 2009. A Pennsylvania State University study stated that deployment in 2008 of hydraulic fracturing technology in the Marcellus Shale region generated more than $240 million in state and local taxes for Pennsylvania, 29,000 jobs and $2.3 billion in total economic development. The oil and gas industry falls into the camp of those who contend that decades of practice show that hydraulic fracturing is important economically and poses no discernable threat to public health or the environment. In the other camp are conservationists and some researchers who say that fracking could pose a risk to drinking water supplies. During the recent congressional hearing, the committee’s majority Republican members repeatedly asserted that the Environmental Protection Agency’s $12 million study on the safety of hydraulic fracturing is wasting taxpayer dollars. “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). A key part of understanding different views of the potential risks of “fracking” is how it is defined. Many in the oil and gas industry use the term to describe not the drilling process but, more specifically, the completion phase where chemical-laced water and sand are blasted underground to break apart rock and release gas. Companies assert it is a safe practice since so far there has been no indication of hydraulic fracturing fluid rising above the mile or so of rock layers to reach drinking water aquifers. Others outside the industry typically view fracturing and drilling as interconnected. Consequently,...

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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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Shrew poo and worm goo are science too

Last week I had the pleasure of being a speaker at Buck Lodge Middle School’s Career Day. Several public schools in Maryland, where Buck Lodge is located, and other states organize important events like these to get students thinking about future opportunities. Do you remember what it was like to be in middle school? To the middle school me, a career seemed distant, vague and, frankly, too overwhelming to really think about. But the big question was always on my mind: What do I want to be? As I told the students at Buck Lodge, at the time, I knew I enjoyed writing and painting and found science fascinating, but that was the scope of my “career path.” I chose a high school and college known for their science programs—seemingly small decisions that actually said quite a bit about my true interests. But it wasn’t until a couple years into college that my advisor told me about a career in science writing; the more I learned about it, the more I knew it was the right fit. I was able to learn about the latest research and share it in creative ways. As I tried to express to the students, this is why I chose science: It can be fun, weird and important all at once, and it can show you a side to the world you never knew existed. So when I explained my career to the students at Buck Lodge, I wanted to show my excitement about the two main components of my job: science and writing. The science part was, naturally, what the students found most entertaining. At the beginning of each class, I asked the students how many of them liked “science, any kind of science.” Usually a sprinkling of hands rose. Then when I asked how many students liked animals or bugs, the hands shot up. “That is what I do,” I said, “I write about animals, bugs, plants, bacteria and how they all interact with each other and their environment. This science is called ecology.” The students inevitably wanted to know about the “coolest” or “weirdest” thing a (ecological) scientist has studied. I asked them if they had heard of the water bear. In one class, the students logically guessed a water bear is a bear that is particularly good at swimming. But the room erupted in “Ew!”s and “Gross!”s when I explained that the water bear is a microscopic animal living in mosses and wet environments all over the world—that they may have actually touched a water bear and not even known it. The students continued to comment on its translucent cuticle...

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Living in a city within a park

A satellite view of Baltimore, Maryland, would show plenty of abandoned buildings and parking lots, with parks—such as Patterson and Gwynns Falls parks—scattered throughout. However, while there is an abundance of concrete and asphalt within the city limits, Baltimore is not a city in isolation. Like Washington, D.C. and other nearby urban areas, Baltimore lies within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

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