April 28, 2008

In This Issue

AGRICULTURE: Long-awaited farm bill agreement heads to conference

With an agreement among key farm bill negotiators finally in hand, the conference committee is expected to work swiftly the week of April 28 on the reauthorization of the five-year bill overseeing agriculture, conservation, energy and nutrition programs.

The committee will hold a formal conference meeting April 28, where they are expected to approve a new framework for funding and offsets for the bill that key House-Senate negotiators from the tax and agriculture panels agreed to.

The new framework for the bill includes a $4 billion boost above the current baseline for conservation programs and $10.3 billion in new spending on nutrition.

Crop subsidies and reductions to a proposed disaster relief program took the brunt of the spending cuts to offset the new spending.

The framework also includes a pared-down version of the Senate’s tax package that would roll back tax cuts for corn-based ethanol and give new tax breaks for the cellulosic ethanol and timber industries.

The leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees reached the agreement April 25 after several days of intense closed-door negotiations in the Capitol. Lawmakers still have to work out some details of the $300 billion, five-year measure, but they said they expect a swift resolution of the conference.

The agreement still must reach approval of the conference committee and the full House and Senate, as well as the White House. President Bush has held a hard line with the farm bill, threatening to veto it unless it reforms crop subsidies and avoids tax increases.

Bush administration officials were not present for the negotiations. A White House spokesman said they are reserving judgment until they can review the entire package.

The leaders of the House and Senate tax panel agreed to rely on customs-users fees to offset much of the $10 billion in new spending for the bill. The fees, most of which would come from importers, do not classify as a tax and have not raised a red flag with the White House.

The agreement also includes a package of tax incentives that totals close to $1.5 billion, according to members of the Finance Committee.

The package includes extensions and reductions of the ethanol tax credits and tariffs. The move is a step toward gradually transitioning the corn-ethanol industry to standing on its own. The package instead favors support for cellulosic ethanol.

Corn-ethanol subsidies would see an almost 12 percent hit. The current 51-cent-a-gallon tax credit for corn-based ethanol would drop to 45 cents. In conjunction with that, it would also reduce the tariff on imported ethanol.
The winner in the tax package is cellulosic ethanol — made from corn stalks, woody plants or grasses. It would get a $1-per-gallon subsidy.

The $4 billion increase for conservation trails the numbers negotiators had previously discussed, but still would give a significant boost to most farmland conservation programs.

Much of the conservation money would go to restore funding for programs that would otherwise expire under current law. The expiring Wetlands Reserve Program would get $1.3 billion above the 10-year baseline and the Grasslands Reserve Program would get $300 million.

The framework shifts almost $2.5 billion from the Conservation Reserve Program to other conservation programs — cutting down the Agriculture Department’s largest conservation program but infusing other working-lands programs with some of the money in its budget.

OCEANS: Sweeping oceans, NOAA authorization bill clears first hurdle

A sweeping oceans bill long sought by environmentalists cleared a House subcommittee on April 23, after a series of failed attempts from Republicans to eviscerate it.

The Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans Subcommittee sent the “OCEANS-21” bill to the full committee. Oceans advocates have been pushing for the comprehensive OCEANS-21 bill for three years. The subcommittee approval is the furthest it has progressed.

The bill from Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) would formally authorize the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), coordinate federal and state agencies and offer guidelines for regional coordination and ecosystem planning. It would also establish a “National Oceans Adviser” for the President and federal advisory bodies on ocean policy.
As it now stands, oceans and fisheries governance is balkanized, with approaches that can differ wildly at the local, state, regional and federal levels.

The sprawling bill draws on recommendations by the Joint Oceans Commission Initiative, the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. The sheer breadth of provisions in the bill has slowed its progress through the House.

Advocates of the bill say it would provide better structure, improve regional ocean governance and prioritize marine ecosystems.

But the measure may face more hurdles before the full committee. Subcommittee ranking member Henry Brown (R-SC) raised a series of objections to the bill. Brown and other Republicans filed 17 amendments against it, most of which would strike entire sections of the bill, including the creation of a committee on ocean policy, requirements for ecosystems-based management and a charge for agencies to develop a national oceans policy.

Brown’s objection is that the bill’s requirements for agencies to consider oceans health could go too far. He is concerned the bill could create further confusion and regulatory hurdles that could interfere with aquaculture and offshore natural gas development, as well as dredging projects at his home port in Charleston, SC.

All of the Republicans present for the vote objected to the bill’s passage, with the exception of Reps. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Jim Saxton of New Jersey, longtime oceans advocates who have frequently crossed party lines on environmental legislation.

PUBLIC LANDS: Contentious Alaska road proposal clears House panel

A proposal to link two remote Alaska towns with a road through a wildlife refuge sailed through the House Natural Resources Committee April 23 despite environmentalists’ concerns the road would harm the refuge.

With a resounding voice vote in favor, the committee sent ranking member Don Young’s (R-AK) bill to the full House unaltered.

The bill would transfer 206 acres of land across the isthmus of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to the state to construct a road connecting the remote villages of King Cove and Cold Bay. Residents of King Cove say the road is necessary to connect them to the airport in Cold Bay that provides access to the outside world, especially in medical emergencies.

In exchange, Izembek and the nearby Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge would get an additional 61,723 acres of wildlife habitat controlled by the tribal King Cove Corp. and the state of Alaska. Of that land, 45,493 acres would be designated as wilderness.

But House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV) said after the markup that the bill would probably not fare well in the full House if brought to a vote because of the bill’s environmental implications, including the possibility of opening up the door to more road proposals through other refuges.

Congress first addressed the issue of connecting the two communities a decade ago, but rather than authorize a road, it appropriated $37.5 million under the King Cove Health and Safety Act to fund improvements to the King Cove medical clinic and airport, along with infrastructure for a hovercraft that could transport citizens to and from Cold Bay.
Since its launch the hovercraft has completed more than 25 successful medivacs, but residents of King Cove say the hovercraft has proven fiscally unviable.

Evan Hirsche of the National Wildlife Refuge Association said that if funding is an issue Congress should instead focus its efforts on getting more money for King Cove to operate the hovercraft rather than build a road that could do irreparable harm to the refuge.

INVASIVE SPECIES: Ballast water program hitches ride in Coast Guard bill

The House passed a bill on April 24 that aims to end the transfer of invasive species from ship ballasts into U.S. waters by 2015. The legislation, part of a larger Coast Guard reauthorization bill, mandates that all ships entering U.S. waters conduct ballast water exchange at least 200 miles off the coast. It also requires ships to install ballast water treatment equipment after their first drydocking after Jan. 1, 2009, but no later than Dec. 31, 2013.

The bill, sponsored by Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN), comes in the midst of a spate of problems with invasive species such as sea lampreys, zebra mussels and the VHS “fish killing” virus in the Great Lakes. Under the bill, the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service would mandate Great Lakes vessels install equipment to kill off the virus in their ballast water systems.

The legislation also says ships must designate an officer to be responsible for ensuring the ballast water plans are properly implemented. It requires ships to keep an English-language record of all ballast water and sediment discharges readily available on board for three years after the date of the last entry.

Ballast water discharges are prohibited unless the water has been treated to kill at least 98 percent of organisms larger than 50 microns.

The legislation also would require a ballast water program for Armed Forces vessels, including ballast water exchange and treatment standards and sediment management.

The uptake or discharge of ballast water would be allowed to ensure the safety of a vessel in an emergency situation or save a life at sea. Ships also will not be penalized for accidental uptake or discharge that is the result of damage to the vessel as long as they took all reasonable precautions to prevent it. Ship operators making a short voyage may request a waiver to discharge ballast water if they would otherwise experience “substantial business hardship.”

Certain ships traveling geographically limited routes within the Great Lakes or Hawaiian Islands would be exempt from some ballast water requirements.

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