ESA Policy News: March 15

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by ESA’s Science Policy Analyst, Piper Corp. Read the full Policy News here.

REQUESTS FOR PUBLIC COMMENT: OPPORTUNITIES TO INFORM AGENCY GUIDELINES WITH ECOLOGICAL EXPERTISE-Several federal agencies are requesting public comment on proposals that may be of interest to the ecological community. Visit to comment.

SENATE CLIMATE BILL: KERRY-LIEBERMAN-GRAHAM TO TAKE SECTOR-BY-SECTOR APPROACH; OBAMA ENTERS DEBATE AMIDST PUSH TO RELEASE DRAFT THIS MONTH-Advocates of climate legislation are pushing to have a draft Senate bill finished before the spring recess begins on March 26.  The bill’s authors, Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), are now in the drafting stages but continue to meet with senators and interest groups in an effort to arrive at a politically viable carbon-pricing scheme. 

On March 9, President Obama made his first formal attempt to advance climate legislation in the Senate, something that supporters have been urging him to do for some time.  In a meeting with administration officials and key players in the Senate, the President again called for a consensus on a comprehensive bill this year, underscoring the importance of pricing carbon—not just focusing on energy measures, as many moderates have proposed—and pledged to make drilling and nuclear power concessions in return. 

ENDANGERMENT FINDING: COAL-STATE DEMOCRATS INTRODUCE BILL TO DELAY EPA REGULATIONS-On March 4, Senate Commerce Chair Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and House Natural Resources Committee Chair Nick Rahall (D-WV) introduced companion bills in their respective chambers aimed at delaying greenhouse gas emission regulations from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The bills call for a two-year delay, meant to give Congress the necessary time to pass climate legislation.  Rahall was joined by Representative Alan Mollohan (D-WV), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee in introducing the bill; Representative Rick Boucher (D-VA) is an original co-sponsor.

Meanwhile, two Democratic and eighteen Republican governors sent a letter to Congress, supporting action to block the regulations, but stressing that the kind of delay proposed by Rockefeller would be insufficient in guarding against the economic devastation about which they are “gravely concerned.”

As in West Virginia, the Alaskan senators are split on the issue, with Democratic Senator Mark Begich opting not to sign on to Murkowski’s or Rockefeller’s proposals.  Last month, Begich joined a half-dozen other Democrats in signing Rockerfeller’s letter to EPA, expressing concern about the regulations.  But, like Byrd, Begich says he is satisfied with Jackson’s plan, which he thinks will give Congress sufficient time to act. 

ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT: SAGE GROUSE NOW CANDIDATE FOR FORMAL LISTING-On March 6, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the greater sage grouse will join 249 other species on the Endangered Species Act candidate list, a holding area for species that merit federal protection but are prioritized below more urgent cases.  Sage grouse habitat coincides with many of the prime areas for energy and agricultural development in the West.  Protections for the species have been a source of conflict between regional stakeholders for more than a decade, and environmentalists first petitioned for its listing in 2003. 

Though candidate listing offers no legal protection, it gives the federal government discretion over additional conservation actions, which could impact projects on up to 100 million acres of federal land.  It also moves the grouse closer to formal listing, which would make it illegal to harm the bird or destroy critical habitat without a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

When evaluating a candidate species, FWS considers its scarcity along with the magnitude and immediacy of any threats to rank it on a scale of 1 to 12.  The sage grouse received a ranking of 8, placing it about two-thirds of the way down the list in terms of priority.

MOUNTAINTOP MINING: FACED WITH WIDESPREAD OPPOSITION, EPA DELAYS RELEASE OF MINING PROPOSAL-Since being leaked to Alabama regulators last month, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal for reducing the environmental impacts of mountaintop mining has circulated widely among state regulators in coal-producing states.  The proposal has been largely ill-received, both by the regulators and other government agencies like the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, prompting EPA to delay the release of new guidelines—originally scheduled for early March—for a minimum of several weeks.

The proposal calls for tighter water pollution standards and permit requirements, and would expand downstream monitoring for mining operations.  Of particular issue is new language in the leaked version that would require additional monitoring in cases where water conductivity—a key indicator of many harmful pollutants—measures above 400 micro-siemens per centimeter.  Many regulators consider this threshold unworkably low, particularly because EPA is also expected to release a report establishing 300 micro-siemens per centimeter as the maximum advisable conductivity to protect water quality and aquatic life.  To achieve compliance under such regulations, companies would have to reduce mine size or curtail operations.  For more information on mountaintop mining, see the November 6, 2009 edition of the ESA Policy News.

CURRENT POLICY: ALGAE RESEARCH, BIRD CONSERVATION OK’D IN FLOOR VOTES-Legislation to reauthorize and expand research on toxic algae blooms has passed in the House, after it failed to reach the two-thirds majority necessary to move forward under expedited rules earlier in the week. HR 3650—the work of Representatives Brian Baird (D-WA) and Vernon Ehlers (R-MI)—is a top priority for ocean advocates and had been generally well received throughout the committee process.  Supporters touted it as a jobs bill, saying it could help the seafood and tourism industries by preventing fishery and beach closures that cost coastal communities more than $80 million each year.  The Senate version (S 952) is awaiting a floor vote after clearing the Commerce Committee.

ESA ANNOUNCES 2010 GRADUATE STUDENT POLICY AWARD WINNERS-On March 2, the Ecological Society of America announced the winners of its 2010 Graduate Student Policy Award: Alexis Erwin (Cornell University), Colin Phifer (University of Hawaii), and Patrick Shirey (University of Notre Dame).

Erwin, whose PhD research is supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, is involved in a number of science outreach efforts and has been active in a project to synthesize socio-ecological data for use in monitoring the health of one of New York’s Finger Lakes. Phifer is working towards his Masters’s in conservation biology, and is likewise committed to sharing what he calls “the stories of science” with the public through his work as a museum guide and communications coordinator. Shirey, who also holds a law degree, is a PhD candidate working on freshwater ecology and natural resources policy, and is a fellow with the NSF Global Linkages of Biology, the Environment, and Society program.

The ESA award is designed to showcase the vision and achievements of students committed to interfacing science and public policy, and to provide these students with the opportunity to build their experience on Capitol Hill. Recipients visit Washington, DC for two days of science policy activities, including networking, training sessions, and meetings with congressional offices.

Erwin, Phifer, and Shirey will be in town this April to participate in the congressional visits day event co-organized by ESA.