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Public Policy Report for 15 September 2008

Congress Returns, Has Full Plate

After a month-long recess, Congress returned to Washington, DC, on 8 September for what some lawmakers hope to will be two weeks of work. However, with so many items on the agenda, it is doubtful that an early departure will occur. Among the significant items before Congress are fiscal year (FY) 2009 appropriations bills, a possible continuing resolution to fund government programs until appropriations legislation is passed, an economic stimulus package, and legislation to authorize offshore oil drilling. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said of the proposal, “We’re saying, OK, you want to drill, this is how it will be. No more subsidies. We want our royalties.”

Several other bills are scheduled to be debated in the House, including the No Child Left Inside Act, H.R. 3036. This legislation would amend the National Environmental Education Act (the Act) to “add to the minimum functions and activities required of grantees under the Environmental Education and Training program, which trains educational professionals in the development and delivery of environmental education and training.”

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AIBS Request to Interior Granted: Comment Period on Proposed ESA Rule Change Extended

On 19 August 2008, the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) officially requested that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service extend the period for public comment on a proposed rule change for the Endangered Species Act. AIBS requested a 60-day extension to the period for public comment, which would provide a total of 90-days for comments on a proposal that some assert will fundamentally change how the ESA is implemented. The agencies responded and on 11 September, the comment period on the proposed rule was extended until 15 October, a 30-day extension.

For more information regarding the proposed rule change, please visit http://www.aibs.org/public-policy-reports/20080902.html#005107 To comment on the proposed rule, please visit www.Regulations.gov

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USGS Coalition to Honor Members of Congress

Representatives Norman Dicks (D-WA) and Ralph Regula (R-OH) will be presented with the first USGS Coalition Leadership Award at a congressional reception on Monday, September 15, 2008. They will be honored for their enduring support for the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Representative Dicks is Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies and Representative Ralph Regula is former Chairman of the Subcommittee. Additionally, the USGS Coalition reception will highlight the research, information sharing, and services provided by the USGS.

"The U.S. Geological Survey is one of the nation's premiere science agencies. It benefits the lives of every American," said Dr. Craig Schiffries, co-chair of the USGS Coalition and director for geoscience policy at the Geological Society of America. "Representatives Dicks and Regula are being honored for promoting the important science sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey and for providing the agency with the funding required to address many of our nation's most pressing challenges," said Schiffries.

USGS scientists and their collaborators will be on hand at the reception to discuss the vital work the USGS conducts in the biological, geographical, geological and hydrological sciences.

AIBS is a founding member of the USGS Coalition and co-chairs the group along with the Geological Society of America.

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National Academies Update Stem Cell Report

The Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee at the National Research Council (NRC) and Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies has released the “2008 Amendments to the National Academies' Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” This report updates the 2005 and 2007 recommendations and guidelines. To review the report, please visit http://www.nationalacademies.org/stemcells.

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BLM Moves Towards Leasing Western Lands for Oil Shale Extraction

On 4 September the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) that modifies the land-use plans of 1.9 million acres in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming to prioritize commercial oil shale development in this area. The PEIS moves BLM lands a step closer to being available for commercial leasing. The PEIS affects the Green River Formation, a semi-arid region that contains the largest known deposits of oil shale in the world.

Oil shale is a sedimentary rock that contains undecayed algae called kerogen. Kerogen must be extracted from oil shale, refined, and converted into synthetic crude oil before it can be sold to consumers. The BLM has drawn criticism from environmental groups and Colorado officials, including Governor Bill Ritter (D) and Senator Ken Salazar (D), for moving forward with the PEIS when suitable technologies for converting oil shale into crude oil are still in the developmental phase.

BLM Director Jim Caswell said in a statement, "The goal of the BLM's oil-shale program is to promote economically viable and environmentally sound production of oil shale on Western lands.” Conversely, Senator Salazar said in a statement, "The BLM itself has said that we are still years away from even knowing whether oil-shale development will be possible on a commercial scale. They also report that they have no idea how much power would be required or what effect commercial oil-shale development would have on Western water supplies."

Past governmental attempts to develop the oil shale industry in this region resulted in 2,200 people losing their jobs when Exxon closed the doors on its project in 1982, an event referred to as Black Sunday.

Regardless of how the oil will be extracted, the commercial exploitation of this resource is energy intensive and likely to raise significant environmental concerns, according to many familiar with the process.

BLM must wait 60 days before it can issue a Record of Decision on the PEIS. The next step would be to craft guidelines for issuing leases, but Congress has placed a moratorium on agencies issuing such regulations during the current fiscal year. Comments on the PEIS may be submitted at http://www.regulations.gov until 22 September 2008.

For additional coverage of this topic, consider reading the June Washington Watch column in BioScience, “Shale Oil: Alternative Energy or Environmental Degradation.” This article is available for free at http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washingtonwatch2008_06.html

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NOAA to Slow Boats, Save Whales?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency responsible for protecting the endangered North Atlantic right whale, has issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) to “Implement the Vessel Operational Measures to Reduce Ship Strikes to the North Atlantic Right Whale.” The FEIS presents six possible actions.

Of the six potential actions, NOAA has identified the agency’s preferred action. The NOAA plan would establish seasonal speed limits of 10 knots (11.5 miles/hour) for non-federal vessels 65 feet and greater in length in areas deemed significant to the species including summer feeding grounds in the northeast US, winter calving areas in the southeast, and migration routes along the mid-Atlantic coast. The speed reduction zones would include the entire designated critical habitat in the northeast; a portion of the southeast critical habitat, a migration region designated as within 20 nautical miles (37 km) of the coast in the southern mid-Atlantic, and additional speed zones at major port entrances between Boston, MA to Jacksonville, FL. The proposed alternative also calls for voluntary speed reduction in dynamic management areas (zones where groups of three or more right whales have been recently spotted) and recommends the use of shipping routes that minimize the co-occurrence of vessels and whales.

Current federal regulations prohibit coming within 500 yards of individual right whales, but this measure alone has been inadequate in reducing ship mortalities, which is the top non-natural cause of death in this species. Research suggests that losing as few as two reproductive females per year to ship strikes could negatively impact the population size. The current number of North Atlantic right whales is estimated to be near 300 individuals.

NOAA is accepting public comments on the FEIS through 29 September 2008. Comments should be submitted to David Cottingham at ShipStrike.EIS@noaa.gov.

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New in BioScience: "Sweating the Small Stuff"

In the Washington Watch article in the September 2008 issue of the BioScience, Natalie Dawson explores environmental risk and Nanotechnology in the United States.

An excerpt from the article follows:

Nanoscience, or nanotechnology, is science or technology that creates functional materials from atomic particles. Once considered to be little more than science fiction, nanotechnology is now a well-established field, as evidenced by various new journals and federally funded research programs, as well as myriad new products ranging from industrial materials to cosmetics. According to the Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), more than $60 billion in nanorelated products were sold in 2007, and this number could more than double by the end of 2008. Estimates are that by 2014, more than 15 percent of all products on the global market will have some kind of nanotechnology incorporated into their manufacturing process. This technology boom raises an important question: what is being done to address the environmental risks associated with nanotechnology?

As companies, federal laboratories, and international unions call for more research funding for nanotechnology, emerging scientific investigations into the effects of nanorelated materials on the environment and human health reveal potential problems…

Continue reading this article for free at http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/washingtonwatch2008_09.html

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