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Policy News Update

July 14, 2008

In this issue: [Contract All : Expand All]

ESA CO-SPONSORS WILDFIRE BRIEFINGS ON CAPITOL HILL

On July 9, 2008, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) co-sponsored House and Senate briefings on “After the Fire: Approaches to Revitalizing Ecosystem Resources.”  The Society teamed up with the Soil Science Society of America and the Council on Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics to address this timely topic.  Featured speakers were: Norm Christensen, a forest ecologist with Duke University and current ESA President; Dan Neary, a soil scientist with the U.S. Forest Service at the Rocky Mountain Research Station; and Stephen Swallow, a resource economist with the University of Rhode Island.   Combined, the two briefings drew an audience of over 115 congressional staff, including staffers from both the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the House Committee on Natural Resources. 

Christensen noted that human activities have changed key factors that influence fire behavior but also pointed out that most fires do not necessitate post-fire interventions, which can be counter-productive to forest management.  Neary addressed the vital role of soil in forest ecosystems, describing it as the ‘skin’ of the Earth, and discussed how fire affects soil and water quality.  Swallow addressed the economics of wildfires, including impacts on tourism, water, wildlife, and other values important to people.  A main message of the jointly sponsored briefing was that integrated research that combines the biological, physical, and social sciences can help address how to manage the nation’s ecosystem resources.  The speakers’ powerpoint presentations will be available in the near future on ESA’s website: www.esa.org/pao/policyActivities/

BUSH ADMINISTRATION REJECTS EMISSIONS RULE

On July 11, the Bush Administration rejected the idea of using the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a rulemaking notice seeking public comment on the feasibility of such regulation.

EPA's decision to seek public comment leaves the job of curbing greenhouse gas emissions -- mandated by the Supreme Court last year -- to the next president and Congress.

The agency began examining the possible regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act after the Supreme Court ruled last year in Massachusetts v. EPA that the agency must determine whether such emissions endanger public health and regulate them if they are found to be harmful.  See the Ecological Society of America’s statement regarding the Supreme Court case at:  www.esa.org/pao/newsroom/pressReleases2006/11292006.php

EPA Administrator Steve Johnson said the agency's 588-page rulemaking notice, which summarizes EPA's work on the regulation over the past 15 months, reflects the complexity and magnitude of the issue. It includes a number of options for reducing emissions from buildings, manufacturing plants, trucking, agriculture and shipping.

Johnson described the rulemaking notice as "historic in its transparency," though it does not include information on a December draft endangerment finding that said greenhouse gases endanger public welfare.

Johnson's comments are a sharp departure from earlier EPA drafts that said the Clean Air Act is a viable tool for regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The rulemaking includes recent criticism from other federal officials objecting to the use of the Clean Air Act.

Susan Dudley, the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, wrote EPA on July 10, telling Johnson that issues raised during interagency review of the notice were so significant that staff had not been able to reach a consensus on the document.

"As a result, this staff draft cannot be considered administration policy or representative of the views of the administration," she noted. "I am waiving the requirement for review due to the extraordinary circumstances presented here."

The Agriculture, Energy, Commerce and Transportation departments sent a letter to Dudley on July 9 summarizing their objections to an earlier EPA draft that supported regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

"Our agencies have serious concerns with this suggestion because it does not fairly recognize the enormous -- and, we believe, insurmountable -- burdens, difficulties, and costs, and likely limited benefits of using the Clean Air Act to regulate GHG emissions," they said.

Industry leaders expressed concerns similar to those of the administration.

Meanwhile, groups such as the National Association of Clean Air Agencies described the rulemaking notice as disappointing and a stall tactic on the part of the White House. 

The chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Ed Markey (D-MA), described the notice as a display of political interference with potential regulation of global climate change..

EPA is accepting comment on the rulemaking notice for the next 120 days.

SENATORS INVESTIGATE WATERSHED, WILDERNESS BILLS

The Senate Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee will consider legislation the week of July 14 that would designate new wilderness areas in California and Colorado, as well as require the Interior Department to facilitate local management plans for watersheds.

S. 3085 would require Interior to create programs in which all stakeholders in a watershed convene to make collective management decisions. Potential stakeholders include individuals involved in hydroelectric production, livestock grazing, timber production, land development, recreation or tourism, irrigated agricultural production and the environment, as well as any affected federal agency or tribal government.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), would authorize $2 million for fiscal 2008 and 2009 -- eventually reaching $20 million per year by 2012 through 2020 -- hoping to create better, more harmonious management.

Not everyone thinks it will. "It's a recipe for disaster because you're putting people at the table who are already wreaking havoc on the environment," said John Carter, Utah Director of the Western Watersheds project. "All these cooperative agreements pander to livestock and other extractive users."

Instead, Carter called on the Forest Service to preserve watersheds by enforcing the laws in place.

Meanwhile, the "Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Wild Heritage Act," authored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), would designate nearly a half million acres in California as wilderness. The bill includes measures to protect training abilities at a military facility abutting a conservation area.

It would also designate stretches of several waterways, including the Amargosa River, Owens River Headwaters, as wild and scenic rivers, strengthening preservation standards in the area.

The panel will also consider S.3065, sponsored by Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO) to designate more than 250,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land in Colorado's Mesa, Montrose, and Delta counties as wilderness.

SCIENCE PANEL TO MARK UP CONSERVATION BILLS

The House Science and Technology Committee is slated to mark up two bills the week of July 14 aimed at improving water conservation.

H.R. 3957, sponsored by Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT), would direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create a research and development program designed to improve water efficiency and conservation technologies.

The program is meant to help spur innovation in the collection, treatment and reuse of rainwater and grey water, the waste water from sinks, baths and kitchen appliances.

Thirty-six states are anticipating local, regional or statewide water shortages by 2013, according to Matheson. He said his bill is one way to help stave off water shortages and better utilize the nation's finite water supply.

The committee also will tackle H.R. 2339, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX). The legislation directs the Energy Department to set up a program aimed at improving technologies that would allow water extracted during the development of domestic energy resources such as coalbed methane, oil and natural gas to be utilized for agriculture, irrigation, municipal or industrial purposes.

The United States generates up to 2.3 billion gallons of produced water per day, according to the committee.

The bill would authorize $20 million each year from fiscal 2008 through 2016.

SENATE PANEL LOOKS AT NUCLEAR REACTOR LICENSES

A panel of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will check up on the U.S. nuclear regulator's progress of reviewing new nuclear reactor licenses and renewing old licenses at a hearing on July 16.

This is the latest of several hearings on the future of nuclear energy held by Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) and ranking member George Voinovich (R-OH), key supporters of nuclear power.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has received and docketed applications for 15 new reactor licenses and is expecting at least another 15 over the next two years. The industry has argued it is critical that NRC review the applications as efficiently as possible, as any regulatory delays could scare away financial lenders and other projects.

The industry estimates the first new nuclear power plant could be operating by 2014, although other experts have said 2016 is more likely.

NRC told Congress in February it needs an additional $90 million in funds for its budget in 2009 to cover the costs of reviewing the new licenses as well as other imminent projects. But a strong possibility that Congress may use a continuing resolution for the 2009 appropriations could be a key problem for the agency attempting to ramp up its staff and already cramped working space.

Without the additional money, resources may be tight for NRC over the coming year as the agency must also review DOE's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository license application, license renewal applications and ongoing safety inspections of the current 104-reactor fleet.

It is also very early in NRC's new review process for reactor licenses, and unknown problems could emerge. A Government Accountability Office report issued last year said NRC had yet to fill some critical positions, develop training courses or implement computer-based tools "intended to enhance consistency and coordination" in the license reviews.

The report also said, "NRC has not fully developed criteria for setting priorities if the workload exceeds available staff and contractor resources," which could be critically tested if a continuing resolution is passed this year instead of a separate appropriations budget for NRC.

Carper said NRC's continued vigilance of the current reactor fleet and the license renewal process is as important or more important than the new license application reviews.

"All existing plants must perform at the highest level of excellence, or it will be difficult to justify bringing any new plants online," Carper said at a hearing last year.

NRC originally licensed each of the 104 U.S. commercial reactors for 40 years and many are facing the end of that period over the next 10 years. The Nuclear Energy Institute says 40 years is based on a power companies' amortization period on large equipment and not based on any safety, environmental or technical issues. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 was created so that companies could renew their operating licenses, NEI argues. Maintaining the output from the current fleet is important if nuclear energy is to remain 20 percent of the U.S. electricity supply in the near-term future.

So far, NRC has issued 20-year license renewals for 48 reactors; there are 15 currently undergoing review and companies are expected to file renewal applications for 23 more reactors by 2013. NRC has managed to average about two years to review the license renewals.

But nuclear watchdog groups have criticized the process, saying NRC is not scrutinizing the applications thoroughly, especially the understanding of the stress on the equipment in the power plants in reality versus calculated on paper based on scientific understanding of materials.

A report last year from the inspector general that found NRC staff were basically copying parts of applications word-for-word in their final reviews has also stoked criticism. The report said NRC should establish report-writing standards and staff should write original analyses, otherwise "those who read the reports could conclude that regulatory decisions are not adequately reviewed and documented."

HOUSE DEMS PLAN OIL & GAS DRILLING VOTE

House Democratic leaders are planning a vote this week on legislation to expedite oil leasing in Alaska.

The House drilling plan would require annual lease sales in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a 23-million-acre area in northern Alaska first set aside in the 1920s. The Interior Department has been conducting leased sales every two years in recent years in the area and there are currently more than 300 leases in the reserve.

Several companies -- including ConocoPhillips -- have been engaged in exploration but production is not occurring. The next lease sale is tentatively planned this fall for millions of acres in the northwest and northeast sections, while leasing has not occurred in the southern portions.

The bill text, which was being developed last week, has not been made public. Democratic leaders said last week it will also contain provisions to expedite construction of an oil pipeline in the region as well as the long-delayed Alaska natural gas pipeline to bring North Slope reserve to the lower 48 states. Another provision would require that Alaskan oil goes only to U.S. markets.

Democrats plan to pair the Alaska production measures with a bill, H.R. 6251, aimed at pressuring oil companies to produce on leases across the United States and offshore. The "use it or lose it" bill says companies cannot buy new federal leases unless they are "diligently" developing currently held leases or relinquish them.

This bill won a majority but fell far short of the two-thirds needed to win passage under expedited rules last month. However, bringing bills up under suspension of the rules prevents GOP amendments to expand offshore oil and gas leasing acreage available. The bill is also expected to come up under suspension this week, making passage highly unlikely.

Democratic leaders oppose relaxing bans on offshore leasing -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called drilling in protected areas a "hoax" last week -- but GOP lawmakers see growing support amid $4-per-gallon gasoline and are relentlessly pushing for votes on any bills they can.

A House aide said the bill is likely to come up Thursday. To parry calls by the GOP -- and some Democrats -- for wider offshore drilling, Democratic leaders are increasingly arguing that they favor boosting domestic production but that sufficient acreage is already under lease or available.

BUSH TO RESCIND OFFSHORE DRILLING BANS

President Bush will lift bans on offshore oil and gas drilling today, July 14 -- an effort that escalates Republican pressure for expanded coastal production but leaves intact congressional bans that Democratic leaders want to retain.

Bush called on Congress last month to lift offshore-drilling restrictions -- which lawmakers have renewed annually since the early 1980s -- and said he would follow by removing overlapping White House moratoria put in place by President George H.W. Bush.

But now Bush is moving ahead of lawmakers, shifting the fight to Congress as public support for coastal production has grown with gasoline prices. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters that Bush will sign a memorandum today lifting the restrictions.

Overlapping White House and congressional bans essentially cover both coasts and much of the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Congress renews the bans through the annual appropriations process, but work on those bills has been slowed by House Democrats' reluctance to allow committee votes on amendments to widen drilling and other factors.

While some Democrats favor easing offshore restrictions, efforts to remove drilling bans face heavy opposition within their caucus and especially among party leaders.

House Democratic leaders have been increasingly emphasizing that they, too, favor domestic production. But rather than open new areas, they are trying to put the onus on industry, saying companies are failing to develop resources on tens of millions of acres of federal lands already under lease.

The push for leasing in areas that are currently off-limits has become a concern for Democratic leaders who favor the bans, especially as some Democrats who support expanded offshore leasing are seeking a compromise with Republicans on a bill that would also include greater conservation.

This week, House Democrats plan to bring a bill up that would pressure companies to use existing leases and try to accelerate leasing in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, where production is allowed but not yet occurring.

But the Democratic bill will be brought up under expedited rules that prevent a GOP amendment to lift offshore bans. It also requires a two-thirds vote for passage -- which its supporters are unlikely to achieve.

The issue has also become prominent in the presidential race, with the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, favoring a relaxation of the drilling bans, while the Democrats' choice, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, favors the protections.

If the appropriations process remains stalled until the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, Bush's action could leave the outer continental shelf without protections if what is expected to be a continuing resolution to maintain government spending into the new administration falters.

However, even a lapse would not spur a rush to drill in currently protected areas soon, because any new development would depend on preparation of new lease sales and other time-consuming activities, as well as uncertainty about future policy.


Sources: BBC News; Energy and Environment Daily; Greenwire; New York Times; Washington Post

Send questions or comments to Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs, Nadine@esa.org; Piper Corp, Policy Analyst, Piper@esa.org

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