New kids in town get to work

esaearth.jpg[Note: I normally don’t clog the blog with big swaths of text lifted verbatim from other sources, but in this case I couldn’t resist.  This is a copy of one of the Policy News issues I get periodically from the Ecological Society of America’s Washington office.  I include it here both because of the high density of important information about accelerating progress in environmental policy, but even more because the tone and content of this news of federal government activities related to the environment has shifted so profoundly in just the last month that it’s truly hard to believe.]

TRANSITION: EARLY ACTION BY OBAMA ADMINISTRATION, CONGRESS REFLECTS ENVIRONMENTAL FOCUS

CLIMATE CHANGE

In a January 26th announcement on climate change, President Obama outlined several priorities, which included addressing corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, California’s request to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “endangerment finding” linking climate change to increased public health risks.

Many opponents of the climate policies have responded with their concerns, warning of government infringement on private property and what they expect to be disastrous impacts on industry. William Kovacs, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of environment, technology, and regulatory affairs, suggested that granting California’s waiver would lead to the regulation of carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act, something industry also opposes. “This would almost certainly extend well beyond cars and trucks and would have the unintended consequence of creating costly and burdensome permitting requirements on millions of construction projects including hospitals, schools, and office buildings,” he said shortly after Obama’s announcement.

In Congress, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has set a December deadline for moving climate legislation through her Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, where Democrats have an 11-8 edge. She is confident that this margin will allow her to pass the legislation easily but acknowledges that far greater challenges will arise when it hits the Senate floor.

A successful climate change bill, one that will win over a sufficient number of Republicans and conservative Democrats, will likely require input from a variety of sources. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NM) has indicated that several panels may engage in the process-both Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) have expressed interest in participating. Boxer has stated in the past that she would welcome work on climate policy from other committees, and recently indicated that she’ll look to Baucus for guidance in developing legislation capable of standing up to possible challenges before the World Trade Organization. She also said she would be receptive to Banking Committee suggestions on establishing an oversight board with which to regulate a new emissions trading market.

Republicans may also play a role in shaping the bill. In Boxer’s committee, Arlen Specter (R-PA), who cosponsored cap-and-trade legislation with Bingaman in 2007, said that he joined the Committee this year to push for a more moderate climate bill. “I want to have a stronger voice on global warming,” he said. “I want to be sure that what we propose is something which is attainable.” Also likely to figure prominently in the climate debate is John McCain (R-AZ), who joined the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this year. Although Specter and McCain are proponents of climate change legislation, few other Republicans share their views, and EPW Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-OK) [Editor’s note: the closest thing the US Senate has to the anti-Christ] has predicted that Boxer will not be able to defeat a filibuster.

Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has also vowed to hold a climate change vote-the first ever for the House-this year.

CAFE STANDARDS AND CALIFORNIA WAIVER

The auto industry has long opposed the increased regulation of emissions, arguing that it would do irreparable damage to the already suffering industry in the midst of the economic crisis. These arguments resulted in Former President George W. Bush’s decision not to finalize his interim CAFE rulemaking, which would have applied to model years 2011 to 2015. Last month, however, President Obama indicated that he would move forward with his plans to reduce emissions and improve fuel economy in spite of the economic downturn. He issued two orders, urging Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to finalize new CAFE standards, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to review California’s request to regulate auto tailpipe emissions. The order directed LaHood to finalize the 2011 standard by April before moving on to later years, indicating that the standards could grow stronger, a change supported by both environmental groups and some Democratic leadership, including chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, Ed Markey (MA).

If EPA grants the California waiver, the state would begin regulating automobiles’ greenhouse gas emissions in the current model year, according to the chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols. The emission standards would force automakers to reduce CO2 emissions from new cars and trucks by 30 percent by 2016.

EPA administrator Jackson is expected to open the public comment period on the waiver request in the next few days.

California is the only state allowed by the federal Clean Air Act to enforce its own pollution standards, but only with a waiver from EPA. If the waiver is granted, however, other states would be permitted to enforce the same standard. So far thirteen states have moved to adopt the California standards, with another four indicating that they will follow if the waiver is granted. The 18 states represent about half of the U.S. auto market. The auto industry has been fighting to block the waiver request for years and has embraced CAFE standards in response, attempting to dissuade states from imposing the California standards by arguing that emissions regulation should take place at the national level.

The auto industry is also pushing for Obama to finalize the CAFE standards through model year 2015 as soon as possible, thereby precluding the chance of increased standards after 2011. But the change in administrations has taken a tremendous toll on the industry’s influence in Washington, as has the power shift in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where longtime industry proponent Representative John Dingell (D-MI) lost his chairmanship to the more environmentally focused Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) this year.

The February 3 Washington Auto Show reflected these changes, featuring numerous green products, a renewed focus on electric vehicle development, and the tagline, “Driven by the Environment.”

ENDANGERMENT FINDING

A 2007 decision by the Supreme Court ordered the Bush administration to begin anew its study via EPA on whether climate change endangers public health and the environment. The results of this study were the subject of a great deal of controversy last year, following allegations that EPA made an “endangerment finding” that was later revoked after talks with the Bush White House. Obama’s EPA is now tasked with completing the study-if the agency makes an endangerment finding, greenhouse gasses will be subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson sent an email to her staff listing the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions among her top priorities, and stating that she would be acting on the Supreme Court ruling in a matter of days. Her early climate moves will come with the help of top climate counsel Lisa Heinzerling, the lead author of the climate change briefs to the Supreme Court, as well as David McIntosh, former aide to Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who helped to draft the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill debated last summer on the Senate floor.

EPA PRIORITIES

Jackson’s email outlined four additional areas that will receive her personal attention:

1) Improving air quality: Jackson notes that many U.S. communities are out of compliance with air quality standards and thus face pollution levels high enough to harm human health.  She says that EPA will fill regulatory system gaps in accordance with both science and the law.
2) Managing chemical risks: Noting the inadequacy of present measures for evaluating and regulating chemicals in consumer products, Jackson says that EPA will revise and strengthen its chemicals management and risk assessment programs.
3) Cleaning up hazardous-waste sites: Jackson plans to accelerate the cleanup of the country’s many contaminated sites as a way of generating jobs while improving the environment and quality of life in surrounding areas.
4) Protecting America’s water: Jackson underscores the importance of protecting both freshwater and marine resources. She says EPA will intensify its restoration and protection efforts, work to improve drinking-water safety programs, and reduce pollution from both non-point and industrial discharges.

MIDNIGHT REGULATIONS

Although White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel put a freeze on all pending rules upon President Obama’s inauguration, many of the most controversial rules, including plans to revise the Endangered Species Act and to exempt some farms from Superfund reporting requirements, were already in place. The Obama administration could reverse these rules by reinitiating the rulemaking process, but Congress could achieve a resolution much sooner by using the Congressional Review Act. Under the Act, a simple majority in the House and Senate and the president’s signature would be sufficient to vote down regulations that took effect after May 15, 2008. Alternately, Congress could deny funding for the implementation or enforcement of the rules to which it objects.

House Democrats have introduced a measure that would use the Congressional Review Act to freeze the Endangered Species rule. Meanwhile, the proposed changes to both the Endangered Species Act and Superfund rules have already been challenged in court.

ROADLESS RULES

Throughout much of the Bush administration, the timber industry, environmental groups, and the White House battled in court over the 2001 Clinton roadless rule, which granted blanket protection to roughly 58 million acres nationwide. Prior to Clinton, two presidents, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, tried to implement national roadless rules, but in both cases the rules were challenged in courts and ultimately voided.

Although the 2001 roadless rule was not explicitly overturned, the Bush Administration put in place another rule allowing states to petition for their own roadless protections, effectively giving states the ability to develop lands protected under the 2001 rule. So far, two states have undertaken the process: Idaho, whose rule the Bush administration finalized before leaving office, and Colorado, whose plan is still in development.

The Idaho plan creates five “management themes” for different areas, with the intent of balancing development, access, and conservation needs. Although some conservation groups support the plan, others sued the Bush administration in January, accusing the Forest Service of improperly approving Idaho’s rule, which they say would remove protection from 400,000 acres and weaken protections on an additional 5 million. They allege that the Forest Service failed to conduct the environmental analyses required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Many of the groups involved in the lawsuit called for President Obama to make reinstating the Clinton’s roadless rule one of his top priorities, some suggesting that he issue a directive giving the Forest Service chief, rather than local officials, decision-making power over the designated roadless areas. Obama expressed his support for the rule on the campaign trail but has not yet taken action.

ECONOMY: HOUSE PASSES STIMULUS BILL, SENATE DEBATES

On January 28, the House approved the economic stimulus package easily, albeit without any Republican support. President Obama had attempted on multiple occasions to reach out to Republicans, who maintained that their vote was not a rebuke of the President, who they praised for his efforts, but instead a vote against the process and legislation created by Democratic leaders in Congress. Specifically, House Republicans expressed concerns that the bill was put together with little minority input and that it contains billions in spending for federal programs that have long been on Democratic wish lists but do little to stimulate the economy. Senate Republicans have expressed similar concerns, but with a 58-seat majority, Democrats will not likely have a problem gathering the 60 votes needed to move the bill.

In the House, the bill underwent some relatively small changes before its final approval. Of particular interest to environmentalists was the addition of $3 billion for transit programs. Many environmental groups praised this addition, stating that the extra funding would significantly reduce oil usage while creating new jobs. The total cost of the House bill now stands at $819 billion, with roughly $275 billion in tax cuts and the remainder in direct investments.

The Senate is currently debating its version of the bill, which, as expected, does not include as much funding for the sciences as the House bill. Science infrastructure, which receives $2 billion in the House version, only receives $430 million from the Senate. The Senate is also directing less funding towards public lands programs, but Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) has been circulating an amendment that would provide an additional $2.5 billion to related programs.

The amendment would divide the additional funds among several key areas including:

* National Park Service: $950 million, covering park construction and maintenance, as well as habitat restoration and exotic species management. With this addition, total funding levels would match those specified in the House version of the bill ($1.8 billion).
* Wildland Fire Management: $870 million, almost doubling the current allotment
* Bureau of Land Management: $350 million
* Fish and Wildlife Service: $125 million. This would bring the total resource management and construction spending for FWS to $425 million, almost three-quarters of the refuge system’s typical annual budget.
A committee spokesman said the measure is Bingaman’s top-priority amendment to the stimulus. Even if it fails, there is a good chance that park and refuge funding will be increased during House-Senate conference negotiations.

Some lawmakers, however, may push back against the higher spending amounts in the stimulus. For example, Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE), who leads a coalition aimed at reducing stimulus spending, argued that many of the stimulus accounts would be better dealt with in an appropriations bill. Conversely, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has expressed hopes that national parks will receive significant funding through the stimulus, noting that they have an estimated $9 billion backlog of maintenance projects.

Meanwhile, other lawmakers have expressed concerns that the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) could hamper attempts to get the green energy projects-a large portion of the stimulus package-off the ground. Environmental groups and private landowners have used NEPA-related lawsuits in the past to halt the construction of green infrastructure (e.g. wind turbines and the transmission systems necessary to support them), claiming inadequate environmental review. Even strong opponents of NEPA hesitate to take action against it at the federal level, but California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has indicated that he may attempt to roll back state environmental laws, allowing for faster action on transportation projects funded by the stimulus. Several environmental groups suggest that this move would pave the way for Congress to revise NEPA in light of the economic crisis. Another option-increasing the staff at agencies that oversee environmental reviews-could allow for faster action on stimulus projects without compromising safeguards against environmental damage.

In spite of the many debates and complexities slowing the package, Democratic leaders hope to have it finalized and on President Obama’s desk by February 14.

green_obama.jpgBIOFUELS: OBAMA TEAM HALTS REVIEW OF RENEWABLE FUEL STANDARDS RULE

On January 26, the White House withdrew a prominent biofuels rulemaking from its Office of Management and Budget review. The rule, proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), would implement a 2007 law expanding the renewable fuels standard (RFS). The expansion would increase the RFS to 36 billion gallons by 2022, 21 billion gallons of which would be next-generation biofuels. It would also require that the greenhouse gas emissions from these biofuels have lifecycles considerably shorter than those of conventional fuels.

Although Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel ordered a freeze on all pending Bush administration rules, this freeze did not apply to regulations with deadlines already in place. The December 2007 RFS law gave EPA a year to craft the rule, so it remains unclear why it was withdrawn.

Worth noting, however, is the intense pressure EPA and the White House have received from both industry and environmental lobbyists on the details of the rule. In particular, industry representatives and environmental groups stand on opposite sides of a debate over how to address emissions from the so-called indirect land-use changes that would result from increased biofuels production. Environmentalists and scientists, concerned about the consequences of clearing additional land for agricultural production, cite studies indicating that clearing would release additional carbon into the atmosphere-significantly worsening the emissions profile of certain biofuels-by disrupting areas where it is naturally sequestered. Industry groups and biofuels investors argue, however, that the science is not advanced enough to accurately recalculate emissions profiles based on land use and that EPA should proceed without adjusting for indirect land-use.

The Ecological Society of America released a position statement on biofuels sustainability in January of 2008, which outlines the ecological principles necessary for biofuels to help decrease dependence on fossil fuels and reduce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global climate change.

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
This entry was posted in Biodiversity, Politics, Science, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to New kids in town get to work

  1. Jeffidie says:

    Hello, I am jeffidie. Jeff Kent and Olmedo Saenz’s friend and they have told me about this. I thought it was a good blog.

    P.S. I’ve heard you and your son joke about wobbegongerys, I live in one!

  2. Reinhold says:

    Biologica produced fuel would help a lot against the climatic change. Let’s hope it will be soon standard.

  3. Pingback: santa barbara » Blog Archive » Marine Protected Area Network