Draft Energy Bill Includes Offshore Oil and Gas InventoryWASHINGTON, DC, September 25, 2003 (ENS) - Draft language in the energy bill includes a controversial provision that calls for a comprehensive inventory of the nation's offshore oil and gas resources.
Neither the House nor the Senate energy bills that passed this year included the language, but New Mexico Republican Senator Pete Domenici - the cochair of the energy conference committee - is an avid supporter of the inventory.
The provision requires the Secretary of the Interior to take an inventory of potential oil and gas resources of the entire U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) including coastal areas from Maine to Florida and Washington to California.
Critics of the measure fear it is the first step toward lifting a 20 year ban on offshore drilling in many of the nation's coastal waters and could harm the environment and the economies of affected coastal states.
Since 1982, Congress has prevented the Interior Department from conducting leasing, pre-leasing and related activities in the moratorium areas, which include waters along the East and West coasts, as well as some waters off the coast of Alaska and within the Gulf of Mexico.
The nation already knows what offshore oil and gas resources it has, opponents of the survey say, and this new survey is duplicative, unnecessary and is not as benign as others might believe.
The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) already conducts such an inventory of the OCS every five years. The MMS completed its last survey in 2000 and found that 80 percent of the nation's undiscovered, economically recoverable OCS gas is located in the Central and Western part of the Gulf of Mexico, which is currently not subject to the moratorium.
The language orders the Interior Secretary to use any available technology to conduct the inventory and requires the use of seismic surveys, which are prohibited by the current moratorium.
Although the oil and gas industry says the concerns are misstated, many environmentalists believe seismic studies, which use airguns and acoustic transducers, can cause irreparable damage to fish and marine mammals. These instruments produce sound at frequencies within the range of many marine species and have been linked to several stranding incidents over the past few years.
The conference committee expects to consider the full draft of the bill next week.
Senate Democrats Fail to Chop Tongass RiderWASHINGTON, DC, September 25, 2003 (ENS) - Alaska Republicans fended off an effort by Senate Democrats to kill a provision in the Interior Department fiscal 2004 spending bill that limits lawsuits against certain timber sales in the Tongass National Forest.
The language in the spending bill would impose a 30 day statute of limitation for the public to seek review of Tongass timber sales and orders judge to issue decisions of appeals within 180 days.
An amendment to strip the rider from the bill - offered by California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer - was tabled by a vote of 52 to 44.
Boxer said the measure was unnecessary and sets a dangerous precedent.
The last lawsuit challenging a timber sale in the Tongass was four years ago, Boxer said, and there are 300 million board feet of timber in the Tongass that could be cut today.
"There are no lawsuits pending on those ... it is hard to understand why we have to make this rule for a problem that does not seem to exist," Boxer said. "It is a bad rider and interferes with the judiciary, which I do not think is our job to do."
The California Democrat noted that the Tongass is the largest remaining temperate rainforest on Earth - a point that irked Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski.
Using such a term, Murkowski said, glosses "over the realities of our forest."
"The Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and others use overstated hyperbole meant to shift the focus of the debate from what we truly ought to be looking; that is, creating more jobs in America," Murkowski said.
Alaska is in dire need of jobs, Murkowski said, and the ripple effect of litigation of timber sales "rips into the fabric of the communities in southeast Alaska."
"What the families and the people who depend on the timber industry seek is simply some finality and a reasonable time for decisions," she said.
Fellow Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, who inserted the Tongass language, said his amendment "does not cripple the public's due process at all."
The House Interior spending bill does not contain a similar provision - the two competing bills will be negotiated by a joint conference committee in the next few weeks.
Army Corps Eyes ReorganizationWASHINGTON, DC, September 25, 2003 (ENS) - The Army Corps is set for a major reorganization, which its leaders say will ensure the agency runs more like a business. Starting in October, the Army Corps will be divided into eight regional business centers, each pushing nine lines of services ranging from navigation and flood control to recreation and environmental restoration.
Army Corps officials say the reorganization, entitled "USACE 2012" - signifying that it is supposed to remain in effect for the next nine years - will improve its ability to respond to issues that need resolution and expedite reviews and paperwork through the system.
"This is not so much about the Corps as it is about serving our stakeholders, customers, partners and ultimately the American people better," said Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, chief of engineers "We have been working toward a regional business approach for a number of years, and this plan will support the regional centers. We have also been concentrating on process improvements over the past few years, and this reorganization will support the changes."
But a government watchdog groups says the planned reorganization contradicts Bush administration policies, breaks congressional commitments and violates Army guidance that the Corps not become a project promoter.
"This is a misguided vanity project for General Flowers that does nothing to help the Corps' professional staff do its job," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Ruch says Flower's tenure of under three years as head of the Army Corps has been plagued by continuing scandals, shrinking budgets and growing calls for "Corps reform."
"In many respects, the Corps already acts like a business - Enron," Ruch said.
According to PEER, the plan violates rules that the Corps be "an honest broker" of projects and not a project booster.
The group says the reorganization eliminates transparency in Corps planning by giving it control of supposedly "independent" peer review, eliminating line-item funding, and giving the agency sole say in determining which projects it wants to construct
And the plan contradicts the Bush administration's policy that calls for a greater financial responsibility for local project sponsors, according to PEER. The Corps plan, for example, calls for eliminating local cost sharing in feasibility studies, a move that means an additional $100 million cost to the federal treasury.
"The Corps is supposed to be a public agency, not a business peddling a line of services to corporate customers," Ruch said. "Cutting through the gung ho gobbledygook encapsulating this plan, the overall tone that comes through is one of supreme arrogance - that the only problems the Corps faces is not enough funding and insufficient power to spend those funds as it sees fit."
Groups Say Feds Ignore Circus Elephant AbuseWASHINGTON, DC, September 25, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) routinely looks the other way when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey mistreats the elephants in its circus, according to a report released Wednesday by three animal rights groups.
The report was released by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), The Fund for Animals, and the Animal Welfare Institute, and was based on hundreds of records obtained through litigation under the Freedom of Information Act.
"This report confirms what we have long known- that there is an extraordinarily cozy relationship between Ringling Bros. and the USDA," said Michael Markarian, president of The Fund for Animals.
The USDA is tasked with enforcing the federal Animal Welfare Act, Markarian said, but is failing to do so when it comes to circus elephants.
"The American public, and the abused elephants, deserve much better from our federal government," Markarian said.
The report indicates the agency ignored crucial evidence, closed investigations prematurely, and overrode its own inspectors' and investigators' determinations in a slew of cases brought to USDA officials over the last five years by animal welfare organizations, state humane agencies, former Ringling Bros. employees, and even USDA's own inspectors.
This has allowed Ringling Bros. to insist to the public that there is no truth to any allegations that it abuses its elephants, the animal rights groups say.
The report also demonstrates that many Ringling Bros. elephants have tested positive for tuberculosis - a disease that is highly communicable to humans - and that the USDA has failed to disclose this information to the public.
"The USDA is charged by law to protect performing animals-not to help Ringling with its public relations," said Lisa Weisberg, ASPCA's senior vice president for Government Affairs and Public Policy. "This report raises serious questions about the relationship between the circus and USDA officials."
Along with a former Ringling employee, the three groups have brought a lawsuit against Ringling under the Endangered Species Act for its mistreatment of Asian elephants.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., rejected Ringling's arguments that the case should be dismissed, and the case is now going forward in the federal district court in Washington.
Enviros to Sue Over Florida Dairy Farm PollutionTALLAHASSEE, Florida, September 25, 2003 (ENS) - Environmentalists have threatened to sue four large dairy operations for dumping manure into Florida waterways. The coalition of four environmental groups sent notice letters to NFC Management in DeSoto County, Peachey Dairy in Sarasota County, T.K. Dairy in Hardee County, and the Farren Dakin Dairy in Manatee County.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) inspected large dairies back in 1999 and notified them that they were required to apply for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits. The environmental groups say none of the dairies has complied, but the Florida agency has not taken enforcement action against them.
The coalition says it conducted ground and aerial inspections this summer near and over the four dairies and documented illegal manure discharges. It cites a water quality sample taken from a ditch entering Prairie Creek from the west side of the NFC Dairy property that had fecal coliform bacteria levels 40 times higher than the legal limit.
The pollution flows into drinking water supplies and could threaten the health of thousands of Floridians, according to Glenn Compton of ManaSota-88, one of the environmental groups in the coalition.
The other conservation groups preparing to sue are the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Coalition of Southwest Florida and the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation (LEAF).
The four dairies named by the coalition today are representative of a bigger problem, said Scott Randolph, an attorney at LEAF.
"The state is allowing more than 50 factory dairies around the state to illegally contaminate surface and ground water, regardless of its effect on Florida residents who want to fish, swim and drink from these waterways," said Randolph. "If the state is not going to meet its responsibility to protect our citizens, we are going to have to do it ourselves."
Conservationists Aim to Stop New Mexico Cattle GrazingALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico, September 25, 2003 (ENS) - An alliance of six New Mexico and national conservation groups filed Wednesday for an injunction in the New Mexico federal district court to stop cattle grazing on the Apache and Gila National Forests.
The groups contend the grazing is illegal and has been ongoing for at least five months, in defiance of a 1997 federal court order against the same ranchers who illegally grazed these national forests in 1996.
"These ranchers are treating our public lands like their private property and defying the courts, while their cattle are causing untold damage to wildlife habitat," said Dr. Martin Taylor, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).
Forest Service personnel reported in April that hundreds of cattle grazing in the same areas where a federal court held in 1997 that livestock belonging to the Diamond Bar and Laney Cattle Companies were trespassing on federal lands, and ordered their prompt removal.
The conservation groups say the ranchers are defying the 1997 court order by claiming the same private property rights to graze on federal public lands and have returned their cattle to the same two national forest grazing allotment. This grazing, Taylor explains, is damaging sensitive streamside habitat on the San Francisco River and on the Diamond Creek complex in the Aldo Leopold wilderness - home to the few surviving lineages of endangered Gila trout.
Although the U.S. Attorney in Albuquerque has filed contempt of court charges against the offending ranchers, the groups are concerned at the long delay in removing the trespassing livestock.
"The Forest Service needs to impound these cattle," said Silver City businessman and Gila Watch director Mike Sauber, a frequent wilderness visitor. "The wilderness experience is being ruined. Cows have polluted and damaged streams and denuded lush grasslands."
In addition to CBD and Gila Watch, the conservation groups filing for the injunction include National Wildlife Federation, New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited and Wilderness Watch.
South Dakota Missouri River Dam Plan Falls Short, Critics SayDAKOTA DUNES, South Dakota, September 25, 2003 (ENS) - A new proposal by South Dakota for reforming Missouri River dam operations does not include changes needed to better support native fish and wildlife and enhance the river basin's economic vitality, conservationists say.
South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds offered the proposal Wednesday at his Missouri River summit with officials from the eight basin states and the federal government.
The South Dakota proposal fails to restore enough of the river's natural flow patterns, and lacks data to back up claims of potential benefits and impacts, say conservationists, who have been engaged in more than a decade of litigation and dispute over the management of dams on the Missouri River.
"We appreciate the hard work of Governor Rounds and South Dakota officials in trying to help find a solution to the Missouri River's woes," said Chad Smith, director of American Rivers' Nebraska Field Office. "But clearly this river needs to see a much bolder change in how its dams are operated to give us the kind of biological and economic boost we need out here."
The flaws in current proposal flaws will hamper efforts to build support for the plan, Smith says.
Critics believe the proposal essentially maintains the status quo for barge navigation on the lower river and is a significant step backward from a 2002 agreement between the basin states of South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming to implement a 10-year test of flows close to those recommended by federal biologists.
"Every state conservation agency in the basin, both upstream and downstream, has agreed that endangered species and other fish and wildlife need some real effort to restore the river's natural flows," said Tim Searchinger, senior attorney for Environmental Defense. "We are concerned that this proposal fails to do much to protect fish spawning in either the river or the reservoirs. We would love to see a cooperative solution, and any such solution must reflect the science."
Wildlife Service Keen to Improve Access for Hunters and AnglersWASHINGTON, DC, September 25, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation and 17 other public and private partners Wednesday in signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) dedicated to improving and maintaining access to public lands for hunters and anglers.
The memorandum noted that "some hunters and anglers are reporting that problems with access have taken away from their enjoyment of hunting and fishing."
The agreement seeks to establish a general framework for cooperation between government agencies and private organizations to improve access on federally managed public lands for hunters and anglers.
"This is an important effort for our nation's sportsmen and women," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams. "There are some locations in the United States where the federal government is the single largest land owner. Public access is critical to allow hunters and anglers to fulfill their vital role in responsible management of our fish and wildlife resources."
For the new season, the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed 315 hunting programs and 274 fishing programs on National Wildlife Refuges.
Under the agreement, private organizations agree to encourage local chapters and affiliated organizations to contact and meet with appropriate agencies' field offices and to participate in agency land use planning efforts, when plans are open for comment. It calls for these groups to provide leadership, services and materials for the maintenance of roads, trails and access points on public lands.
In addition, it proposes that private groups inform the agencies of potential grant opportunities that might provide sources of funding for hunting or angling access related projects.
Hunting and recreational fishing account for $70 billion in spending in the United States each year, Williams said, adding that state fish and game agencies depend on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses for a significant share of their budget.
Improved access to federal lands where hunting and fishing are already permitted is one of his personal priorities, Williams said.
"Hunters and anglers are some of America's greatest conservationists," he said. "They are conscientious about the land and the water. When they are in the field, they can help us see things that we need to know about. We need to make them feel as welcome as we can."
The MOU was also signed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and some 15 private hunting and fishing groups.