September 16, 2005

In This Issue


Ecological Society of America scientists met with the congressional offices of their Senators and Representatives to emphasize the importance of funding the National Science Foundation across scientific disciplines. The meetings formed part of Congressional Visits Day, a two-day event that brought 60 scientists of various disciplines from across the nation to Washington to raise visibility and support for the National Science Foundation. They visited over 70 congressional offices in total. In addition to meeting with Members of Congress, ESA scientists met with National Science Foundation representatives to discuss the agency’s priorities and future directions.


In addition to Hurricane Katrina’s human toll, the aftermath will have major impacts on the region’s environment and ecological systems for years to come. To provide the ecological knowledge that must inform the Gulf Coast recovery, the Ecological Society of America has formed a Katrina Rapid Response Team, a group of ecological experts committed to serve as a resource to journalists and policy makers.

“It is imperative for decisions to be made that include environmental impacts, from fisheries to urban neighborhoods to coastal marshes, and that make preservation of ecosystem services—from efficient cycling of nutrients, to provision of seafood, to the amelioration of flooding provided by wetlands—as high a priority as this tragedy shows us it should be,” said ESA President Nancy Grimm.

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Legislation that would allow the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to temporarily suspend or relax its rules because of Hurricane Katrina is being prepared by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), Republican Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Using existing authority, the EPA has already suspended some of its clean-air requirements in the aftermath of Katrina to ease the flow of gasoline supplies.

A preliminary draft of Inhofe’s bill proposes giving the EPA Administrator power for 120 days to “waive or modify” any of the EPA’s laws and regulations if it is thought to be “necessary to respond, in a timely and effective manner, to a situation or damage relating to Hurricane Katrina.” Governors of affected states would have to be consulted, but the EPA Administrator would have final say, according to the draft bill.

Sen. James Jeffords (I-VT), the committee’s Ranking Member, said Johnson told the committee “that current environmental laws and regulations do not stand in the way of EPA’s response to Hurricane Katrina.”

“Based on the administrator’s response, I am opposed to a blanket waiver for environmental laws,” Jeffords said.


The Senate narrowly defeated a resolution that would have called on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to rewrite rules for mercury emissions from power plants.

Even if the Senate had passed the resolution, it had little chance to go further. Such challenges require approval of the House, which was unlikely to act, as well as the president’s signature, also unlikely.

“I am extremely encouraged by the Senate’s resolve to support a market-based approach to reducing mercury pollution and not to impede clean air progress by rolling back the existing regulation,” said Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and a leading opponent of the resolution.

The vote, in which six Democrats joined 45 Republicans for a majority, was widely viewed as a victory for power plant operators and other industry groups. They generally prefer the current rule, based on a cap-and-trade system that allows a plant to exceed its permitted level of emissions by buying credits from a plant in the same region whose emissions are below what is allowed. Supporters of the rule also argue that it will lower fuel costs.

Sponsors of the resolution to strengthen the rule argued that it would require all plants to upgrade with the best available pollution-control technologies and would achieve a greater reduction of emissions, up to 90 percent, in fewer years, creating substantial health benefits for people most vulnerable to mercury poisoning, including pregnant women and children.

Opponents of the current rule say it fundamentally violates the Clean Air Act, which requires the best available technology to drive down all polluting emissions.


Supreme Court Chief Justice nominee John Roberts’ testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week did little to shed light about his legal philosophy on environmental issues such as the Endangered Species Act and the Commerce Clause.

Democrats repeatedly tried to nail down Roberts’ views on congressional authority under the Commerce Clause — perhaps the biggest single issue for environmental policy — but he mostly declined to discuss views on the topic on grounds that it will likely come before the courts in the next few years. Additionally, the lack of questions about access to courts for environmental lawsuits appears to have left officials with lingering questions about where he stands on those issues.

One of the main environmental issues of concern was a dissent Roberts wrote while serving on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in which he indicated Congress may lack the authority under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause — which gives Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce — to protect an endangered toad that “lives its entire life in California.” Legal experts said the dissent may indicate Roberts may be willing to overturn the Endangered Species Act as well as laws such as the Clean Air Act on similar Commerce Clause grounds.

Roberts defended his dissent several times, saying that it should not be interpreted as a desire to overthrow the Act but that he was simply looking for other legal justifications to protect the toad. Critics remain concerned that Roberts questioned the legitimacy of the Act on grounds that have rarely been raised by most federal judges in the country.


Just over a month after President Bush signed into law a massive energy bill, lawmakers are talking about the need for a second one.

Hurricane Katrina has reopened a national debate on energy policy, generating new congressional support for more stringent automobile fuel economy requirements and a fresh push by the oil industry for drilling in areas now off-limits.

Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said that the hurricane was “a serious wake-up call that we have to do something both on the supply side and the conservation side” that before was politically impossible. He added that he is a convert to increasing auto fuel economy standards after first believing it should be left to the marketplace.

Repeated attempts to require automakers to make their vehicles more fuel efficient have failed because of strong bipartisan opposition in Congress. The White House strongly opposed proposals earlier this year that would have required sport utility vehicles to attain the same fuel efficiency as cars and increased fuel standards from the current 27 miles per gallon to 35 mpg over the next decade.

Domenici said overcoming political barriers may be possible if auto fuel economy improvements are coupled with opening new areas for oil and gas development, including the resources in offshore areas that have been under an exploration and drilling ban since 1980.

Reflecting a widespread view among Republican lawmakers, Domenici also was optimistic about easing environmental requirements that the oil industry argues have prevented new refinery construction.

Many lawmakers have sought to give states the ability waive the current federal ban on offshore drilling.

Such a proposal almost made it into the energy bill earlier this year, only to be blocked by a threat by Florida’s senators to filibuster the legislation if it were included. Under the proposal, states could petition for a waiver of the offshore drilling ban. In return, they would receive a large chunk of the royalties the federal government collects from sales of drilling leases.

Lawmakers from coastal states have opposed tinkering with the offshore-drilling ban, fearing that energy development — even far offshore — could lead to spills or otherwise affect tourism.

Sources: CNN; Greenwire; The New York Times; Washington Post.