June 16, 2008

In This Issue

ESA hosts House and Senate Briefings on Cellulosic Biofuels

On June 11, the Ecological Society of America hosted House and Senate briefings on The Sustainability of Cellulosic Biofuels. Three scientists discussed the ecological and economic considerations surrounding the use of cellulosic sources the leaves, stems, and other fibrous parts of a plant for producing biofuels. Speakers included Dr. Phil Robertson of the Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University, Dr. Doug Landis, an entomologist from Michigan State University, and Dr. Madhu Khanna, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois.

Combined, the two timely briefings drew an audience of over 115, including Senate Agricultural Committee and other congressional staff, representatives from federal agencies, as well as other interested parties from industry and the scientific community.

The scientists shared their expertise about the potential for cellulosic biofuels to offer a substantially greater energy return on investment compared to grain-based sources, such as corn. They cautioned, however, that environmental benefits are not guaranteed. The environmental success of cellulosic biofuels will depend on which crops are chosen, the practices used to manage them, and where the crops are located geographically.

In meetings with their Congressional representatives, the three scientific experts also highlighted the need for continued funding of critical multi-disciplinary research supported by federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Energy.

For more information on the briefing and to view the speakers presentation slides, please visit: https://www.esa.org/pao/policyActivities/briefing062008.php

BIOFUELS: Struggling with ethanol backlash, Senators question waiver’s effects

A waiver of the renewable fuels standard would do little to relieve the strain from high corn and commodity prices this year but may stymie development of second-generation biofuels, federal agriculture and energy officials said.

The remarks before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee come as Congress faces increasing pressure to revisit the renewable fuels standard included in last year’s energy bill.

Committee members indicated on June 12 they are not ready to scale back the mandate yet. But some lawmakers said it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend ethanol to livestock producers and consumers who are concerned about high food and feed prices.

Last year’s energy bill expanded the national biofuels mandate to 36 billion gallons by 2022, including 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol. The law calls for at least 9 billion gallons of biofuels, nearly all ethanol, to be blended into the motor fuel mix this year. The EPA is expected to make a decision by the end of next month. If EPA were to waive the mandate, it would likely provide little relief for corn prices, U.S. Department of Agriculture chief economist Joe Glauber told the Senate panel.

U.S. ethanol production is already on track to exceed this year’s requirement for 9 billion gallons of fuel, indicating the mandate itself would do very little this year. The biggest effect of the waiver would be a decline in future investments in new plants and technology, Glauber said. The Energy Department’s Assistant Secretary for Renewable Energy agreed that the slow-down would be an incredible loss, since the next major area of investment is cellulosic ethanol and next-generation biofuels.

CLIMATE: Bipartisan House bill would create carbon sequestration fund

A bipartisan House coalition introduced legislation on June 12 to create a multibillion-dollar fund aimed at speeding the deployment of carbon capture-and-storage technologies.

Chairman Rick Boucher (D-VA) and Ranking Member Fred Upton (R-MI) of the House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee, are teaming up on the industry-backed bill, which focuses on a technology that fossil fuel electric utilities view as a necessity if they are to survive under a future U.S. regulatory system that places limits on heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.

The legislation would set up a $1 billion annual fund paid for by power companies that use coal, natural gas, and oil. These utilities would in turn be allowed to recover the costs from customers. The bill would add roughly $10-$12 total to residential customers’ annual rates, according to the bill’s sponsors.

The House Science and Technology Committee also will have jurisdiction over the measure, which Boucher predicted has a good chance of passing both chambers of Congress and becoming law before President Bush leaves office.

Under the legislation, an industry-managed Carbon Storage Research Corporation would run the fund as a division or affiliate of the nonpartisan Electric Power Research Institute. It would distribute grants and contracts to various private, academic and governmental bodies to help commercialize technologies that capture emissions and stash the carbon underground.

Boucher said his latest piece of legislation should not be seen as an alternative to a mandatory cap-and-trade bill that still faces a much more formidable challenge making it into law this year.

RECREATION: Education and Labor panel to mark up No Child Left Inside Act

The House Education and Labor Committee will mark up legislation on June 18 intended to boost environmental science and education funding and programs at the state and local levels.

The “No Child Left Inside Act” is part of a larger national movement to reconnect children with the natural world, spurred by recent studies and a book that suggest children who play outdoors and study nature are healthier, better at problem-solving and develop a greater appreciation for the natural world.

The original bill from Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), proposed authorizing $100 million per year from fiscal years 2008 through 2012 for environmental education programs and inserting language into the No Child Left Behind Act that encourages states to adopt environmental education plans.

On June 18, the Committee will consider a substitute amendment to extend the National Environmental Education Act through fiscal 2009, funding it at $14 million. It would also use separate funds to establish the “national capacity environmental education grant program,” which would allow the Secretary of Education to award competitive grants to state and local education agencies and to nonprofits.

Under the plan, training for environmental educators would be modified. The substitute includes provisions to encourage individuals from backgrounds under-represented in environmental education to pursue careers in the field, as well as facilitate interaction between educators and working professionals in the environmental fields.

NOAA, NSF, NASA: House appropriators aim to boost agency, climate science funding

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would receive $4.3 billion in fiscal 2009, $180 million more than the Bush Administration proposed, under a bill House appropriators approved June 12.

The Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations measure also includes $1.9 billion for climate change science. The $1.9 billion — $200 million more than fiscal 2008 — will be spread across the budgets of NOAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Overall, the $4.3 billion for NOAA is about $380 million over the agency’s fiscal 2008 budget. The subcommittee’s $180 million increase on the President’s request — which was already a $200 million increase from fiscal 2008 — demonstrated a newfound commitment in the House to funding NOAA, but it remains to be seen exactly how that money would be distributed.

The Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee approved the entire $56.8 billion bill, which also provides $6.9 billion for the National Science Foundation and $17.8 billion for NASA. The full committee markup of the bill will be on Thursday, June 19.

AGRICULTURE: New farm bill funding faces first challenge

As appropriators look for funding to support the new farm bill, Congress is still working to make sure all 15 of its titles are enacted. Lawmakers approved the bill last month and voted to override the veto from President Bush. But the printed version of the Act that went to the White House was missing the trade title, so that section of the bill was not legally enacted. To remedy the problem created by the missing paperwork, the House and Senate approved the entire farm bill again. It is expected to go to the White House the week of June 16, and Bush plans to veto it. Once the bill is vetoed, the House and Senate will have to find time in their schedule to take up the override vote again.

The farm bill’s investment of billions of dollars of new spending in conservation and energy will face its first test as the agriculture appropriations markup process begins the week of June 16.

The House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee is scheduled to mark up its fiscal 2009 spending measure June 19. The bill will allocate discretionary spending for the Agriculture Department and could lay the foundation for the farm bill’s mandatory funds.

The farm bill that Congress approved last month would invest $4 billion more in conservation and $1 billion in energy over its five-year lifespan. The funding is mandatory, so not technically subject to the appropriations process.

But the spending bill includes much of the technical assistance and operations funding that lays the groundwork for the farm bill’s mandatory programs. And it could include some limits on mandatory money.

The panel faces distinct challenges this year in finding significantly more money to invest in the “Women, Infants and Children” (WIC) program, which gives assistance for children and mothers at nutritional risk. WIC could place a strain on the overall agriculture budget. The weak economy and increased food costs mean that more people are applying for the program.

The spending panel has some relief in its budget allocation. The 302(b) allocations the Appropriations Committee released on Friday would give agriculture $20.6 billion — a significant step up from the administration’s $18.7 request and the $18.5 billion it received last year.

Appropriators also have to find money to pay for the expanded workforce to implement the new farm bill programs. One of the line items for conservation programs is the discretionary “conservation operations” account, which pays for staff for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and technical assistance to help farmers and landowners come up with conservation plans.

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