109th Congress Passes Last Minute Environmental Bills

WASHINGTON, DC, December 11, 2006 (ENS) - Last week in a push lasting into the early hours of Saturday morning, the outgoing 109th Congress passed and sent to the President for signature several important environmental measures dealing with fisheries, oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, tax credits for solar and wind energy, tsunami and drought warnings, and protection of wilderness lands in Nevada.

At 4:40 on Saturday morning, the Republican controlled 109th Congress passed into history. When lawmakers again convene at noon on January 4, 2007, the Democrats will control both houses.

Governing fisheries, the legislators reauthorized and amended the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Amendments improve monitoring and compliance for high seas fisheries or fisheries governed by international fishery management agreements.

The new version, the Secretary of Commerce will to report to Congress every two years on U.S. awareness of the status of international living marine resources shared by the United States.

The reports must include information on regulatory failures of nations engaged in illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing in high seas fisheries, practices that result in bycatch of endangered or threatened species, and international measures to reduce the impacts of fishing on protected living marine resources.


Pirate fishing vessels like this one manage to slip by authorities. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
The Treasury Secretary will be required to withhold or revoke the clearance of an offending nation's vessels and deny their entry into U.S. navigable waters or ports. The U.S. would prohibit the import of fish products or sport fishing gear from such nation; and impose other economic sanctions if needed.

Offending nations would be notified, invited into consultations encouraging corrective action and urged to participate in international fishery management agreements.

President George W. Bush intends to sign the measure into law. "This bill embraces my priorities of ending overfishing and rebuilding our nation's fish stocks through more effective, market-based management and tougher enforcement. This landmark legislation also provides stronger tools to achieve progress internationally to ensure healthy fish stocks, promote better management, and halt destructive fishing practices based on sound science," he said in a statement.

The legislation received broad bipartisan support in Congress. It was introduced by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican and Co-Chairman Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat.

"The bill promotes science-based management techniques successfully used in Alaska," said Senator Stevens. "It also gives regional councils across the country the flexibility to develop unique fishery management plans and adopt approaches that have worked so well in Alaska."

Senator Inouye said, “We must ensure all fishing nations take steps at least as strong as ours, to reduce bycatch of sensitive marine species, such as sea turtles and marine mammals. Our task is to both manage and conserve these invaluable resources here and on the high seas."

The bill requires fishery managers to base all quotas on the advice of scientists and advances new limitations on "cap-and-trade" fishing permit programs, which cover individual tradeable quotas for fishing rights.

The bill would create a two year deadline to end overfishing starting in 2010, but it does not include any of the controversial exemptions on fishery rebuilding requirements.

The bill does include a special exemption for the summer flounder fishery. The Recreational Fishing Alliance, RFA, which lobbied for the exemption and an extension to the rebuilding time frame for summer flounder, was happy with this section of the measure.

"The response from anglers was great," said Captain Tony Bogan, a director of The United Boatmen of New Jersey and New York, an industry group which represents party and charter boat owners and operators. "It's invaluable to be able to tell anglers, captains and crews of for-hire boats, tackle shop operators and other marine businesses that their efforts were worthwhile."

The bill also removes a requirement for fisheries managers to "pay back" in future years any catch exceeding recommended levels.

Marine Debris

To tackle the increasing problem of abandoned nets and fishing line that go on catching fish, birds and marine mammals long after they are discarded, lawmakers passed the Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act.

The bill will establish a marine debris program within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, for prevention, monitoring and removal of marine debris. It will enhance Coast Guard efforts at prevention and enforcement, improve coordination of different federal agencies, and establish a federal information clearinghouse on marine debris.


Sea turtle entangled in marine debris. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
This legislation also was sponsored by Senator Inouye. "In Hawaii," he said, "we are able to see the effect of marine debris more clearly than most because of the convergence caused by the North Pacific Tropical High. Since 1996, a total of 484 tons of debris have been removed from coral reefs in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which is also home to many endangered marine species."

Conservationists were pleased. "Marine debris such as discarded fishing lines and nets is responsible for killing or injuring thousands of marine mammals, fish and birds every year," said Vikki Spruill, president of The Ocean Conservancy.

"This legislation helps prevent marine life entanglement by addressing some of the major sources of dangerous marine debris," she said. "It will expand the existing body of science, contribute to our understanding of its sources and lead to more effective prevention."

Tsunami Warning System

Also looking seaward, the lawmakers passed the Tsunami Warning and Education Act, introduced in wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which resulted in the loss of over 200,000 lives.

The bill formally authorizes the NOAA tsunami forecasting and warning system, a NOAA tsunami research program, and requires NOAA to notify Congress of any tsunami detection equipment failures.

It authorizes five years of funding for NOAA to operate the program starting in fiscal year 2008 with $25 million annually increasing gradually to $29 million in fiscal year 2012.

Drought Information Warnings

The outgoing Congress also passed the National Integrated Drought Information System Act of 2006. The measure requires NOAA to create an effective drought early warning system in an attempt to reduce the impacts and costs of droughts.

The system is required to provide reliable and timely drought forecasts and drought assessments and communicate these forecasts, drought conditions, and drought impacts to federal, state, and local decisionmakers and the public

The bill was sponsored by Congressman Ralph Hall, a Republican from Texas, hard-hit by drought over the past several years. "Droughts, like other weather extremes such as floods and tornadoes, have devastating effects on our economy and society,” Hall said. “With droughts causing between $6 and $8 billion a year in estimated losses to the economy, we cannot continue to deal with this problem in an ad hoc way."

New Wilderness in Nevada

Early Saturday morning Congress passed the White Pine County public lands bill as part of year-end omnibus legislation. Key conservation measures in the legislation include the designation of more than 550,000 acres of wilderness in 13 new areas on lands managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in Nevada.

Nevada Senators John Ensign, a Republican, and Harry Reid, a Democrat who will take the position of Senate Majority Leader in January, were able to get the bill inserted.

The Senators say the legislation will provide an economic boost and preserve pristine wilderness areas in Nevada, while protecting Northern Nevada’s valuable outdoor areas such as Lake Tahoe, the eastern Sierra, and the Ballardini Ranch.


Nevada's Ballardini Ranch will be partially protected under new legislation. (Photo courtesy Protect Our Washoe)
"This legislation is the result of countless meetings, hearings, and public discussions," said Ensign. "We brought everyone to the table and created a bill that balances economic opportunity while preserving the pristine beauty and wilderness areas in our state."

“The White Pine County land bill represents the great art of compromise. I’m proud that so many Nevadans came together to both protect our precious public lands and serve the needs of our growing communities,” said Reid.

The bill provides benefits for Northern Nevada through a 10-year comprehensive hazardous fuels reduction plan at Lake Tahoe and the eastern Sierra, by providing funds to acquire and protect portions of the Ballardini Ranch in Washoe County, and by reducing the risk of fire through restoration projects and the improvement of critical watersheds.

The threat of a catastrophic fire at Lake Tahoe could irreparably harm its famous clarity. The bill designates 557,000 acres of wilderness in White Pine County and transfers 3,526 acres to the Ely Shoshone Tribe for traditional, ceremonial, commercial and residential purposes.

The bill expands economic opportunity in the county by allowing up to 45,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands to be privatized. Each year a portion of land will be released with five percent of land sales proceeds going to the state education fund; 10 percent to White Pine County law enforcement, fire protection, transportation, and natural resource planning; and 85 percent to fund the protection of wilderness areas in White Pine County.

Nevada conservationists hailed these protections. "The White Pine County public lands bill protects a number of unique places and important wildlife habitat," said Shaaron Netherton, executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness. "Although the legislation did not address everything we had hoped for, overall we feel that this complex legislation represents a fair compromise that brings significant conservation gains to Nevada."

Chesapeake National Historic Trail

Passed in the flurry of last minute legislation, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail Designation Act amends the National Trails System Act to designate as part of the national trails system a series of water routes extending 3,000 miles along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and in the District of Columbia. The trail traces the 1607 and 1608 voyages of Captain John Smith to chart the land and waterways of the Chesapeake Bay.

Energy Supplies: Fossil Fuels and Renewables

Early Saturday morning, Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who has chaired the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee celebrated passage of legislation he crafted to bring 1.26 billion barrels of oil and 5.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to market over the next several years.

The Senate approved the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which now goes to the President to be signed into law.

"This will produce gas for millions of homes and thousands upon thousands of businesses,” Domenici said on the Senate floor. "It will be American-owned gas drilled by American companies, supplied to Americans by Americans with American dollars."


Researchers approach a deepwater oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico (Photo courtesy Photo courtesy U.S. Minerals Management Service)
The measure gives energy companies access to oil and natural gas deposits in 8.3 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico that has been off-limits to exploration.

Under the Domenici plan, 37.5 percent of the royalties from oil and natural gas produced from Lease Area 181 of the Gulf of Mexico would be dedicated to Gulf producing states. The stateside Land and Water Conservation Fund would receive 12.5 percent. The other 50 percent would go to the federal treasury.

In remarks on the Senate floor, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist characterized the legislation as "one of the most significant accomplishments of the 109th Congress which will have a lasting impact on American consumers and our economy."

But conservation advocates were outraged. "America is already the third biggest oil producer in the world," said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. "The problem isn’t that we produce too little oil – it’s that we consume too much, using one of every four barrels of oil in the world each day."

"The smartest way to break our reliance on oil is to increase fuel economy standards and invest in energy efficiency measures and mass transit," Slocum said. "Left to their own devices, oil companies will just keep drilling in environmentally sensitive federal land and offshore areas, and fueling their corporate wealth in the process."

The oil and gas industry was delighted with the bill. "Today, Congress seized an historic opportunity and passed legislation that significantly increases the energy security for more than 200 million Americans," said David Parker, president and CEO of the American Gas Association, representing hundreds of local energy utility companies that deliver natural gas to more than 62 million homes, businesses and industries.

The Senate approved the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act as part of a massive tax-trade-health care package measure, HR.6111.

The energy tax provisions in the HR.6111 package include:

Wind turbines generate power on San Clemente Island, California. (Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy NREL)
The wind energy industry will continue to grow at a record pace due to the tax credit extension, according to the American Wind Energy Association, AWEA.

"Extending the credit now – a full year before it was set to expire on December 31, 2007 – is enormously important," said AWEA Legislative Director Jaime Steve. “This timely action by Congress will boost significant upward growth and investment for wind energy, spurring thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars in rural economic development while also bringing cleaner air to all Americans."

"Extending the credit is also an investment in fighting climate change and increasing America’s energy security," said Steve.

The Solar Energy Industries Association said the solar industry also will expand due to the tax credit, said the association's President Rhone Resch, although the trade group was seeking an eight year tax credit extension. "While this bill does not constitute a long-term solar growth policy, it does provide some breathing room for solar projects in the 12 to 18 month pipeline," Resch said.

In addition, a bill was passed to study and promote the use of energy efficient computer servers in the United States.