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Policy News Update

June 04, 2010

In this issue: [Contract All : Expand All]

SENATE CLIMATE DEBATE: CRITICAL WEEKS AHEAD—OBAMA PREPARES TO PUSH FOR CLIMATE BILL AS REID MULLS FLOOR DEBATE

Once Congress returns from Memorial Day recess next week, the Senate will tackle a number of climate-related issues, making clearer the prospects of a climate and energy bill this session.  Several key events are on the calendar:

The coming weeks will be central in determining the fate of climate legislation this year.  Reid won’t hold a floor debate unless he believes the bill can earn the 60 votes needed to pass—a feat that will be increasingly difficult as midterm elections approach.  But President Obama has vowed to become more directly involved in rounding up votes, giving some supporters new cause for optimism. 

In a June 2 speech, President Obama pledged to lobby for comprehensive climate and energy legislation in the Senate.  "The votes may not be there right now” he said, “but I intend to find them in the coming months.  I will continue to make the case for a clean-energy future wherever and whenever I can.  I will work with anyone to get this done.  And we will get it done.”

Obama continued to connect the urgency of the climate bill with the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, though he also maintained that offshore oil production will have a role in the nation’s energy strategy as a "short-term solution while we transition to a clean-energy economy." To this end, he called for eliminating billions of dollars in tax breaks for oil companies, redirecting the money to fund low-carbon energy research and development.

Key players like the Senate bill’s lead author John Kerry (D-MA) interpreted the remarks as a signal that the President is prepared to go to bat for climate in the Senate the way he did in the House.  Others remain skeptical, however, noting that Obama’s phrasing remains, according to an industry representative, “less emphatic than that employed for health care.”

Meanwhile, a coalition of major industry companies—many affiliated with the US Climate Action Partnership (US CAP)— have been urging Washington to move forward with a climate and energy bill.  In a recent letter to Obama and Senate leadership, companies including Ford, General Electric, Shell, and Google called for a bipartisan bill that "increases our security, limits emissions, and protects our environment while preserving and creating American jobs." A number of trade, labor and environmental groups also signed on.

GULF OIL DISASTER UPDATE

In an effort to retake ownership for the ongoing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama Administration has halted new offshore drilling, cancelling a proposed lease sale off the coast of Virginia and suspending two upcoming exploration projects off the coast of Alaska, as well as 33 deepwater drilling operations in the Gulf.  The administration had just announced the Virginia and Alaska expansions in March. 

After the Gulf leak began, Obama placed a moratorium on deepwater drilling until 2011—he now plans to extend the moratorium until the independent commission created to investigate the disaster and recommend improvements can complete its work. 

Said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, "We simply will not allow any more deepwater drilling until we can ensure it is done safely." But both Salazar and Obama have been clear that offshore drilling will continue to be part of the US energy portfolio, given the nation’s goal of energy independence.  "The place where you have reserves is in the outer continental shelf," Salazar said.  Ongoing production activity will still be allowed—Obama has lifted the ban on shallow-water (less than 500 feet) drilling—as will production activity in deep waters.  On June 2, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) granted the first new drilling permit in the Gulf of Mexico since the ban was lifted.  A number of additional projects have received permits with environmental waivers since the moratorium went into effect, earning criticism from lawmakers like Maryland Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD).

In spite of the far-reaching and noncontroversial impacts of the Deepwater disaster, Washington, DC has remained largely divided along party lines as lawmakers work to respond—and to attribute blame.  Democrats have taken the opportunity to criticize the oil industry and champion clean energy and environmental reform, while Republicans have favored economically viable industry accountability and focused on protecting coastal jobs and resources—the parties have also sought to place blame on opposite administrations.  But some are breaking ranks, and Obama has received both criticism and praise from all directions.  Michigan Representative John Dingell—a conservative Democrat—joined environmental groups in calling Obama’s efforts inadequate—“We need to establish a complete moratorium on all leasing and all drilling activities," he said.  Drilling advocate Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), meanwhile, saw Obama’s efforts in a more positive light.  "I was encouraged that President Obama reiterated his support for offshore oil production as a necessary component of America's energy mix," he said in a statement.  "This is essential for our national security, and I support revisiting existing policies to ensure we do this in an environmentally responsible manner."

And Obama himself has been taking responsibility for some missteps in the federal disaster response, particularly in terms of quantifying its extent.  "This is an area,” he said, “where I do think our efforts fell short.  It took too long for us to start up our flow-tracking group that has now made these more accurate ranges of calculation.”

Previously, administration officials had stood by BP estimates, saying it was more important to stop the leak than to measure it.  But US Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt recently discredited BP’s assertion that the equivalent of 5,000 barrels (roughly 210,000 gallons of oil) were leaking into the Gulf each day.  McNutt said recent studies put the figure somewhere between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day (one USGS measurement method returned an estimate of 25,000 barrels per day), making the Deepwater Horizon disaster the worst of its kind in US history.

The hurricane factor: The full impact of the leak will remain unknown for some time and could be complicated further by what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts will be an “active to extremely active” hurricane season, which is expected to include between three and seven major hurricanes—those with winds above 110 mph.  An average hurricane season includes two such storms.  This year’s record warm sea surface temperatures and a weakening El Niño (stronger wind shear can break up storms) give scientists reason to believe that the trend of high storm activity will continue to worsen.  A storm that passes through the Gulf could spread additional oil along the coast—something that will likely have the most severe impact on marshes, wetlands and other areas that had previously been uncontaminated.  More developed areas are contaminated by a variety of pollutants every hurricane season, and existing response plans are well-suited for this kind of cleanup. Alternately, it’s possible that a hurricane could dilute and disperse the oil, lessening its potency.

The Obama administration has also been vocal about reform in MMS, the agency in charge of overseeing drilling in the Gulf.  Recent reports have exposed high levels of fraternization between MMS officials and oil companies, ranging from gift giving to illegal drug use. Many federal inspectors grew up in the area and began their careers as oil and gas workers, resulting in significant conflicts of interest as they oversaw the work of lifelong friends who remained in the industry.  One MMS source reported that industry workers on the platform had filled out inspection forms, which MMS inspectors would then sign and submit.  Secretary Salazar called such actions “reprehensible” and vowed to take appropriate personnel actions.  He also signed a secretarial order to divide MMS into three separate branches: the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the Office of Natural Resources Revenue. The reshuffling also eliminated the post of MMS head Liz Birnbaum, who was forced to resign the following week after only 11 months at the post.

For previous information on the Gulf disaster, see the May 21 edition of the ESA Policy News at www.esa.org/pao/policyNews/pn2010/05212010.php

OIL DISPERSANTS: SCIENTISTS QUESTION WHETHER DISPERSANTS DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD; EPA RESTRICTS APPLICATION, BOOSTS TESTING

In an effort to mitigate environmental damages from the ongoing oil leak, BP has applied close to a million gallons of dispersants—chemicals that break up large masses of oil before they reach coastal areas and wetlands—both via deep-sea injection and surface spraying. 

But the long-term impact of the chemicals, particularly when applied at what could be a world-record scale, has resulted in opposition from many scientists and environmentalists.  Of particular concern are the oil’s aromatic hydrocarbons, which can be consumed by fish once they are broken up by dispersants.  Studies indicate that these hydrocarbons harm marine organism reproductive systems and disrupt larvae development, leading to worries that dispersants could be exacerbating rather than ameliorating negative impacts on marine food webs and ecosystems. 

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently ordered BP to limit dispersant application to 15,000 gallons per day—a dramatic reduction—and began work to ramp up day-to-day testing efforts.

 Some scientists argue that the use of dispersants is the only viable option for dealing with the ongoing oil leak.  But while the dispersants have apparently reduced coastal impacts and the need for shoreline cleanup, oil slicks are still reaching shallow waters resulting in the “worst of both worlds,” as one observer put it.

EPA already faces a lawsuit for authorizing the use of oil dispersants without first ensuring that the chemicals wouldn't harm endangered species or their habitats.  An intent-to-sue notice from the Center for Biological Diversity asks EPA and the Coast Guard to immediately study the effects of dispersants on protected species. 

OCEAN ACIDIFICATION: HOUSE DEMS CALL ON EPA TO COORDINATE NATIONAL EFFORTS TO ADDRESS ACIDIFICATION UNDER CLEAN WATER ACT

Representatives Lois Capps (D-CA), Sam Farr (D-CA), and Jay Inslee (D-WA) are leading a 44-member group of House Democrats in urging the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take a leadership role in addressing ocean acidification under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  .

Scientists estimate that the acidity of ocean water has increased by 30 percent since widespread fossil fuel use began.  A number of studies have indicated that rising acidity is already having significant impacts on marine life, particularly on animals with calcium carbonate shells, like shellfish and coral. 

The group sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson stating that Congress intended the CWA to restore and maintain ocean waters, which are critical to marine life and the fishing industry.  The letter calls on the agency to provide "a framework for national and state coordination to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and address the impacts of ocean acidification.”

Many states are working to address rising acidity in fresh waters, but EPA hadn’t moved to take on ocean acidification until prompted by an environmental group lawsuit last March.  As part of the settlement, EPA committed to working on guidance for states, something that environmentalists hope will lead to acidification (and, potentially, carbon dioxide) regulations under the CWA. 

As part of this commitment, EPA requested public comment on measuring and regulating ocean acidification at the state level (for more information, see the “Opportunity for Input” article in the May 7 edition of the ESA Policy News: www.esa.org/pao/policyNews/pn2010/05072010.php)

The House Democrats submitted their letter as part of this process.

Signatories include lawmakers with potential influence over EPA, such as Select Committee on Global Warming Chairman Edward Markey (D-MA), Oceans Subcommittee Chairwoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), and Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), who sits on the spending committee that oversees EPA funding.

CURRENT POLICY

JUST INTRODUCED

Offshore fish farms: A recent bill from Senator David Vitter (R-LA) would place a 3.5-year federal moratorium on offshore aquaculture, calling on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to first research and report on the environmental and economic impacts of offshore fish farms.  Currently, US aquaculture takes place primarily in freshwater and near-shore facilities—open-ocean aquaculture is a relatively new approach in which massive cages are used to farm saltwater species.  Some of these facilities are being commercially operated off the coasts of Hawaii and Puerto Rico, but a federal permitting system would be necessary for the industry to take off.  NOAA—under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations—has consistently supported such a plan.  Meanwhile, a regional fisheries council had made significant progress in opening parts of the Gulf of Mexico to commercial fish farms (for more information, see the June 19, 2009 edition of the ESA Policy News at: http://www.esa.org/pao/policyNews/pn2009/06192009.php) NOAA allowed the plans to move forward, but has not yet written any regulations to implement them.  As is often the case, the Administration favors a national plan over a regulatory patchwork, though a region-by-region approach remains an option, particularly if Congress votes against offshore aquaculture legislation.  But Vitter argued that the new operations would be too risky, especially in light of the ongoing oil leak in the Gulf.  "It's clear that the marine environment, particularly off the coast of Louisiana, cannot handle any more stress as it begins its recovery from the ongoing oil spill," he said.

UNDER SUBCOMMITTEE REVIEW


Sources: ClimateWire, Environment and Energy Daily, Greenwire, 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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