ESA Policy News: August 30

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here.


According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, as of the week of Aug. 21, roughly 53 percent of the nation has experienced at least moderate drought conditions. This has been the case roughly since mid-July.

Drought conditions stand to have multifaceted effects on ecosystems as well as the U.S economy, particularly agriculture. Private crop insurers could lose more than $5 billion if this year’s drought destroys more crops than the one in 1988, according to Standard & Poor’s. By 2030, climate change could cause $1.1 billion to $4.1 billion in losses for Corn Belt farmers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The agency states it expects to spend $170 million to help livestock ranchers devastated by the drought.

Along the Mississippi River, slowing currents from the drought have allowed salt water from the Gulf of Mexico to advance up the river, leading to the issuance of a state of emergency and drinking water advisory for communities around Chalmette, LA. Illinois-based Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. will build a 1,700 foot-long sill at the bottom of the river to block the heavier salt water from seeping farther north. The project, spearheaded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will cost $5.8 million.

Dry conditions alter wildfire management practices

Furthermore, the drought corresponds with an increase in forest fires. In lieu of this increased dryness and record heat, which allows fire to spread more easily and do more damage, the U.S. Forest Service has altered its wildfire containment practices. Consequently, the agency has temporary suspended a long standing “let it burn” policy, where it would save money by allowing small fires to burn out. The fires still require funds for monitoring. Fire suppression accounts for more than half the Forest Service’s budget. This year, the cost projections are surpassing the budgeted amount of $848 million to $1.4 billion. A recent study in the Ecological Society of America’s open access journal Ecosphere noted that 38 percent of the planet will likely see increased fire activity over the next 30 years.

For additional information federal drought monitoring efforts, click here. To view the Ecosphere paper, click here.


On Aug. 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the Obama administration’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) that forces cuts from plants in 28 states in the eastern half of the country, concluding that it exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority under the Clean Air Act. The ruling was a 2-1 decision.

The court ruled that EPA overstepped by requiring steep pollution cuts from states beyond what they actually contribute to other states’ air quality problems. It held that the agency rule would “impose massive emissions reduction requirements on upwind states without regard to the limits imposed by the statutory text.” The decision instructs EPA to continue administering a Bush administration rule called the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) until a replacement rule is created. Interestingly, in 2008, the same court held that the CAIR doesn’t do enough to protect the public health.

Reaction on Capitol Hill was divided along party lines. “The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule is a critical public health safeguard which reduces deadly air pollution that crosses state lines and threatens the health of the American people,” asserted Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) in a press statement. “EPA’s rule saves lives by making our air healthier to breathe, which prevents up to 34,000 premature deaths a year. I urge the Obama Administration to appeal the court’s misguided decision.”

Meanwhile, key Republican leaders were jubilant in their statements.  “I am pleased that the courts have reined in EPA on this illegal, flawed rule,” stated Senate Environment and Public Works Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK). “With CSAPR, EPA moved too far too fast, setting unrealistic deadlines for states to meet its stringent requirements; the agency also pushed ahead without any regard for the fact that states were intended to play the primary role in reducing emissions.”

The full opinion is available here.


In its break off from the conservative Heartland Institute earlier this year, the newly-minted R Street Institute says it will differ in one interesting way: it “will not promote climate change skepticism.”

The move is not wholly remarkable given that 60-70 percent of the think tank’s focus is not on environmental issues, but insurance policy work. But it is distinguishing in comparison to most other self-branded conservatives entities. R Street President Eli Lehrer believes that climate science itself should be left up to universities and research labs. In addition to flood insurance, energy and environmental work, issues that R Street could work on include expansion of access to offshore oil and gas resources with the proceeds going to fund research and development for alternative energy technologies, a clean energy standard for utilities and policies aimed at boosting energy efficiency.

R Street has also met with the American Enterprise Institute regarding the possibility of implementing a carbon tax as part of a tax reform measure during the next Congress. However, any support was contingent that the legislation be revenue neutral (not a net tax increase) and that the money would not go to fund any new energy programs, as was the case in the comprehensive climate change legislation that the House passed in 2009, as well as other subsequent measures sponsored by Democrats. Nonetheless, Lehrer feels the concept of moving from proposing taxes on things people want, like income and gains on investment to proposing taxes on things people don’t want like pollution is a sound policy.


On Aug. 27, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released a report stating that a carbon tax would generate $1.5 trillion in revenue over ten years.

In an effort to appease a wide-array of policy interests, the report identifies a number of fiscal, economic and environmental benefits of enacting the tax. It concludes that in addition to lowering the federal debt, the carbon tax would lower pollution by 20 percent by 2050, compared with 2006 levels and would prevent oil imports from rising. Specifically, it would cut U.S. use of foreign oil by 10 million barrels a day by 2050. The report also claims the carbon tax would shift energy markets to clean technology. Such a change would make the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles more economical.

The report’s abstract touts the proposal as a triple-win for lawmakers: “The first win—Congress could reduce personal or corporate income tax rates, extend the payroll tax cut, maintain spending on social programs, or some combination of these options. The second win—these cuts in income taxes would spur the economy, encouraging more private spending and hence more employment and investment. The third win—carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution and oil imports would be reduced.”

The report was pulled together by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, an organization for research, independent policy analysis and public education on global environmental change. View the full report here.


A new report published Aug. 23 by a Portland-based environmental organization asserts that watershed and fish habitat restoration projects in Oregon created thousands of jobs and generates nearly a billion dollars in revenue over ten years.

The new study by Ecotrust emphasizes the benefits environmental restoration projects have on job creation and small businesses in local communities. It finds that the jobs for construction workers, landscapers, engineers and biologists support local businesses like plant nurseries, quarries and restaurants, generating about 6,480 jobs for Oregon between 2001 and 2010 as well as an estimated $977.5 million over ten years. In the long run, restoration efforts bolster fish runs to increase sport and commercial fishing opportunities that benefit the state’s businesses.

The report also found that $0.80 of every dollar spent on restoration stays in the county where the effort occurred and $0.90 of every dollar spent in Oregon on restoration stays within the state itself. View the full report here.


This week, the Ecological Society of America teamed with the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the American Mathematical Society in encouraging their organizations’ members to contact Members of Congress on the importance of non-defense discretionary programs (NDD) in advance of pending across-the-board spending cuts, referred to as sequestration, which are set to go into effect this January.

The spending cuts would cut domestic programs by at least eight percent, including a $1.1 billion cut to scientific research. As the letter notes, these cuts would do little to address the national debt while costing the economy a projected loss of over one million jobs over the next two years. The organizations are urging their members to let their elected officials in Congress know how federal investments in science benefit the communities they represent.

The sequestration cuts are mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-25), the bipartisan legislation enacted last year as a compromise for supporting the president’s request to Congress to raise the debt limit. To forgo the trigger, Congress must come up with a plan to reduce federal spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years before January or pass legislation that either nullifies the trigger or postpones the date in which the trigger goes into effect.

In July, AIBS, AMS and ESA were among 3,000 organizations that signed on to a letter to Congress urging a balanced approach to deficit reduction. The letter asserted that while Congress has already cut NDD programs significantly, defense programs, mandatory spending and revenue reforms also need to be part of an approach towards reducing the debt, a sentiment backed by several bipartisan commissions and think tanks.

To link to the Action Alert and contact your Member of Congress, click here. To view the organizational letter to lawmakers, click here.


Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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