February 11, 2008

In This Issue

ENDANGERED SPECIES: Oil and Gas Lease Sales Proceed Ahead of Polar Bear Listing Decision

On February 6 the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) announced that there were $2.6 billion in winning bids on oil and gas leases to companies seeking to drill for oil and natural gas in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, including a record $105.3 million offer by Shell Oil for one three-by-three-mile leasehold.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), Chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, criticized the Interior Department because the Fish and Wildlife Service last month missed a court-ordered deadline for deciding whether to declare polar bears a threatened species while MMS went ahead with the lease sale. Although legislation was introduced in both the House and Senate to scuttle the petroleum lease sales until the Interior Department made a decision on the listing of the polar bear, no listing decision had been made by February 6, the date of the lease sales.

ENDANGERED SPECIES: Designation of Critical Habitat for Staghorn and Elkhorn Corals -- Opportunity for Public Comment

On February 6, the Bush Administration proposed protections for two Atlantic coral species, but stopped short of addressing climate change as a threat to their habitat. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposal specifies that the government not consider elevated water temperatures as a factor affecting marine habitat.

NOAA listed staghorn and elkhorn corals under the Endangered Species Act in 2006, partly due to climate change and rising ocean temperatures. The two reef-building corals have suffered declines of 97 percent across their range. Disease, rising sea surface temperatures and damage from hurricanes are the chief threats to the corals, according to NOAA. High water temperatures result in the often-fatal “coral bleaching.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, which sued NOAA seeking protection for the corals, applauded the designation of critical habitat, saying it would add an extra layer of defense against pollution and overfishing, but denouncing the exemption for warming water temperatures.

The critical habitat designation includes 5,000 square miles off Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Endangered Species Act requires that federal agencies ensure any activities they authorize do not destroy or harm critical habitat.

Opportunity for public comments: NOAA is soliciting the public for comments on the proposed habitat designation until the deadline of May 6, 2008.

For the complete announcement in the Federal Register and instructions on how to submit comments, please see:


AGRICULTURE: Millions of Conservation Acres Going to Row Crops

Farmers are likely to remove millions of acres from federal conservation contracts next year to plant row crops, and the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) does not plan on enrolling new farmland to make up the difference.

USDA’s fiscal 2009 budget proposal assumes the agency will not conduct a large general signup for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to set aside land for wildlife habitat and to protect soil and water quality. The 20-year-old conservation program provides nearly 34 million acres of habitat for birds and other species.

Department economists also estimate that farmers enrolled in the program would take more than 2 million acres out of conservation next year as their contracts expire, driven in part by the desire to plant more corn whose price has soared in response to demand for ethanol.

The Bush Administration budget proposal includes more than $1 million as a “placeholder” for the conservation program, but the agency has no plans for a new general signup to draw more farmers to the program. With corn prices almost twice as high as they were two years ago, the agency wants more land available for crop production.

USDA does plan to have signups for farmers to enroll buffer strips to improve soil and water quality.

EPA: President’s Budget Fails to Fund Greenhouse Gas Registry

There is no money for the greenhouse gas (GHG) registry ordered by Congress last year in the fiscal year 2009 budget proposal issued by the White House on February 4.

The fiscal year 2008 omnibus spending bill requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to publish a draft rule within the next nine months mandating that companies report any GHG emissions that exceed agency-determined thresholds. But the Bush Administration is proposing no money for the registry.

The omnibus bill directs EPA to establish “appropriate thresholds” for different industries and determine how frequently they must submit reports to the agency, effectively creating a GHG registry for all sectors of the economy. It also provides $3.4 million for EPA to develop and publish the rule.

Lawmakers and environmentalists describe the failure to fund the registry in the Administration’s proposed budget as one of the White House’s most glaring transgressions in a proposal that would cut EPA’s resources by more than $300 million.

Heather Taylor, Deputy Legislative Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the White House’s decision to “zero out” the creation of a GHG registry budget will put the United States at a disadvantage if it attempts to establish a cap and trade program.

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson defended the budget proposal, saying it would help the agency meet environmental goals while spending tax dollars wisely.

BIOFUELS: Proposed EU Ban on Environmentally Unfit Biofuels

As part of the European Union’s ambitious plan to tackle climate change, the European commission released a proposal last month that would discourage the development of environmentally unsound biofuels. The plan requires member states to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent and to make biofuels comprise at least 10 percent of transportation fuels by 2020.

To qualify for subsidies and to meet renewable energy standards, biofuels used in Europe must emit at least 35 percent less carbon dioxide compared to oil and must not be produced in forests, nature preserves, wetlands or highly diverse grasslands. Biofuels that do not meet these requirements will not be allowed on the European market. Those that meet the standards will receive a premium with binding targets intended to ensure that investors can sell environmentally sustainable biofuels at higher prices. Every producer will have to prove to member states that they meet the requirements and their claims will be independently audited.

The Ecological Society of America issued a position statement on biofuel sustainability last month, www.esa.org/pao/policyStatements/Statements/biofuel.php and is sponsoring a conference on March 10, 2008 in Washington, DC devoted to the ecological dimensions of biofuels: www.esa.org/biofuels/

Sources: Environment and Energy Daily, Greenwire, and Land Letter