May 12, 2008

In This Issue

AGRICULTURE: New farm bill still faces threat of Presidential veto

House-Senate negotiators announced a final agreement on the nearly $300 billion five-year farm bill on May 8, and Bush Administration officials vowed to veto it. The five-year bill includes spending increases for nutrition and conservation and a new program that pays farmers to grow dedicated feedstocks for next-generation cellulosic fuels.? It also includes a sweeping tax package that gives incentives for landowners who conserve endangered species, a new $1-per-gallon bonus for cellulosic ethanol and scales back the blenders credit for corn-based ethanol.

Democrats and Republicans from both chambers reached agreement on the bill after months of negotiations over spending levels, offsets and thousands of pages of farm policy.

Hours after lawmakers triumphantly announced their agreement, the White House sent out word that the legislation would not receive the President’s signature.

“This legislation lacks meaningful farm program reform and expands the size and scope of government,” Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said in a statement. “I have visited face-to-face with our President, and he was direct and plain. The President will veto this bill.”

Schafer criticized the bill’s spending levels and permanent disaster program and said it does not go far enough to limit crop subsidies for wealthy landowners.

The legislation has the backing of key Republicans on the Agriculture Committee in the House and Senate, and those lawmakers said they are hopeful they can override a veto. It had 79 votes of support on the Senate floor in December, but the two-thirds margin may be harder to gain in the House.

The House is scheduled to take up the agreement May 14. The Senate schedule is not set, but Senators said they hope to take it up the same day.

FISHERIES: Menhaden moratorium meets stiff opposition

On May 8, House Republicans clashed over a proposed moratorium on menhaden fishing during a Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans Subcommittee hearing.

Reps. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) and Jim Saxton (R-NJ) defended H.R. 3840, which would impose a partial moratorium on fishing while more research is conducted on the health of the fish population, and H.R. 3841, which calls for an immediate five-year moratorium.

Rep. Robert Wittman (R-VA) says the moratorium would cause needless economic damage. “The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) says the population is healthy. The 2007 harvest was larger than in 2006,” he said.

Gilchrest?s and Saxton?s bills stem from concerns of sport fishers, conservation groups and academics that stocks of menhaden are collapsing, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay area.

Menhaden fulfill two important roles in the Atlantic ecosystem: They filter algae from up to 4 gallons per minute of ocean water and provide a critical food source for carnivorous fish, marine mammals and birds. They are fished commercially because their omega 3 oils are critical ingredients in industrial lubricants, pet food and human health products.

Wittman wants fishery management to be left to NMFS and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). Both organizations have said that stocks are healthy and that overfishing is not occurring.? A 2006 cap froze the allowable menhaden catch until 2010.

But the nonprofit National Coalition for Marine Conservation argues the fishery’s regulatory boards are squandering their time for more research and says that ASMFC improperly measures population.

In 2003, the National Coalition for Marine Conservation made a report to ASMFC urging them to decrease the total allowable catch, saying that a lack of menhaden was responsible for observed declines in predatory birds and fish in the Chesapeake Bay.

MINING: Full Senate could add environmental protections to mining bill

The full Senate could add environmental safeguards and land protection provisions to hardrock mining legislation if such language isn’t in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s version of the bill, according to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA).

As members of the committee grapple with how best to update the 1872 law that governs hardrock mining on federal lands, Cantwell said the different interests of panel members may make those issues difficult to include in a bill the committee would approve.

The panel has been working for months to develop a bill that would bring the hardrock mining law, which is 136 years old, into the 21st century. To do so, the Senators must determine if and what kind of royalty hardrock mining operations should be charged and what sort of environmental safeguards should be included.

Last fall, the House passed legislation from Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV), which would impose an eight percent royalty on the gross returns on minerals from new claims and a four percent royalty on existing claims filed under the law. Part of the proceeds that would go toward the cleanup of thousands of abandoned mines across the country.? The House bill would also grant authorities significantly more control over where hardrock mining can take place, especially in environmentally sensitive lands including national parks, something opponents argue is unnecessarily burdensome.

The Senate panel’s leaders have pledged to develop their own bill, but movement has slowed since the last hearing on the issue in March.

Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, speculated that the Senate may also be feeling pressure from the mining industry to drag its feet on producing a bill that could hurt its industry when prices for metals like gold and uranium are at an all-time high.

Cantwell plans to introduce her own legislation soon that would deal with the other pieces of the puzzle, including increasing the amount of lands that would be off-limits to mining and increase local governments’ ability to protect certain lands from hardrock mining.

Another factor is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who has adamantly opposed the House version because of its possible effects on the mining industry.

OCEANS: Senate panel to vote on sanctuary expansions and double hulls for oil ships

Two proposals that would greatly expand existing marine sanctuaries will come up for a vote in the Senate Commerce Committee the week of May 12.? The panel is also scheduled to vote on a bill that would require double hulls for oil ships.

The proposed sanctuary legislation would more than double the size of existing marine sanctuaries off the coast of Northern California and in the Great Lakes.

A national marine sanctuary is roughly akin to a national park in federal waters more than three miles off state shores. A sanctuary designation does not prohibit commercial fishing, but it does bar oil drilling and other development.

One proposal would add more than 1,000 square nautical miles to Northern California’s extensive network of marine sanctuaries. California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein introduced the measure, which is similar to a bill the House passed earlier this year.

The other sanctuary bill, from Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), would give an eightfold expansion to a sanctuary in Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The committee will also take up legislation that would require more oil ships to have double hulls, in an attempt to further guard against oil spills. Boxer introduced the bill in response to last November’s spill in San Francisco Bay.

The bill would also beef up the Coast Guard’s vessel tracking system and medical review process for pilots and phase out federal liability limits for oil spills from single-hull tankers.

Eight of the 12 worst oil spills to occur since the beginning of 2001 worldwide have involved single-hull vessels — an older ship design that uses a single layer of steel plates. The more-protective double layer has become the new industry standard.

PUBLIC LANDS: Washington forest becomes wilderness area as Bush signs land bill

Approximately 106,000 acres of low-elevation, old-growth forest in Washington state are protected wilderness under a bill signed by President Bush on May 8 that includes more than 60 other public lands proposals.

The measure includes dozens of proposals cleared by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee over the last several months.

The designation of the Wild Sky Wilderness area in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest follows eight years of efforts to grant it protection as wilderness, the highest level of protection given public lands.

The Senate approved the measure in three previous sessions of Congress, but former House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-CA) prevented its progress. Pombo argued that about 13,000 acres did not meet the requirements of the 1964 Wilderness Act and should be removed from the final bill. The Bush Administration has been a longtime supporter of Wild Sky.

Wild Sky is the only wilderness designation in the measure, but the bipartisan package also includes numerous heritage area, water project, and other public land bills.

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