The Week in Washington:
Energy, Smelly Farms and Spotted Owls

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, June 15, 2007 (ENS) - A Congressional debate over energy took center stage in Washington this week, revealing deep partisan differences over the nation's energy future as well as splits within the Democratic majority on climate change and fuel economy. The Bush administration pushed plans to assess the dangers of some toxic chemicals, to measure factory farm air pollution, and to reduce protected habitat for the spotted owl, while federal courts rebuked the White House for a trio of environmental policies.

Debating Energy

Senate Democrats had hoped to make serious progress this week on a broad package of energy bills, but found themselves stymied by Republicans over a proposal to force electric utilities to generate 15 percent of their power from wind, solar, biomass and other renewable energy sources by 2020. (see U.S. Senate Wrestles With Complex Energy Bill)

The provision drew the ire of Republican senators from the Southeast, who argued that their states do not have the renewable resources to meet the standard and will have to pay to comply.

A Republican alternative to allow nuclear and hydroelectric power to count toward the standard was killed by Democrats, but the dispute left the issue in limbo and delayed further action until at least Tuesday.

The hard work on the bill has only just begin. Republicans are expected to push for inclusion of language to boost domestic oil and natural gas production and a debate looms over a $14 billion tax package that will be added to the bill next week. The tax provisions boost support for renwables, paying for the subsidies largely by eliminating oil industry tax breaks.

Democrats are bracing for a fight over fuel economy. The energy bill currently raises standards for cars and trucks to 35 miles per gallon, mpg, by 2020, with four percent annual increases from 2021 to 2030.

The sun sets over a Colorado highway. (Photo courtesy NREL)
The increase is the first mandated for automobiles in 30 years, but has drawn fierce opposition from the U.S. auto industry.

Their allies in Congress, notably Michigan's Democratic Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, have authored an alternative plan that lowers the overall fuel economy increase. It would set the mandated increase at 36 mpg standard for cars and 30 mpg for trucks by 2025 and remove the subsequent increases. It also calls on federal officials to take into account when implementing the new standards.

President George W. Bush already has issued a veto threat because of the fuel economy increase and over language to stiffen penalties for oil companies involved in price gouging.

On the other side of the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, reiterated her pledge to bring up a package of energy bills after the July 4 recess. But House Democrats disagree over climate change, particularly how federal and state governments should regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles.

Language in a draft bill before the House Energy and Commerce Committee would block California from implementing its own greenhouse gas limits for automobiles and would also prohibit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, from approving state climate regulations.

Committee chair John Dingell of Michigan contends the bill is needed to prevent a patchwork of confusing climate regulations by state and federal agencies, but Pelosi says she will block the measure from consideration by the full House unless the controversial language is removed.

Courts Reject Bush Policies

Federal courts have frequently rejected the Bush administration's environmental policies and three decisions issued this week continued that trend.

On Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the administration in a Superfund case, deciding that companies that voluntarily clean up hazardous waste sites can sue the federal government and other potentially responsible parties to recover remediation costs. (See Court Rules Firms That Clean Hazwaste Can Sue for Costs)

Two other decisions were further rebukes of controversial policies involving the protection of wild salmon and the regulation of a form of strip mining used by coal companies in Appalachia.

The salmon decision, issued by a district court judge in Seattle, rejected the Bush administration's 2004 decision to include hatchery-raised salmon in endangered species assessments. (Hatchery Salmon Don't Count as Wild

"It is clear that hatchery fish have important differences from wild fish," U.S. District Judge John Coughenour said in his ruling.

valley fill
Flooding below a valley filled with tons of waste soil and rock after moutaintop removal mining in Kentucky (Photo courtesy Kentuckians for the Commonwealth)
And a federal judge in West Virginia issued yet another rebuke to the administration's support for a controversial form of strip mining.

The practice - labeled mountaintop removal mining by environmentalists - is at best an inelegant, if efficient, way to mine for coal. The tops of mountains are literally blown off, allowing for easy access to coal deposits.

The technique creates massive amounts of debris and waste rubbish that coal companies bulldoze into nearby valleys and streambeds - a practice that has polluted and destroyed hundreds of miles of Appalachian waterways and thousands of acres of forests.

The decision issued this week said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lacks the authority to allow this kind of mining without Clean Water Act permits. It is the latest in a series of similar decisions rejecting the administration's position that such permits are not needed. Critics of the practice contend it would be prohibited if the Army Corps complied with the Clean Water Act.

Chemicals, Farm Smells, and Owls

The EPA this week released its draft list of 73 chemicals it plans to further evaluate for their potential to disrupt the endocrine system - a decade after the agency was required to do so.

Congress ordered the EPA to compile the list in 1996 with the passage of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act. Inaction by EPA prompted the Natural Resources Defense Council to file suit in 1999 to force the agency to publish the list.

The chemicals in question are believed to impact the growth and development, as well as hormonal and thyroid functions. Testing on the chemicals will not begin until at least next year, EPA officials said.

The EPA also announced the start of a voluntary program to study air emissions from massive poultry, dairy and hog farms - known as concentrated animal feeding operations, CAFOs. The 30 month, $14.6 million study will measure levels of hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter, ammonia, nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds and other gases from livestock facilities.

A concentrated animal feeding operation in Massachusetts (Photo courtesy MDAR)
The research will be conducted at 24 sites in nine states. Participants have been granted immunity from past and present Superfund, Clean Air Act, and Community Right to Know Act violations, as well as violations that may occur while the EPA is finalizing regulations over the next several years.

The program has been criticized by environmentalists, who argue there is ample data for the EPA to regulate air emissions from CAFOs under both the Clean Air Act and the Superfund law.

EPA also released proposals for cleaning up New Jersey's Passaic River, one of the nation's most polluted waterways. The river is laden with toxic chemicals and metals, as well as sewage and urban runoff.

The agency suggested either dredging or capping toxic sediment in the river. The proposed solutions would cost between $1.5 billion to $2.3 billion. The EPA plans to make a decision by October.

The proposals come in the wake of a report by the National Academy of Sciences that found little evidence that dredging projects carried out by the agency are successful. The study said EPA needed much better monitoring of such projects and should consider both the short-term and long-term effects of dredging.

It was largely a quiet week for the Interior Department - bar the release of a controversial plan to cut 1.5 million acres of protected habitat for the northern spotted owl. (See Spotted Owl Old Growth Habitat Protection Cut Back)

The plan is likely to re-ignite the bitter dispute over the threatened species as it could reopen large swaths of old growth Northwest forests to logging.

Environmentalists argue the plan is intended to do just that, noting that big chunks of the removed habitat are on federal land already being considered for renewed timber production. A final decision on the owl plan is due by June 2008.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.