The Week in Washington:
Energy, Smog, 9/11, Snowmobiles, and Fish

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, June 22, 2007 (ENS) - Senate Republicans and energy industry lobbyists flexed their muscles this week in Washington, forcing the Democratic leadership to abandon a plan that would have fueled development of renewable sources of energy by raising taxes on oil companies.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed tightening federal smog standards, a prominent presidential candidate criticized the government's response to environmental concerns caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the national fish count found fewer fish in the sea, and federal environmental officials blasted the administration's plan to allow more snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park.

ENERGY BATTLES

In a move that surprised many onlookers, notably the auto industry, the Senate late Thursday night approved its package of energy measures. (See Senate Approves Energy Bill, Calls for Fuel Economy Increase)

The final measure was far less aggressive than Democrats had originally planned, a sign of the success of vested energy interests in protecting the status quo. Even the centerpiece of the bill, an increase in fuel economy standards, was scaled back due to fierce pressure by advocates of the automobile industry, notably the two Democratic senators from Michigan, home of the struggling U.S. auto industry.

The Senate's action sets the stage for a confrontation with President George W. Bush, who has threatened a veto because of a provision that stiffens penalties on oil companies who gouge consumers at the pump.

Bush hit the road Thursday to promote nuclear power, ironically touting the energy source from the site of arguably the nation's second worst nuclear accident.

The President spoke at the Brown's Ferry nuclear power plant in Athens, Alabama. (See Bush Tours Restarted Browns Ferry Reactor)

President George W. Bush tours the control room at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant (Photo by Chris Greenberg courtesy The White House)
In 1975, employees lost control of one of the plant's reactors after a worker started a fire in the control room while looking for an air leak with a candle. The fire damaged the plant but did not cause a meltdown.

The operator Tennessee Valley Authority shut down all three units at Browns Ferry in 1985 because of continued safety concerns Unit 2 was restarted in 1991, Unit 3 in 1995 and Unit 1 last month.

Bush said the nuclear industry "is one of the safest industries" in the United States, calling nuclear power "affordable and reliable" as well as a ready solution to global warming.

He reiterated his long-running support for more domestic oil and gas production, calling on Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and pledged to have the government "take the first steps" toward implementing the Supreme Court's order that it consider regulating greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles.

That issue had threatened to hold up progress in the House of Representatives on energy legislation, but lawmakers appeared this week to have settled their dispute.

Democrats in charge of the House Energy Committee had drawn the ire of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, by including language in a draft energy bill revoking California's right to implement its own greenhouse gas limits for automobiles and prohibiting EPA from approving state climate regulations.

Pelosi had threatened to block consideration of that bill unless the language was removed. The two Democrats, Representatives John Dingell of Michigan and Rick Boucher of Virginia, bowed this week to her wishes.

Thursday, Pelosi, Congressional leaders, and the Capitol's chief administrative officer announced the completion of the "Greening the Capitol" report, which confirms the Speaker's plan to immediately reduce levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide emitted by House operations.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi starts Greening the Capitol (Photo courtesy Office of the Speaker)

The House will cut energy use over the next 10 years in half - more than twice what the 2005 Energy Policy Act requires of federal buildings.

The House will purchase carbon offsets, allowing for the investment in carbon dioxide reduction projects elsewhere in the United States. The House will also use non-toxic cleaning products, increase water conservation and improve recycling.

Leaders of the House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee stepped up their bid to shed light on the Bush administration's pervasive meddling with climate scientists.

Committee chair Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, and ranking member Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, have been trying to get to the bottom of the issue for nearly a year, but have been stonewalled by the administration.

On Wednesday, the two sent a letter to James Connaughton, the administration's top environmental official, threatening a subpoena by June 27 unless the White House produces some 500 requested documents or officially asserts executive privilege.

SMOG STANDARDS

A storm over smog erupted Thursday, as the EPA released its long-awaited revisions to the federal standards for ground-level ozone emissions. (See EPA Proposes National Smog Emissions Cutbacks)

Industry groups said the proposed rules are too strict and will be costly. Environmental and public health groups offered some rare praise for the actual proposal, although noted that the draft rule is a bit less protective than recommended by agency scientists.

But they voiced major concern that EPA may backslide before it issues the final rules, noting that the agency called for the public to not just comment on the proposal, but also on the concept of not changing the standard at all. EPA is under court order to issue the final rules by next March.

AIRING OUT 9/11 RESPONSE

A Senate panel this week began investigating the government's response to the environmental concerns that emerged in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

The hearing, held by the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health, featured sharp criticism of that response, with allegations that federal officials mislead the public about the risks from the tons of toxic dust released when the twin towers collapsed.

Dust still rises from the collapsed World Trade Center weeks after the terrorist attacks. October 4, 2001. (Photo by Andrea Booher courtesy FEMA)

Administration officials defended their actions, saying that federal agencies acted with the best available information.

That did little to appease subcommittee chair Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat and presidential candidate, who said, "We still don't have the whole truth about the toxic cloud of poison that filled the air after the towers fell."

Clinton said first responders, a shocking number of whom have developed respiratory problems, and the general public were let down by their government.

"All we got was deliberate misinformation, manipulation and half truths," Clinton said. "We never got the information we needed to understand just what toxic hazards were present in the air, we never got the comprehensive test and clean up program that would have protected families, students and workers, and we are left with a federal agency that is completely unprepared if this kind of air quality disaster were to happen again."

A House panel is set to hold a hearing on the issue next week.

SNOWMOBILING IN SUMMER

The Yellowstone snowmobile controversy revs on regardless of the season, and this week EPA officials weighed in with opposition to the Bush administration's latest plan to expand snowmobiling in the nation's oldest national park.

In comments filed on the proposal, the EPA said the plan fails to protect the park's environment and will dramatically increase harmful air emissions inside the park.

Snowmobiles shatter the natural quiet of the park, EPA said, and the plan will double the extent of the park where the machines are heard.

The agency also noted that park employees could suffer from the pollution caused by the machines and suggested the Park Service consider monitoring its workers for exposure to harmful emissions. But EPA's comments are just some of more than 110,000 the Park Service has received on the plan, and previous warnings by the agency have been ignored.

COUNTING FISH

Fish counts typically make for depressing reading and the latest federal assessment of U.S. stocks is no different. The report finds that 20 percent of U.S. marine fish stocks assessed are subject to overfishing and 25 percent are overfished or depleted.

Conservation groups said the assessment is further evidence that the federal government has to mandate stronger rules to curb overfishing and ensure that regional management councils actually abide by restrictions.

"If fishery managers continue to ignore the agency's rules, we'll never be able to end overfishing," said Matt Rand, director of the National Environmental Trust's Marine Fisheries Campaign.

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