December 15, 2006
In This Issue
Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) ended his tenure as Chairman of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee with a final hearing aimed at castigating the press for its coverage of climate change. Spotlighting both mainstream broadcast and print reporters, the three-term senator argued that man-made climate change is a media-driven phenomenon that does not have sufficient science to back it up. Inhofe’s invited witnesses supported his view.
Several Democrats on the EPW Committee, as well as a prominent scientist who testified at the hearing, contradicted Inhofe and his witnesses. Incoming EPW Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said she disagreed with the hearing’s premise and vowed to shift course when she takes the gavel in January. “We’re arguing over who believes what, rather than moving toward solving the problem,” she said. “Attacking the press doesn’t make the truth go away.”
The Department of Energy (DOE) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are among the federal agencies that — like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — will see some of their libraries shuttered this year as part of a larger effort to cut costs and shift resources online.
All together, six federal libraries are closed or closing, while several more are reducing hours and staff. The DOE headquarters library that collected literature for government scientists and contractors closed this year as well as the General Services Administration headquarters library. Patrons were able to conduct research on real estate, telecommunications and government finance at the library. The NASA library in Greenbelt, MD, is also slated to close.
A Bush Administration official defended plans for shuttering several U.S. EPA libraries but also said destruction of some reference materials has been halted pending an inquiry by congressional Democrats. He added, “EPA has rescheduled the recycling of non-EPA duplicate or obsolete materials until questions by a few members of Congress have been addressed.”
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) will no longer have to conduct a full-blown environmental impact statement when they write new forest plans, under a final rule the USFS will publish after a two-year delay. The USFS announced it has completed a review that determined the writing of management plans and amendments has no effect on the environment, qualifying individual plans for categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Until recently, categorical exclusions were used for small projects such as expanding a campground or administrative building, but the Bush Administration has expanded the use to small timber and salvage logging projects, and now, management plans for the first time.
The incoming Chairman of the House Resources Committee, Nick Rahall (D-WV), and environmental advocates objected to the rule, saying removing the NEPA study will limit the public’s ability to comment and influence USFS actions. Rahall and Rep. Tom Udall (D-NM) incoming Ranking Member of the Forests Subcommittee, wrote a letter asking the Agriculture Department to withdraw the proposed rule.
Mike Leahy, an attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, said that forest plans make fundamental decisions because they allocate certain areas to be managed for logging or mining and allow for certain amounts of motorized recreation, drilling and logging. “Those decisions have an impact on the environment and the whole idea of studying that on a forest-wide level is you consider the forest-wide and cumulative impacts,” Leahy said.
Incoming Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) said he plans to rewrite the Farm Bill in 2007 with a focus on payments for energy and conservation and new approaches to farm support programs. Harkin indicated he may be willing to consider an overhaul of farm payments that would promote energy and conservation at the expense of some traditional commodity subsidies.
Harkin and incoming House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) have both identified the budget baseline as their first big hurdle in drafting the new bill. The 2002 Farm Bill added a host of new conservation and energy programs, but it was also written in a time of budget increases.
With the assumption that the 2007 bill will not see huge budget gains, some environmental and sustainable agriculture groups have called for cuts to commodity payments to free more spending for conservation and bring the United States more in line with World Trade Organization recommendations.
Harkin said “everything is on the table” as he drafts the new bill — including programs to help farmers transition to energy crops, as well as storage, transportation and new equipment for the crops. He said he is also considering merging the Conservation Security Program with energy production.
An Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to speed up rebuilding in coastal Mississippi has sparked a battle between environmentalists and homebuilders over the proposal’s effect on wetlands that serve as critical buffers for flooding along the Gulf of Mexico. At issue are proposed”general” permits for Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Pearl River, Stone and George counties, which were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. The permits would allow builders to fill as many as five acres of wetlands per project.
Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, discharge of dredged or fill material into “navigable waters” requires a Corps permit — either a nationwide general permit that allows a landowner to fill up to a half acre or an individual permit that applies to wetlands larger than a half acre. Under the proposed rule, if activities are expected to have minimal environmental impact, the Corps can issue a general permit, or a blanket authorization, without the usual opportunity for public input required for individual permits.
One safeguard built into the permits by the Corps to ensure that environmental degradation does not occur is that permits can only be used in a “low quality” wetland. Army Corps spokesman Pat Robbins said general permits would not apply to tidal wetlands or non-tidal wetlands that are adjacent to tidal waters, which are considered higher quality wetlands.
The Corps will review comments on the proposal in the next 45 days.
Congress approved wider offshore oil and gas drilling before it adjourned, opening 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico but stopping short of the major dismantling of leasing bans sought by several industries. The Senate approved the drilling bill as part of a broad tax package that passed 79-9 after the House approved the measure. The package, which now heads to President Bush’s desk, also extends several energy tax incentives, including tax credits for wind and solar projects.
The leasing provisions provide access to an area estimated to contain 1.26 billion barrels of oil and 5.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. It steers 37.5 percent of gulf production royalties to four Gulf Coast states — Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. The revenue will not be available, however, for at least a decade. Despite the time lag, the money is a major victory for Louisiana lawmakers who say it will help restore coastal wetlands and boost hurricane protections. The measure also includes a no-drill buffer for Florida needed to gain the support of that state’s lawmakers.
The bill also contains energy tax language, extending through 2008 several tax breaks that were set to expire at the end of next year, including the wind energy tax credit and credits for biomass and geothermal facilities. The bill extends for one year the 30 percent tax credit for the purchase of residential solar water heating, solar electric equipment and fuel cell property, as well as the 30 percent business tax credit for the purchase of fuel cell power plants and solar equipment.
The bill also creates an alternative sulfur removal standard aimed at allowing proposed “clean coal” projects that use subbituminous coal to receive clean coal tax credits contained in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
Congress approved a major overhaul in U.S. fisheries law, as the House passed a rewrite of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the nation’s largest fisheries law. The House votes followed the Senate’s approval of the bill, which is an altered compromise that Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) brokered at the last minute to push the act through the 109th Congress. President Bush released a statement praising passage of the act.
The bill, H.R. 5946, would require fishery managers to end overfishing within two and a half years once a stock is found to be depleted. It keeps the current 10-year rebuilding deadline intact. It also authorizes “cap-and-trade” programs for fishing permits for the first time but adds some new limitations to the programs. The legislation also includes ecosystems-based management
The bill authorizes research for deep ocean corals and includes new protections for seabirds affected by fishing gear. It also calls on U.S. officials to take greater leadership to end pirate fishing on the high seas.
However, of particular concern to many groups is the bill’s language on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Under current law, fishery managers must comply with environmental review and reporting requirements in both Magnuson and NEPA. Many of the requirements are the same, but they are on different timelines. Commercial fishers have called for streamlining the two to cut down on paperwork and confusion. The bill directs the Commerce Department to develop one uniform review process for fishery management that conforms with NEPA but is on Magnuson timelines. Environmental advocates have said even careful alterations may lose some of the case law that backs up NEPA and gives it more strong environmental protections.
President Bush signed a two-month long continuing resolution (CR), officially punting the majority of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 spending bills to the 110th Congress. The CR runs until Feb. 15, meaning the remaining spending bills will be among the first items the Democratic-controlled Congress will have to tackle next year. It applies to all of the FY 2007 spending bills except Defense and Homeland Security, which have already passed.
Looking ahead, Democrats have proposed a CR for the entire remainder of the fiscal year. This would fund federal agencies at one of the following levels: the House-passed appropriations bill, the Senate-passed appropriations bill, or the fiscal 2006 level- whichever is lower. These levels would continue until new appropriations bills are passed at the end of 2007. For more information on the funding status by agency, visit http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/approp07.htm.
A new Bush Administration policy that requires U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists to submit all reports and prepared talks to managers is angering some employees who say the review could prevent the public from receiving information. The new standards, introduced in July 2006, call for managers to determine whether scientists’ reports meet USGS’s scientific standards. They also mandate that employees inform the agency press office of any work involving “potential high visibility products or policy-sensitive issues.”
Although no instances of censorship were alleged yet, employees say they are worried. Previous Bush Administration impositions on the agency include a 2002 incident in which USGS warned that oil and natural gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would harm the Porcupine caribou herd. A week after its report, a new report came out saying the caribou would not be affected.
However, USGS Associate Director for Geology P. Patrick Leahy said the new standards were ensuring the scientific excellence of USGS products. USGS managers will be permitted to see the comments of outside peer reviewers, as well as exchanges between the reviewers and scientists who are trying to publish their findings.
Sources: Energy and Environment Daily; Greenwire; AAAS R&D website