Policy News Update

July 31, 2009

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As the August recess approaches, Congress has shifted its focus to healthcare reform. Still, the Senate is preparing to mark up climate legislation in September and a number of loose ends continue to generate discussion. Some issues to watch when Congress returns:

Carbon market regulations: Lawmakers are debating how to regulate carbon allowances, a decision that could have significant political ramifications in light of the country’s recent economic woes. While overregulation could impede industry efforts to adapt to a new carbon regime—stifling innovation that could contribute to additional emission reductions—many senators worry that insufficient controls would open the door for the kind of speculation and manipulation seen recently in the oil market. Faced with a public already wary of Wall Street, Congress may be inclined to be more heavy-handed with regulations included in the climate bill. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), a key player on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, recently spoke out against carbon trading in its entirety, calling it a “field day for speculation.” It’s unclear how many senators share Dorgan’s stance, although many have a record of fighting excessive speculation, which has been frequently blamed for the soaring gas prices seen last year. But Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Environmental and Public Works Committee, says she will include markets in her draft of the bill’s cap-and-trade provisions, although she emphasized the importance of transparency. According to Boxer, the provisions will be based on a bipartisan carbon markets oversight bill recently introduced by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME). The bill (S 1399) puts the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in charge of all carbon markets and includes many provisions to boost oversight. The House-passed climate bill (HR 2454) divides responsibilities between CFTC and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, although many of its oversight-related provisions are placeholders that will be replaced by subsequent legislation.

Healthcare: With two massive initiatives—climate change and healthcare—underway, it’s uncertain whether Congress will have the time to move forward with both. In both cases, supporters have focused heavily on the cost of inaction, stressing the importance of moving immediately. But with the end of the year approaching, lawmakers may need to decide which bill to prioritize, although the plan remains to hold votes on both. Several senators have said that the Obama administration will have the final word, although Obama’s top political adviser, David Axelrod, said last month that the bills are not competing. Still, even if both bills get their vote, analysts say the climate and healthcare debates could influence each other. In the House, for example, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) aggressive push to pass climate legislation generated some ill will and cost several Representatives—particularly the eight Republicans who voted for the measure—political points. The Speaker herself took a risk by prioritizing climate change; many Democrats wanted her to begin with healthcare, arguing that it took precedence among the American public. Meanwhile, centrist Democrats are positioned to make or break both efforts, and any victories in the healthcare debate could embolden them to push harder for changes in the climate bill, driving away more liberal lawmakers. Republicans, meanwhile, are attempting to gain momentum by drawing attention to the immediate price tags associated with the both bills, as well as this year’s economic stimulus package. The country, they say, is not in a position to spend any more money while in the midst of the economic crisis.

Forestry offsets: Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee, is leading a push to include two major forestry components to the Senate bill: an offset title that would place the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in charge of forestry offsets; and a USDA forestry and agriculture incentive program, which would be funded by carbon allowances. The House bill did not include either item. Although forestry advocates were generally pleased with the House version, they are seeking some additional benefits, such as those proposed by Stabenow, in the Senate bill. In particular, they would like to see incentives for forest carbon sequestration, especially on the more than 100 million acres belonging to small landowners. In addition, they are pushing for changes to supplemental incentive programs for carbon sequestration, which in the House version lump forests together with agriculture and renewable energy. The advocates would like forests to have their own oversight under the Forest Service.


The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural resources recently held hearings on the “Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement,” or FLAME Act (S 561), which would establish a dedicated fund for emergency firefighting activities through the Forest Service and Interior Department. In recent years, the Forest Service has depleted its firefighting money mid-season and has been forced to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from its other programs, substantially disrupting agency priorities. Although Congress and the Obama administration are both working to resolve this issue, they have yet to agree on the best way to proceed.

The Obama administration is also calling for a new fund to pay for wildfire costs, but one that follows the guidelines laid out in the administration’s 2010 budget request: the Forest Service and Interior Department would have access to emergency money only after exhausting their regular budgets. Although the fund described in the FLAME Act would also be separate from budgeted wildfire funds, it could be tapped any time a fire reached a certain size or level of severity. The idea behind the legislation is that, since 3-percent of fires produce 85-percent of firefighting costs, budgeted funding should go toward standard fire suppression efforts, while the supplemental funding should go toward combating major fires.

Both S 561 and its companion bill, H 1404, have received a great deal of bipartisan support—the House passed HR 1404 by a vote of 412-3. There are some differences between the two chambers’ bills, however, which lawmakers will seek to reconcile as they move forward. The House version, for instance, includes an amendment requiring that adjacent landowners be notified in writing before prescribed burns. Senators such as bill co-sponsor Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) are concerned that such requirements would be “over-restricting.”

All groups remain open to discussion—the administration indicated they will be able to provide more information about the fund’s future within the next month.


The White House is working on an executive order to strengthen federal restrictions on construction in flood-prone areas. Existing projects are governed by a 1977 directive by President Carter, which at the time was considered a landmark in establishing the federal government’s role in floodplain management. But many experts have called for additional revisions, arguing that agencies have not complied with the regulations resulting from Carter’s order.

President Obama's draft executive order would significantly reduce floodplain development, allowing agencies to support “critical” facilities (e.g. hospitals, power plants, or evacuation centers) in 500-year floodplains only when there was no alternative, and directing agencies to use non-structural approaches (e.g. building codes, education campaigns) rather than structural ones (e.g. dams and levees) to protect public safety and natural resources. Construction on 100-year floodplains would still be permitted, but would have to adhere to any additional restrictions established by state, tribal, or local governments. Although executive orders apply only to federal agencies, the prospect of qualifying for federal funding often motivates state and local governments to adopt stricter regulations.


On July 21, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) released a position statement on the ecological implications of economic activity. As the United States works to rebuild its economy following the recent downturn, ESA urges policymakers to proceed with long-term sustainability in mind. In particular, the statement asserts that economic activity depends on healthy ecosystems, and it is therefore in the best interest of society to revise existing economic frameworks to reflect the value of ecosystem services. 

According to ESA, improving the quality of life around the world requires both healthy ecosystems and healthy economies—the statement offers several strategies for achieving both goals simultaneously:

To read the full statement, visit: www.esa.org/pao/economic_activities.php


On July 13, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) held House- and Senate-side congressional briefings on the impacts of climate change on water resources in the western United States. The briefings featured three speakers: Drs. Jill Baron of the United States Geological Survey and Colorado State University, Darrel Jenerette of the University of California-Riverside, and Diane Pataki of the University of California-Irvine.

Climate change and water quality and quantity are among ESA’s main policy priorities, and they are of particular concern in the West, which is responding to climate change more rapidly than anywhere else in the contiguous US. The briefings focused on water resource tradeoffs as they relate to natural, managed, and urban ecosystems—the speakers stressed that future sustainability will depend as much on the tradeoffs society makes to protect aquatic habitat as it will on direct impacts from warming.








Sources: Environment and Energy Daily, Greenwire, ClimateWire, Politico, the Washington Post

Send questions or comments to Piper Corp, Science Policy Analyst, piper@esa.org or Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs, Nadine@esa.org

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