Report: 56 senators support Keystone approval

A majority of U.S. senators is likely to support legislation that would force the Obama administration to green-light the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, according to a report by The Hill.

The report explained that proponents of the measure have not yet decided whether to attach it as amendment to pending legislation related to energy efficiency improvements or push a stand-alone bill.

In either case, it is not clear that there are enough votes in the U.S. Senate in favor of an immediate approval of the pipeline to overcome a likely filibuster by those opposed to it.

Sixty votes would be needed to limit debate and bring such a measure to a floor vote.

Even if it passed the Senate, and then was approved by the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, it is possible that President Barack Obama would veto it. Proponents of an immediate approval of the Keystone XL pipeline would need 67 votes in the U.S. Senate and two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives to vote to override a veto in order to force the proposal into law.


Obama signs first wilderness legislation since 2009


Image courtesy Wikimedia.

President Barack Obama  has signed a bill designating land for addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System, heralding the first designation of new wilderness since 2009.

Obama approved legislation that protects about 32,500 acres in Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The action came Mar. 13.

For more details about the new wilderness designation, see this post.

Rep. Schweikert, denier of anthropogenic climate change, will head House subcommittee on environment issues

The Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives has placed a climate change denier in charge of a subcommittee that deals with environmental policy matters.

Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., will take the helm of the Subcommittee on Environment of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. That subcommittee has jurisdiction to oversee Environmental Protection Agency activities, as well as U.S. government climate change regulatory programs and research efforts. That aspect of its agenda extends to oversight of both the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics & Space Administration.

The second-term legislator, who represents the Phoenix area’s affluent northern suburbs, wasted no time in signaling his displeasure with Obama administration efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions.

“Too often, this Administration has tried to bypass Congress and impose its will on the American people through regulatory fiat,” Schweikert told The Hill Thursday. “We have a responsibility to provide a check-and-balance to ensure there is fairness and openness in the process and that taxpayers are not being subjected to onerous and unnecessarily burdensome rules and regulations.”

It is difficult, based on Schweikert’s public statements, to gain a clear understanding of the extent to which he doubts the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but it’s fairly clear that he does not believe that humans are affecting Earth’s atmosphere.

During his 2008 campaign for Congress, Schweikert called the phenomenon “folklore.” Similarly, in a 2010 interview, Schweikert out-and-out denied that climate change is occurring:

I don’t see the data. You know, I think I have a reasonably good statistics background. And I have not sat there with pages and pages of data. But when you think about the complexity of a worldwide system and the amount of data you’d have to capture, and how you adjust for a sunspot, and how you adjust for a hurricane and I think it’s incredibly arrogant for the Al Gores of the world to stand up and say the world is coming to an end. Because as I kid I remember on the flip side when they were warning me we were going to go into an ice age. . . . I wish people would make up their mind. It’s the control freaks, the people who want to control my life, want to control my lifestyle.

On the other hand, in a Facebook post last June Schweikert seemed to say that reduction of carbon dioxide pollution of the atmosphere might be a laudable goal:

In light of Obama’s ‘climate change’ speech today, I would like to REMIND him that at the time of its expiration, the Kyoto Protocol mandated that developed nations reduce their CO2 output by an average of 5.2%. Though we never ratified the Kyoto protocol, our country was able to REDUCE CO2 through new technology in the private sector, NOT top-down, economic crushing government mandates.

Schweikert is to replace Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who gave up his gavel in order to take a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Commentary: Senate rules action allows respite in partisan tug-of-war over DC Circuit ideology

When U.S. Senate Democrats moved Thursday to alter the right of the chamber’s minority party to block executive and some judicial nominees, it made a decision that, on the surface, promises an easier path for all of President Barack Obama’s judge candidates.

From an environmental law perspective, the changes to the Senate’s filibuster rule are likely to mean that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will soon have all of the judges authorized by law.

Right now, there are three vacancies on the 11-seat court. Of the eight sitting judges, four were appointed by Democratic presidents and four were appointed by Republican presidents. However, the court also has six senior judges, five of which are GOP appointees. Those senior judges do sit on panels and decide cases. As a result, the real partisan divide on the court is 9-5 in favor of Republicans.

This divide has significant implications for environmental law. For example, the Congressional GOP, and many of the party’s governors, have opposed the Obama administration’s efforts to use the Clean Air Act to combat climate change. One of those efforts – the recently proposed and critical regulation that would cap the greenhouse gas emissions of new power plants – is likely to be challenged in the DC Circuit.

Having a full complement of active judges will mean two things: first, that the mostly-Republican senior judges will not be as likely to play the central role they now occupy in the court’s deliberations and, second, that the far-reaching decisions on regulatory matters, including those indicating the administration’s policy response to climate change, that come before the court will be more likely to get an even-handed evaluation.

This is to be applauded, but it is not the only benefit of today’s landmark Senate action. There are 93 vacancies in the federal judiciary, including dozens in the U.S. district courts. It is those federal district judges who decide everything from criminal cases to huge commercial disputes. They also handle citizen suits to enforce the country’s bedrock environmental laws. Now that President Obama will not face the seemingly perpetual Republican blockade of his judicial nominees, perhaps those seats can be filled in short order, which will lead to faster, and maybe fairer, resolution of critical environmental cases.

Environmental groups, scientists urge opposition to bills that would expand National Forest logging

Opposition to efforts by some members of Congress to mandate more logging on federal forests is on the rise, with environmental organizations and scientists recently circulating strong statements.

The letters relate to two forestry bills pending in Washington: H.R. 1526 and S. 1479.

The scientists’ communique, which is signed by 250 individuals, urges Congress to avoid any requirement to increase logging in forest stands that have been damaged by fire.

“Both bills ignore the current state of scientific knowledge, which indicates that such activity would seriously undermine the ecological integrity of forest ecosystems on federal lands,” the scientists’ letter argues.

The scientists explained that snags, which are the standing remains of incinerated trees, are important habitat for a variety of bird species and that the wild flowers that grow in burned areas encourage re-population of the area by pollinators. They also point out a variety of other ecosystem benefits of burned forest stand areas that the legislation would compromise:

Numerous studies also document the cumulative impacts of post-fire logging on natural ecosystems, including the elimination of bird species that are most dependent on such conditions, compaction of soils, elimination of biological legacies (snags and downed logs) that are essential in supporting new forest growth, spread of invasive species, accumulation of logging slash that can add to future fire risks, increased mortality of conifer seedlings and other important re-establishing vegetation (from logs dragged uphill in logging operations), and increased chronic sedimentation in streams due to the extensive road network and runoff from logging operations.

The environmentalists’ letter, which is signed by 20, mostly West coast, advocacy organizations and is addressed to U.S. secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. secretary of interior Sally Jewell, highlights the likelihood that increased logging in disturbed areas of federal forests would contradict a recovery plan for the endangered northern spotted owl.

“Plans to boost post-fire logging in spotted owl habitat ignore the best available science and would cause harm to old-growth forests,” Steve Holmer, a senior policy advisor at American Bird Conservancy, said. “Government scientists have concluded that in order to recover the rapidly declining northern spotted owl population, protection is needed for forest structures created by fires such as large standing dead trees that are used by the owls to nest in.”

The impact of the bills on forest landscapes impacted by wildfire is not the only criticism aimed at them.

Several environmental groups have loudly objected to the House bill’s waivers of laws that currently apply to logging operations.

“H.R. 1526 would carve gaping loopholes in the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and other bedrock environmental laws,” The Wilderness Society president Jamie Williams said in a statement. “This would lead to dirty water and air, and destroy recreational opportunities.”

The House bill would set a statutory floor on the amount of logging undertaken in federal forests, doubling the amount that now occurs.

It would also prevent judicial review of most decisions to cut trees within designated “forest reserve revenue areas” that, for the first time, would require Washington to comply with a “fiduciary” obligation to provide revenues from logging to counties in which federal forests are located.

H.R. 1526, the proposed Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, cleared the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 20. It is now pending in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee along with a similar bill, S. 1479.

President Obama warned on Sept. 18 that he would veto H.R. 1526, or similar legislation, if it reaches his desk.

Booker gets seat on environment committee

U.S. Sen. Cory A. Booker, elected last month to represent New Jersey, has joined the chamber’s Environment and Public Works Committee.

The announcement was made on Oct. 31.

Booker, 44, defeated Republican Steve Lonegan on Oct. 16 in the race to complete the term of the late Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. He previously served as the mayor of Newark.

The newest senator will also serve on the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and  the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

Booker will have to face the voters again in Nov. 2014 if he decides to seek a full term in the Senate.

NYT: Some states want to finance continued operation of national parks and preserves

Some states are hoping to get national parks and monuments open in spite of the ongoing Republican blockade of a bill appropriating money to pay for complete U.S. government operations.

The New York Times reports today that some states have attempted to convince federal agencies to let them pay for ongoing federal functions. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard has unsuccessfully urged the U.S. Department of Interior to allow the state to finance continued operation of Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Many agencies and programs of the national government are shut down in the aftermath of the U.S. House of Representatives’ failure to adopt a continuing resolution authorizing continued expenditure of money. The GOP-dominated chamber has sought to use government financing as a vehicle to leverage changes in the Affordable Care Act, a major health care reform law enacted in 2010.

First environmental bill of new Congress would re-authorize elephant, tiger conservation laws

The first environmental law-related bill of the 113th Congress would re-authorize three laws that aim to conserve iconic wildlife native to other continents.

H.R. 39, which was introduced Thursday by veteran U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, would renew the African Elephant Conservation Act of 1989, the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act of 1994, and the Asian Elephant Conservation Act of 1997.

Young said that he is asking for re-authorization of the three laws because they provide benefits beyond conservation of the iconic species that are their subjects.

“In addition to preserving the local species, by working with local communities, the conservation programs improve people’s livelihoods, contribute to local and regional stability, and support U.S. security interests in impoverished regions,” Young explained in a statement provided by Michael Anderson, his press secretary.

The African Elephant Conservation Act aims to shut down international trade in ivory. To that end, AfECA gave the President authority to block imports of ivory from nations that do not establish and maintain a program to preserve African elephants (Loxodonta africana). President George H.W. Bush, by executive order, blocked imports of ivory from African elephants in June 1989.

AfECA also permits Washington to help finance elephant conservation programs in Africa. In 2011, Congress appropriated $1,774,465 for this purpose. That money was matched by more than $3.6 million in additional contributions from other donors and was put to work in 14 countries.

AfECA is aimed at maintaining a slow but steady rate of growth in African elephant populations that seems to have occurred between the 1930s and about 2006. 
The law must, however, contend with varying rates of elephant losses throughout its range. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the animal’s numbers are on the decline in central and west Africa.
One recent scientific paper estimated that the number of African elephants in that region of the continent has declined by 50 percent during the last four decades. 
A leading cause of that trend is the drive to exploit elephant tusks to finance military operations in some African nations. The money comes mostly from China, which maintains a persistent demand for ivory.
The situation in Asia is the result of much different factors. Asian elephants compete with humans for space and must contend, in many areas of their range, with deforestation. 
Asian elephants are also killed with some frequency by humans with whom they come in contact. The killings are related to the frequently unfortunate consequences to humans of being proximate to Asian elephants.
One recent report calculated that more than 400 people are killed by elephants each year, while another estimated that the animals cause economic losses, mostly due to crop destruction, on the order of $2 to 3 million per year.
The Asian Elephant Conservation Act established a fund through which nations that have ratified the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species cooperatively finance habitat protection efforts for Elephas maximus.

Congress appropriated more than $1.5 million to the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund in 2011, which was matched by about $2.4 million from other sources.

The Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act works in essentially the same manner. The law aims to shut down commerce in rhinoceros horns and tiger body parts. A 1998 amendment to RTCA forbids any sale, import, or export of any product that contains any part of a rhinoceros or tiger, or which is labeled or advertised as including such body parts, if the product is intended for any type of human consumption.
RTCA applies to all five rhinoceros species and all five remaining tiger subspecies.

Both animals are in rapid decline.
According to a website maintained by the Wildlife Conservation Society, tigers occupy only about six percent of the available habitat on their native continent of Asia.
Meanwhile, the world’s population of rhinos has dropped by 90 percent since 1970.

As with AfECA and AECA, RTCA established a fund through which Washington has supported international efforts to preserve increasingly scarce rhinoceroses and tigers. In 2011 Congress appropriated more than $2.6 million to the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund, an amount matched by more than $4 million in other contributions.

“All together, these three funds have financed 1,202 conservation projects to assist two species of elephants, five species of rhinoceros and six species of tigers over the past twenty-three years,” Young said. “These funds have been the only continuous source of money for international conservation efforts, and conservationists across the globe believe that without these projects the African elephant, rhinoceros, tigers and the Asian elephant would disappear forever.”

The bill must first be considered by the House Natural Resources Committee before any floor debate on it is possible.

Congress previously enacted, and President George W. Bush signed, legislation re-authorizing AfECA and RTCA in 2007. That re-authorization expired at the end of September.

AECA was last re-authorized in 2002. The period of that re-authorization expired in 2007.

Young’s bill to secure re-authorization of all three laws during the 112th Congress did not get out of committee.

“I am committed to working with my colleagues on the House Natural Resources Committee to ensure that these bills are reauthorized,” Young said.

Photo of African elephants courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, photo by Andrea Turkalo.

Photo of Asian elephants courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, photo by Jennifer Pastorini.

Photo of rhinoceros courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, photo by Karl Stromayer.

Photo of Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) courtesy Wikimedia.

Three new Republicans on Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee

The Senate’s GOP minority has replaced three of its representatives on the Energy & Natural Resources Committee and two of the new members are freshman.

Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Tim Scott of South Carolina, along with veteran lawmaker Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, replace Sens. Dan Coats, R-Ind., Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Schatz replaces Hirono on Energy & Natural Resources Committee

The Hawaii lawmaker on the U.S. Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee has been switched.

Sen. Brian Schatz, who was appointed to fill the seat left vacant when long-serving Sen. Daniel Inouye died last month, will replace fellow senator Mazie Hirono.

Hirono was sworn in as a member of the Senate Thursday.