AmeriScan: July 31, 2003

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U.S. Hosts International Forum on Earth Observation

WASHINGTON, DC, July 31, 2003 (ENS) - Ministers and policymakers from more than 30 countries gathered in Washington D.C. today to discuss a new strategy for a comprehensive Earth observation system.

The Bush administration says this is the first-ever international political summit on Earth observation. Hosted by the U.S. Departments of State, Commerce and Energy, the event is designed to forge top level international support to link thousands of individual satellites, aircraft and land based data collection to create a comprehensive global observing system over the next decade to address environmental and economic concerns.

"Without sound science, no nation can make the sound policies essential to addressing complex health, safety and economic challenges," said Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Conrad Lautenbacher. "And it will take a collaborative effort. It is something the United States cannot do alone. It will take the nations of the world."

Some critics believe the initiative is another Bush administration ploy to delay action on global warming - there is no budget for the program.

But Lautenbacher that an internationally coordinated Earth observation system (EOS)would provide valuable data that could remove some of the uncertainty in the science of climate change.

"Many of these questions cannot be answered without improving our ability to observe places in the world that we cannot see or even think about today, such as a major part of our oceans, big parts of the atmosphere, the Arctic and Antarctic, and certain places on our continents that are under observed," Lautenbacher said. "So from a climate change perspective, EOS is extremely important."

Summit participants will also establish an intergovernmental working group scheduled to hold its inaugural meeting this weekend to begin preparation of a 10-year implementation plan for the Earth observation system. A framework for the plan will be presented at a ministerial conference to be held early next year in Tokyo, Japan.

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U.S. Signs Environmental Memo With Mexico

WASHINGTON, DC, July 31, 2003 (ENS) - The United States and Mexico signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Wednesday to create permanent bilateral working groups to cooperate on issues of biotechnology, water resources, forest resources, sustainable rural development and environmental services.

The MOU was signed by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Mexico's Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Victor Lichtinger. The administration did not release details on funding or staffing to support the agreement.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shares some 30 collaborative research projects with Mexico in areas such as biotechnology and biosafety, fire management and forest fire protection, and greenhouse gas reduction through soil carbon enhancement.

This MOU provides a mechanism to expand research projects and "solidifies our commitment to work together in specific areas that both Mexico and the United States share as environmental priorities," Veneman said.

Agricultural trade between the United States and Mexico reached some $12.8 billion in 2002, up more than 100 percent since 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect.

The increased agricultural trade has also expanded technical and scientific exchanges between the two countries, along with creating a network of contacts between U.S. and Mexican research institutions - and Veneman says this MOU is one way to help formalize these relationships.

"By forging a closer working relationship with Mexico's principal environmental agency, we can work collaboratively on better watershed management and irrigation techniques and research to help develop drought-resistant crops," said Veneman.

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EPA Hit With Suit Over Dirty Air in National Parks

WASHINGTON, DC, July 31, 2003 (ENS) - Environmentalists have filed a petition seeking to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to correct flaws in air regulations that would improve protection of air quality in national parks and wilderness areas across the country.

In response to a previous lawsuit by Environmental Defense, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ordered EPA in 1990 to review and revise its inadequate regulations, but the agency has not acted on these findings.

"Thirteen years have passed with no action while air quality and visibility in the Nation's most treasured natural areas continue to decline," said Jennifer Kefer, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which filed the petition on behalf of Environmental Defense. "We are simply asking the EPA to take responsibility for our air and implement the limits set forth by the Clean Air Act."

Under the Clean Air Act, areas where the air meets federal standards must be protected from additional pollution.

The Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) program restricts allowable pollution increases in these regions, and enforces pollution standards through a review and permit system for all pollution sources of a certain size.

To obtain a PSD permit, new or expanded factories and power plants must demonstrate that their emissions will not cause air quality to deteriorate beyond the allowable level.

"This program ensures that the floor established by the federal standards does not, in fact, become the ceiling," Kefer explained.

Environmental Defense's previous lawsuit challenged significant deficiencies in EPA's existing PSD limits for nitrogen oxides and the 1990 court ruling agreed that the EPA had failed to comply with the law, and instructed EPA to reconsider its rules.

"In some of the most revered areas in the West - from Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon - smog levels are worsening and ecosystems are threatened by rising industrial pollution levels," said Vickie Patton, a senior attorney at Environmental Defense. "EPA was directed by a federal court of appeals to put in place sensible measures to guard against these worsening air pollution levels but has dropped the ball."

The petition asks the Court to order the EPA to adopt adequate pollution limits within the next two years.

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White House to Open Rocky Mountain Energy Council to the Public

WASHINGTON, DC, July 31, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration today announced a public meeting to gather public input into the formation of the Rocky Mountain Energy Council, a controversial White House energy task force. The meeting will be held Tuesday, August 26, 2003, from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Sheraton Denver West hotel in Lakewood, Colorado.

The Rocky Mountain Energy Council is an administrative initiative to work across the federal governments and with state governments to more effectively manage energy development on public lands in the Rocky Mountains.

After learning that the council held closed meetings in Denver on July 8 and 9, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the White House Council on Environmental Quality demanding access to records related the recently established energy group.

The organization says that the White House's newly created Rocky Mountain Energy Council undermines the administration's statutory obligation to "foster and promote the improvement of environmental quality."

In the notice published today in the Federal Register, the administration says the meeting on July 8 and 9 was an "organization meeting" that included representatives from the States of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and those federal agencies with responsibilities for managing, authorizing, reviewing, consulting on, or certifying different aspects of energy projects on federal lands.

The objective of this meeting, according to the administration, was to evaluate the benefits of creating a Rocky Mountain Energy Council (RMEC) and, if desired, determine what steps would be needed to organize and implement the council.

It determined that the council is needed "to develop streamlined and forward-looking decision processes with respect to energy projects while preserving existing environmental protections."

In its announcement, the administration said that minutes of the August 26, 2003, meeting will be available for public inspection and downloading at http://www.etf.energy.gov by September 26, 2003.

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Members of Congress Oppose Camisea Project

WASHINGTON, DC, July 31, 2003 (ENS) - Some ten members of Congress weighed in Wednesday with their concerns about public financing for a massive natural gas project in Peru known as the Camisea Gas Project. The letter, sent from nine U.S. senators to the U.S. Treasury Secretary and the head of the U.S. Export Import Bank.

It opposes public support for Camisea at this time, and echoes the concerns of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who also sent a letter.

The Export Import Bank is considering more than $200 million in financing for the $2.6 billion project, which seeks to develop two natural gas deposits in the Peruvian Amazon and to construct two pipelines to deliver the gas to Lim and Callao, Peru.

The project seeks to tap into reserves of some 13,000 billion cubic feet of gas, but two major investors, Citigroup and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, have turned down funding and financing.

Environmentalists and other nongovernmental organizations are fighting the project, which they say slices through a biodiversity hotspot described by scientists as "the last place on Earth" to drill for fossil fuels.

Opponents of the project received another boost Wednesday when the Board of Executive Directors of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) delayed a scheduled vote on loan guarantees and some financing for the Camisea Gas Project in Peru for one week.

IDB officials indicated a "lack of consensus" among directors prevented approval of the project.

According to an internal report by the US Export Import Bank, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, proposals to mitigate the environmental impacts of the project are "woefully inadequate" and the project will likely lead to landslides, destroy critical natural habitats, and spread diseases among indigenous peoples.

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Judge Rules to Proceed With Circus Elephant Case

WASHINGTON, DC, July 31, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has ruled against Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to allow a case to go forward charging the circus with violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for its alleged abuse of endangered Asian elephants.

The case has been brought against the circus by a former Ringling Bros. elephant worker, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), and The Fund for Animals.

The former Ringling Bros. employee, Tom Rider, says he witnessed routine beatings of the circus elephants with bull hooks and his testimony is also a part of the animal groups' case.

The ruling stated that "in the present case, the court must accept as true plaintiff's assertions concerning defendants' treatment of Asian elephants, a species considered 'endangered' under the ESA."

"Elephants, including babies, have suffered greatly at the hands of Ringling Bros.," said Cathy Liss, President for the Animal Welfare Institute. "Our lawsuit simply seeks to stop the torture."

The plaintiffs say that in addition to Rider's accounts, they will present eyewitness testimony and videotaped evidence that Ringling Bros. beats its elephants with bull hooks.

"The ASPCA is very pleased with the court's decision," said Lisa Weisberg, senior vice president of Government Affairs and Public Policy at the ASPCA. "We believe we will successfully prove that Ringling Bros. engages in ongoing abuse of the elephants during the separation process of babies from their mothers and in the training of elephants to perform."

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New Species of Organism Discovered

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama, July 31, 2003 (ENS) - Scientists have isolated a new species of organism that thrives without oxygen and grows in salty, alkaline conditions. This new species, discovered by scientists at the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville, Alabama, could offer new insights into what kinds of life might survive on Mars.

The discovery, published in the May 2003 issue of the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, identifies a species named Spirochaeta americana.

NSSTC scientists Richard Hoover and Elena Pikuta isolated this new organism from oxygen-deprived mud sediments from Northern California's Mono Lake - a salty, alkaline lake in an enclosed volcanic basin.

"The environment these bacteria inhabit would be distinctly inhospitable to many other life forms, including humans," said Pikuta.

Since the first species of the genus Spirochaeta was discovered in 1835, only 13 other species of free living spirochetes have been found worldwide, inhabiting environments ranging from sediments to oil fields. The new microorganism, a long, thin bacteria, is an extremophile - an organism that can survive in some of the harshest conditions on Earth.

"These extremely thin and graceful bacteria move with an elegant motion," Pikuta said. "Their cell walls are very delicate, and it is difficult to keep them alive for long periods in the laboratory."

Extremophiles are the most ancient life forms on Earth and can thrive in acid pools, super-heated volcanic vents, glaciers, nuclear reactor wastes, at high pressure and absolute darkness in deep-sea abysses and in rocks far beneath the Earth's crust.

"Planets like Mars have conditions that would challenge the existence of highly organized multicellular organisms such as we find on Earth, but that does not mean these harsh places can not sustain microbial life forms," said Hoover. "By studying microorganisms found in Earth's extreme places, like Mono Lake, we can better understand how life might exist on Mars."

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Hunters Bagged Less Ducks, Geese in 2002

WASHINGTON, DC, July 31, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that more than 12.7 million ducks were taken by hunters in 2002, an eight percent drop from 2001. In addition, hunters harvested some 3.4 million geese in 2002, down some seven percent over the prior year.

"Despite dry habitat conditions and a warm winter in 2002 that may have contributed to a reduced harvest, it is encouraging that the total number of waterfowl hunting days remained strong," said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams. "We will continue to work with states and flyway councils to provide migratory bird hunting opportunities as part of our conservation mission."

The figures are part of the agency's new report "Harvest Information Program: Preliminary Estimates of Waterfowl Hunter Activity and Harvest during the 2001 and 2002 Hunting Seasons," which estimates waterfowl hunting activity, success, and harvest by species.

Mallards were the most hunted duck in the United States, with more than 4.9 million birds harvested last season. Mallards were followed by green-winged teal at some 1.4 million birds, gadwall at nearly 1.3 million, wood duck at more than 1.2 million and blue-winged teal at about 750,000.

Canada geese were the most hunted goose in the United States, with nearly 2.5 million birds harvested last season, followed by snow geese at 550,000 and white-fronted geese at 219,000.

Duck hunters spent about 7.6 million days in the field in the 2002 migratory waterfowl hunting season, down from 8.2 million days of duck hunting during the 2001 season. Hunters spent 4.7 million days hunting geese in 2002 compared to 4.6 million days in 2001.

Hunters bagged some six million ducks and 1.2 million geese within states in the Mississippi flyway. These figures were down 10 percent and six percent, respectively, from 2001.

Hunters in states in the Atlantic Flyway increased their duck total to 1.8 million, up nine percent from the 2001 season. The total of 797,000 geese harvested in the Atlantic Flyway in 2002 is down two percent from 2001.

In states in the Central Flyway, hunters bagged nearly 2.6 million ducks last season. This is 21 percent fewer than the 2001 harvest and the 979,000 geese taken from these states is down 14 percent from 2001.

In states in the Pacific Flyway, hunters harvested a total of nearly 2.3 million ducks, similar to the previous season's estimate. The number of geese harvested, nearly 363,000, was also similar to the previous year's harvest.

In Alaska, nearly 75,000 ducks were harvested, down five percent from the previous season. The goose harvest, at 6,000, fell 25 percent from the previous year.

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