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Policy News Update

September 11, 2009

In this issue: [Contract All : Expand All]

CLIMATE: SENATE DELAYS CLIMATE BILL, RAISING QUESTIONS ABOUT COPENHAGEN

Senate Democrats no longer plan to unveil their climate and energy bill by September 28. They gave several reasons for the delay, including the healthcare debate, the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), and the need for additional consultation from government experts. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has yet to announce a new deadline for committees to finish their work on the bill, although he is standing by plans to hold a floor debate before the year is out. But with the country still reeling from last year’s Wall Street meltdown, some observers speculate that a climate bill may fall to third place, behind both healthcare and financial reform legislation.

Beyond the busy calendar, though, diplomatic considerations could be keeping the bill on hold.  Most supporters agree that although it would be ideal to have climate legislation in place before this December’s UN negotiations in Copenhagen, a losing vote in the Senate could have far worse implications for an international agreement than non-action. Key to negotiations will be signs of significant progress—in lieu of a climate package, President Obama could present the clean energy components of the economic stimulus package passed earlier this year, or focus on using the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to control greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and power plants. Both Obama and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson would prefer to see the Senate pass a climate bill before December, but Jackson has indicated that her agency could step in if necessary. EPA’s recent endangerment finding could, if Congress is unable pass climate legislation, place the agency in charge of nationwide emission reductions under the Clean Air Act. For more information on the endangerment finding, see the April 23 edition of the ESA Policy News at: http://www.esa.org/pao/policyNews/pn2009/04232009.php

International negotiations are not limited to Copenhagen, however. Obama is also planning to visit China in November, as part of an effort to reach a bilateral climate change agreement. Together, the US and China produce roughly 40 percent of global emissions, meaning that such an agreement could have a considerable impact—both on global greenhouse gas concentrations and international negotiations—while remaining more feasible than a consensus in either Congress or Copenhagen.

CLIMATE: AMIDST HEALTHCARE DEBATE, LAWMAKERS CONTINUE TO IRON OUT CLIMATE BILL

Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) cancelled her plans to unveil draft cap-and-trade legislation this week, following a decision by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to delay chamber-wide action on a sweeping climate and energy package. Although she hasn’t specified a new deadline, Boxer said she still plans to introduce her bill in September and hold markups immediately after.  Senate aides estimate that EPW will vote on the measure by early to mid-October.

Although the Senate will focus largely on healthcare reform during the coming weeks, proponents of climate legislation will also use the extra time to meet with senators who are still undecided. A number of negotiations and compromises are underway, most notably one between nuclear power advocates and Boxer, who recently confirmed that her bill will include language on incentives for the industry. This represents a significant departure from her previous decision to limit nuclear language to what was already included in the House-passed climate bill (HR 2454). According to an analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency, HR 2454 could lead to as many as 260 new nuclear power plants by 2050.

Nuclear power has been a central issue for many Republicans and conservative Democrats, including Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), who has been leading the push for a nuclear title. Senate Republican leaders are calling for a provision to build 100 new plants by 2030, and several votes could hinge on this issue. But Boxer has yet to provide details on what her measure will include—given her record (in 2005 she voted against a cap-and-trade bill because it included incentives for the construction of three new nuclear power plants), some speculate that additional benefits will be limited to incentives for research and development. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a strong nuclear advocate, has started to work with Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) on a separate climate bill, which will include a number of incentives for the industry.

Meanwhile, moderate Senate Democrats have been working through a number of other issues important to their states—after several months of negotiations, some working groups are getting closer to agreement. Issues to watch:

In addition, several committees are still conducting climate-related hearings—the Senate Agriculture Committee recently considered the regulation of carbon markets, and the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming met with Todd Stern, climate envoy for the State Department, to prepare for Copenhagen.

ENDANGERED SPECIES: OBAMA ADMINISTRATION TAKING ON BACKLOG OF ENDANGERED SPECIES CANDIDATES

Following a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Obama administration is taking steps to accelerate the process for listing species under the Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service currently has a backlog of 250 plant and animal species, many of which have been on the waiting list for more than 25 years. According to the Act, officials must decide whether or not to list a species within a year of receiving a listing petition. But these petitions take an average of 11 years to process, and several species remain in “candidate” status indefinitely or until the agency takes them up to comply with a judicial order.

Fish and Wildlife Service leadership is now working to improve the listing process, with the hope of reducing the backlog by 25 percent by the end of 2010. The agency has identified two factors necessary for meeting this target:

Ecosystem-based listings: Rather than adhering to a strictly species-by-species approach, the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to begin clustering multiple species in an ecosystem into a single listing wherever applicable. This strategy will save money and time by condensing the listing process, while allowing for ecosystem-level management and the protection of additional unlisted species that scientists still consider imperiled. It was first employed at the end of the Bush administration, when a proposal was submitted to protect 27,000 acres on a Hawaiian island, safeguarding habitat for 48 plant and animal species.

Increased funding: On average, listing decisions cost $85,000 a piece—critical habitat designations cost more than $500,000. The budget for these decisions has more than doubled since early in the Bush administration, going from $9 million in 2002 to $19 million in 2009, but according to the Center for Biological Diversity, the program would need almost twice this amount to keep up with new listing petitions while reducing its backlog. The Obama administration’s 2010 budget request increases funding for the endangered species program by approximately 4 percent.

ENERGY: BILL FROM RAHALL WOULD OVERHAUL FEDERAL MANAGEMENT OF GAS AND OIL PROJECTS

On September 8, House Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV) introduced a bill (HR 3534) to overhaul federal oversight of oil and gas projects on public lands. The federal agencies that handle these projects have seen numerous scandals and have been criticized frequently by government watchdog reports. Rahall’s bill would:

Rahall’s bill was partly intended to provide an alternative to S 1462, a bill approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this year. The Senate bill would expand offshore energy leasing in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, reducing a great deal of Florida’s no-leasing buffer zone. For more information on S 1462, see the June 19 edition of the ESA Policy News at: http://www.esa.org/pao/policyNews/pn2009/06192009.php

ECONOMY: EUROPEAN UNION UNVEILS ENVIRONMENTAL COUNTERPART TO GDP

Gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of short-term spending, has long been the index by which nations gauge their progress and develop public policy. But for decades this focus on GDP has been criticized for undervaluing noncommercial goods—such as natural resources—that also contribute to human wellbeing.

The European Union (EU) recently took a first shot at addressing this disconnect, announcing plans to launch an environmental stress index before the end of 2009. This index will reflect pollution and environmental degradation within EU member states, accounting for changes in areas ranging from climate to biodiversity to waste generation. Although the focus is currently on environmental harm, researchers are beginning to work on indicators of environmental quality as well.
Stavros Dimas, the environment directorate of the European Commission (EU’s executive arm) introduced the new indicator.

"To change the world,” he said, “we need to change the way that we understand the world. And to do this we need to go beyond GDP." He suggested that the indicator could eventually lead to a “Green GDP,” although for now it will supplement, rather than replace, GDP as a standard indicator of prosperity.

In the 1990s, the US took some preliminary steps towards launching such an indicator. The Commerce Department created a program to develop a system of environmental accounts, but it was put on hold by Congress in 1994, pending review by the National Academy of Science. Although the academy later concluded that the US should make developing environmental accounts a “high priority,” the program remains unfunded.

Taking the United States’ lead, Europe began work on its own environmental accounting system, but its new indicator has been more than a decade in the making—the process of assigning value to ecosystem services is a complicated one, slowing environmental index development considerably. Existing environmental indicators, such as carbon footprints, proved too narrow in scope to be useful. Further complicating matters is the availability of real-time environmental data. In contrast to economic statistics, which are often available within weeks, environmental data can lag several years behind the assessment period. Europe is working to improve turnaround with initiatives like the European Environmental Agency’s ozone web, which provides daily data on ozone concentrations.

The environmental index will be "as simple, as reliable and as widely accepted as GDP," Dimas said. "It would be an index where populations take pride in positive results. It would change the way we understand progress and would be a catalyst for changing the way we live."

Earlier this summer, the Ecological Society of America released a position statement on the ecological impacts of economic activity, urging lawmakers to revise the current economic framework to reflect the value of ecosystem services.  For more information, see the July 31 edition of the ESA Policy News at: http://www.esa.org/pao/policyNews/pn2009/07312009.php

NATIONAL PARKS: BIOLOGIST, AGENCY VETERAN NOMINATED AS DIRECTOR

President Obama has nominated research biologist Jon Jarvis to lead the National Park Service. Jarvis has been with the service for 33 years and has worked as both a park manager and a scientist.

Jarvis has been the agency’s Pacific West regional director since 2002. In that post, he pushed for high environmental and financial sustainability standards and ordered the parks under his watch to be carbon neutral by 2016, the agency’s 100-year anniversary. He also worked to engage leading scientists by coordinating a series of regional workshops on climate change, and won congressional support for a critical river restoration project in Olympic National Park.

Many scientists and Park Service veterans have praised Jarvis’s nomination, seeing it as an important boost for science-based decisions. Strong scientific input is particularly important now, they say, when the agency is faced with climate change, endangered species preservation, and difficult tradeoffs associated with producing energy while protecting natural resources. Broad and external issues such as these will require the service to move beyond its traditional philosophy that the parks, if preserved, will take care of themselves. The Park Service has historically dealt with problems like poaching, but contemporary threats and resource demands will require more intensive resource management strategies based on sound science.

RESEARCH: NEW NSF REPORT GIVE RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PREVENTING, ADAPTING TO IRREVERSIBLE GLOBAL CHANGE

On September 9, the National Science Foundation (NSF) released a report providing recommendations for addressing the challenges and opportunities associated with unprecedented global change. “Transitions and Tipping Points in Complex Environmental Systems,” released midway through NSF’s 2006-2011 strategic plan, is aimed at addressing the agency’s finding that “fundamental research and widely dispersed education are not progressing at the pace required by the magnitude and urgency of the environmental challenges that face this face this nation and all societies.” The report goes on to identify these challenges—most notably, rapid, unprecedented, and unpredictable change due to environmental thresholds and increased globalization—and the ways in which society can respond quickly and effectively. It also identifies a number of opportunities created by recent societal changes, placing a strong emphasis on the great potential for collaboration, education, and data sharing that new technologies provide.

The report makes five recommendations, all working toward the goal of taking an integrative management approach to rapidly changing natural-human systems.

UPCOMING LEGISLATION

Approved by the House

Approved by Committee
On September 10, the House Natural Resources Committee easily passed a number of bills:


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

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