Environmental issues encompass a broad range of topics that interest the geoscience community. Topics include environmental clean-up of contaminated sites through the Superfund and Brownfield programs, health and environmental concerns associated with asbestos, and the environmental concerns associated with the disposal of solid waste. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the primary government agency responsible for protecting environmental health and safety through its regulatory, enforcement, and remediation authority. Issues related to clean air, clean water, nuclear waste and climate change are covered on separate AGI policy pages.
Republican Bill Would Reform EPA Science Advisory Board (09/12)
House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) has introduced a bill to change the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB). The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2012 (H.R. 6564) would increase public comment opportunities, strengthen peer review requirements, and require disclosure of uncertainties surrounding scientific findings and conclusions. The bill is cosponsored by Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Andy Harris (R-MD), and Dan Benishek (R-MI).
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EPA Reports Water at Dimock, PA Safe to Drink (07/12)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in July that contaminant levels in Dimock, Pennsylvania’s water supplies show no health threat and no connection to chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has not allowed Cabot Oil and Gas to drill near Dimock, the town featured in the documentary “Gasland.” The wells were shut down in 2009 because the town claimed poor well construction caused the migration of methane gas into water resources. The DEP found unnatural gas concentrations on 18 properties. The EPA methane tests found five wells with methane levels above the 28 parts per million threshold. People receiving water from these wells were already aware of methane levels present in local water.
The EPA tested for naturally occurring substances including arsenic, barium, and manganese. Levels of concern for health impacts were identified at five households, however all have built, or plan to build, water treatment systems to reduce the risk.
EPA’s Report on Dimock, Pennsylvania’s Groundwater (05/12)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released their final set of water well results from testing in Dimock, Pennsylvania. No wells contained any unsafe levels of chemicals from hydraulic fracturing, which residents implicated as ruining the quality of their water.
Testing of the area occurred over a period from January to March 2012. Out of the twelve water wells tested, one showed an elevated amount of methane, but not enough to result in action by the EPA. Results from 59 of the 61 wells in Dimock show elevated levels of arsenic, chromium and bacteria, among other contaminants, but none of the wells showed harmful levels of drilling chemicals. The EPA will retest four wells where contaminants were found by Cabot and state officials and not the EPA.
Dimock residents were disappointed by the results. The town was made famous by the 2010 documentary “Gasland,” which featured video of residents setting water from their faucets on fire. Residents believed hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus Shale contaminated the groundwater.
World Wildlife Fund Releases Living Planet Report (05/12)
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released their Living Planet Report for 2012. The report is a science-based analysis of the impact of human activities on the planet. The report’s key finding is that human activities require and demand more resources than the Earth can sustain.
Demand for natural resources has doubled since 1966 and the report says the equivalent of 1.5 planets is necessary for human activities and will increase to two planets by 2030. Biodiversity, key to ecosystem services, has decreased around the world by 30 percent over a time span of about 40 years.
The Living Planet Index shows a 61 percent decrease from 1970 to 2008 in the tropical living planet biodiversity and a 31 percent increase in temperate living planet biodiversity over the same period. The ecological footprint shows over-consumption and the largest portion of the footprint is the forest land needed for carbon sequestration. The footprint monitors demands on the biosphere by comparing renewable resources used to the area available to produce those resources and absorb carbon dioxide. Ten countries, including the U.S., use over 60 percent of the world’s total biocapacity.
High-income countries showed an increase in ecological footprint of about seven percent while low-income countries decline by 60 percent. The report focused on three areas of concern. First, deforestation is the third largest source of carbon dioxide emissions. Second, infrastructures are reducing free-flowing water which poses a problem to aquatic ecosystems. Only a third of 177 rivers that are 1,000 kilometers in length are free flowing. Finally, rising greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution sources are threatening the health of the oceans.
Hydraulic Fracturing Banned in Vermont (05/12)
Vermont became the first state to ban hydraulic fracturing on May 16 after Governor Peter Shumlin signed H. 464. Even though the effect of the bill is insignificant because Vermont lacks economic natural gas plays, Shumlin said he hopes other states will follow with similar legislation.
In June 2011, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley called for a three-year halt on hydraulic fracturing until a comprehensive study of economic, environmental, and safety impacts is completed. The drilling practice has been banned in Bulgaria and France and was temporarily suspended in the United Kingdom as a result of possible induced seismicity.
Obama Creates Hydraulic Fracturing Working Group (04/12)
On April 13, 2012 President Barack Obama signed an executive order creating a working group of more than twelve agencies to promote the safe domestic production of natural gas through unconventional techniques such as hydraulic fracturing. The working group, chaired by the director of the Domestic Policy Council, will coordinate policy efforts among agencies.
Hydraulic fracturing is a technique to extract natural gas and oil out of relatively impermeable shale formations by injecting fluids at high pressure to fracture the shale and allow the hydrocarbons to migrate to the borehole for efficient extraction. Shale gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing is booming throughout the U.S. because natural gas provides a relatively clean and inexpensive alternative to coal. As shale gas production has ramped up, concerns have been raised about environmental problems, such as contamination of water wells and triggered seismicity. Although industry and the government have noted that any potential problems might be related to wastewater injection rather than hydraulic fracturing, the public does not appreciate the distinction and considers the problems associated with “fracking” in general.
In addition to the working group, the Obama Administration requested $45 million to study hydraulic fracturing in fiscal year 2013 at the United States Geological Survey, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Later this year the Bureau of Land Management is expected to release a set of rules regulating the practice of hydraulic fracturing on public lands.
BLM Releases Proposed Disclosure Rule for Hydraulic Fracturing (04/12)
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced the availability of its draft proposed rule for regulating hydraulic fracturing on public land. The rule would require disclosure of chemicals used on public and Indian land, increase regulation of well bore integrity to prevent leaks, and require companies to have a water management plan for handling flowback water.
The proposed rule includes several new requirements for companies using hydraulic fracturing. Before a fracturing job, companies must submit a Notice of Intent Sundry at least 30 days before well operations begin. This notice must include among other requirements cement bond logs for well casings, the geological names and description of the formation into which fluids would be injected, an estimate of the total volume of fluid to be used, the maximum injection treating pressure, and the estimated or calculated fracture length and fracture height. Within 30 days of the completion of the fracturing job, companies must submit a Subsequent Report Sundry Notice which includes a disclosure of the types and amounts of chemicals used, the actual total volume of fluid used, the actual surface pressure and final pump pressure, and a description of how the flowback water as recovered, handled, and disposed of. Where previous regulations distinguished between “routine fracturing jobs” and “nonroutine fracturing jobs,” the proposed rule would remove these terms to eliminate the distinction.
An economic analysis of the proposed rule provided by the BLM found that the rule would increase the costs of drilling on federal lands but would benefit society by removing risk associated with the process and by making the names and types of chemicals used available to the public. The economic analysis estimates the proposed rule would not affect the supply, distribution, or use of energy and it is not expected to reduce employment.
Interior Announces Funding to Combat White Nose Syndrome (04/12)
The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced $1.4 million in grants on April 6 to study and manage the spread of white nose syndrome; a syndrome that has caused the deaths of 7 million bats in the eastern United States since its discovery in 2006. Though the FWS was directed by Congress to spend $4 million on white nose syndrome management and research, the Center for Biological Diversity is petitioning for a coordinated federal response to prevent the further spread of the disease.
The syndrome owes its name to the fuzzy white fungal spores visible on the nose of an infected bat. By attaching itself to the hair and exposed skin of bats, the fungus causes lesions and burns holes in their wings so they can no longer fly. Once it has penetrated the skin, the fungus causes bats to use limited body-fat reserves, retreat deeper into caves or exhibit odd behavior, such as flying in daytime and cold weather when there is limited access to food resources. Because the fungus thrives in cold conditions it targets bats mainly during hibernation season, killing as many as ninety percent of a hibernating bat colony. Little-brown bats and tricolored bats have been hit hardest by the fungus. Since its discovery in a New York cave in 2006, the fungus has been located in 19 states and 4 Canadian provinces and is traveling westward.
The President’s budget for fiscal year 2013 would provide the United States Geological Survey’s Ecosystems Mission Directorate $1 million and the FWS $7.3 million in State Wildlife Grants for additional work to prevent the spread of white nose syndrome.
Supreme Court Rules Unanimously Against EPA in Wetlands Enforcement Case (03/12)
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that property owners facing potential enforcement actions under the Clean Water Act (33 U.S.C. 1251) can challenge the determination before being forced to comply. Sackett vs. Environmental Protection Agency began when the Sackett family of Bonner County, Idaho received a compliance order from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which claimed their construction project was discharging pollutants into navigable waters.
The Sacketts took their case to the Federal District Court and argued that the compliance order was “capricious” under the Administrative Procedure Act (5 U.S.C. 706) and that it deprived them of due process in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit dismissed their case in 2010 concluding that the CWA precluded pre-enforcement judicial review of compliance orders and that such a preclusion did not violate due process. The Supreme Court’s recent decision overturns the Ninth Circuit’s decision. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the court’s opinion which includes concurring opinions written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Samuel Alito. The Sacketts now will have the chance to claim their land is not a wetland.
EPA Will Delay Pavillion, Wyoming Study for USGS Testing (03/12)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will delay its report into potential water well contamination as a result of hydraulic fracturing in Pavillion, Wyoming until the United States Geological Survey can conduct additional tests. Adraft report issued by the EPA on December 8 indicated that EPA had found constituents in groundwater above the production zone of the Pavillion natural gas wells that are similar to some constituents used in well operations, including the process of hydraulic fracturing.
The EPA will delay convening the peer review panel on the draft Pavillion report until the USGS data are publicly available. EPA will extend the public comment period, which had previously been scheduled to end on March 3, 2012, through October 2012. All EPA information regarding the groundwater investigation at Pavillion, Wyoming can be found on the EPA web site.
Oil Spill Response System for Arctic (02/12)
On February 7, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced they will be enhancing the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) for the Arctic by the summer of 2012.
ERMA was first designed in 2007 and saw full implementation in 2010 during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. ERMA brings together static and real time data through an interactive map that is continuously updated with oceanographic observations and weather data from NOAA as well as critical information from BSEE and a number of other agencies. Monica Medina NOAA Principal Deputy Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere recently said, “Reconfiguring this application to meet the needs of responders in the remote marine Arctic environment could prove to be the most critical tool in effectively preparing for, responding to, and mitigating situations where limited assets, personnel and facilities exist.” NOAA and BSEE will educate the state of Alaska, local communities, academia, and industry on ERMA and how it will protect their communities. NOAA and BSEE have stated their goal is to get ERMA up and running before any new oil and gas exploration begins in the Arctic.
EPA Releases Final Hydraulic Fracturing Study Plan (11/11)
Under the direction of the House Appropriations Conference Committee budget report for fiscal year 2010 (H.Rept. 111-316), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a study plan in November to investigate hydraulic fracturing associated with shale gas extraction. EPA scientists will look into the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater and drinking water. The study will examine the full lifespan of water in hydraulic fracturing: acquisition of the water, mixing of chemicals for fracturing, and the post-fracturing stage, including management of flowback and produced water and its ultimate treatment and disposal. The study’s initial results will be released in late 2012 and the final results are expected in 2014.
Science Committee Considers Science and Endangered Species Act (10/11)
On October 13, 2011, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee held a hearing entitled, The Endangered Species Act: Reviewing the Nexus of Science and Policy. The hearing generated significant coverage and controversy. Republicans on the committee want to see the Endangered Species Act (Public Law 93-205) overhauled while the Democrats want to see the law sustained to help species and ecosystems. There was discussion about altering or changing scientific results, political pressure on scientists and other concerns about the possible improper use of science for policy. The Democrats on the subcommittee issued apress release defending science on their home page. Republican statements are available on the hearing homepage.
USGS Finds Fungus Causes White Nose in Bats (10/11)
A new finding from the U.S Geological Survey (USGS) on white nose syndrome was published in the journal Nature on October 26, 2011. The USGS study concludes the fungal pathogen Geomyces destructans causes white nose syndrome in bats. The syndrome owes its name to the fuzzy white fungal spores visible on the nose of an infected bat. Experimental evidence from the study shows that fungal transmission can occur from bat to bat contact, thus conservationists are concerned about the fate of high-quantity, tightly-knit bat colonies that live, mate and hibernate in close quarters.
By attaching itself to the hair and exposed skin of bats, the fungus causes lesions and burns holes in their wings so they can no longer fly. Once it has penetrated the skin, the fungus causes bats to use limited body-fat reserves, retreat deeper into caves or exhibit odd behavior, such as flying in daytime and cold weather when there is limited access to food resources. Because the fungus thrives in cold conditions it targets bats mainly during hibernation season, killing as many as ninety percent of a hibernating bat colony.
Little-brown bats and tricolored bats have been hit hardest by the fungus. Since its discovery in a New York cave in 2006, the fungus has been located in 16 states and 4 Canadian provinces and is traveling westward. The culpability of G. destructans was previously questioned when scientists found the fungus on healthy bats in Europe; however, the USGS study has unequivocally linked it to the high bat mortality levels in the eastern U.S.
Though not much can be done to control the spread of G. destructans, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has asked visitors to stay out of affected areas and has closed off cave access on agency lands. The report says that the effect of the fungus on bats will take a toll on agriculture because bats are the primary predators of agricultural pests such as mosquitoes and beetles. In addition, bats are pollinators and the loss of hordes of bats may harm ecosystems that benefit from pollination. Twelve out of forty five bat species in North America are experiencing white nose syndrome, and scientists predict that the fungus could possibly wipe out some of these species within fifteen years. The FWS has announced that up to $1 million will be funded for white nose research.
TRAIN Act Passes House; More Republican Bills Aimed at EPA on the Move (09/11)
On September 23, the House of Representatives passed the Transparency in Regulation Analysis of Impacts on the Nation Act of 2011 (H.R. 2401), known as the TRAIN Act, on a largely party line vote of 233-180. The bill blocks significant new air pollution rules for coal-fired power plants, delays several other air pollution rules set to be finalized in November, and creates a cabinet level panel, led by the Secretary of Commerce, to study the overall effect of regulatory rules on the economy. Several amendments were added to the bill including one offered by Representative Bob Latta (R-OH) that would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider costs when setting air quality standards. Currently, EPA sets standards based on health and environmental impacts and then provides an estimate of costs for industry to comply with regulations. Most Democratic amendments were voted down, with only two out of six passing during the vote. Representative Gwen Moore’s (D-WI) proposal was one successful amendment requiring the new commission to evaluate the effect of EPA rules on low-income communities and public health.
Even though the TRAIN Act is unlikely to get through the Senate, House Republicans are following up with several more bills to limit EPA’s regulatory reach. In September, the House Energy and Commerce Committee marked up the Cement Sector Regulatory Relief Act of 2011 (H.R. 2681) and the EPA Regulatory Relief Act of 2011 (H.R. 2250) that would scrap several performance standards and emissions standards.
In September and early October, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a Statement of Administration Policy on the TRAIN Act and another for H.R. 2681 and H.R. 2250. These OMB statements announce that the President would be advised to veto all three bills if they passed Congress.
Senate Environment Committee Passes RESTORE Act (09/11)
On September 21, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works passed the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies (RESTORE) Act (S. 1400). It was passed on a voice vote with bipartisan support and included an amendment to provide interest-based funding to a national endowment for the oceans.
Under the Clean Water Act (CWA) and Oil Pollution Act, BP and other involved parties are required to pay penalties for their role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster to the U.S. Treasury. The RESTORE Act would direct 80% of the fines to the Gulf Coast states for environmental and economic restoration. The measure will next need to be voted on by the full Senate and then by the House, which has no similar legislation for consideration.
NRC Prioritizes Seismic and Flood Safety Review of Nation’s Reactors (09/11)
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is prioritizing the twelve safety recommendations of the Near-Term Task Force and seeks to collect updated seismic and flooding data from America’s 104 operating nuclear power plants “without unnecessary delay.” The report recommended addressing protection, mitigation, and emergency preparedness issues with a long-term goal of overhauling the agency’s regulatory structure. The NRC asked its staff to select which recommendations should be addressed first and these prioritizations are expected in early October. These priorities should improve safety and be implemented as soon as possible. The staff recommends actions to reduce seismic and flooding risks as top priorities.
As part of the NRC’s efforts to implement these priorities as soon as possible, the agency is seeking input on a draft letter that would require operators to re-examine their site’s seismic risk and provide the results of their investigations. Comments on the draft letter are due on or before November 15.
Deepwater Horizon Joint Investigation Team Final Report Released (09/11)
On September 14, 2011, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) and U.S. Coast Guard Joint Investigation Team (JIT) released their final investigative report of the April 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. The final report, also known as Volume II, concludes that BP, Transocean and Halliburton violated a number of federal offshore safety regulations. BP said that it "has accepted its responsibility for responding to the spill and is accordingly paying costs and compensation,” while Halliburton has refused to accept any responsibility or accountability.
BOEMRE Report on Oil Spill Monitoring and Climate Change (08/11)
On August 29, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) released a report, “Evaluation of the Use of Hindcast Model Data for Oil Spill Risk Analysis (OSRA) in a Period of Rapidly Changing Conditions,” evaluating how climate change will affect the environmental conditions used in modeling oil spill trajectories and analyses in the Arctic. The report recommends that BOEMRE improve their data coverage, improve their modeling and forcing tools, and to consider Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenarios in their OSRA’s. The report also urges BOEMRE to consider a case study of an oil spill response with no sea ice in the Arctic.
Oil and gas companies are setting their sights on the Arctic. ExxonMobil just signed an agreement with Russia’s Rosneft oil company to partner in petroleum drilling leases in the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) urged his colleagues on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (the “supercommittee”) to raise revenues by expanding oil and gas production in an op-ed in early September 2011.
Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research Passes House Science Committee (07/11)
The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment met on July 14, 2011 and unanimously approved the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2011 (H.R. 2484). The legislation, sponsored by Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD), ensures funding for research on harmful algal blooms (HABs) and hypoxia or dead zones. HABs damage the surrounding marine or freshwater environment due to an overabundance of algae that produce toxins. Oxygen depleted zones or hypoxia zones, are caused from the overproduction of algal cells, which blocks sunlight and consume the available oxygen. The causes and effects vary between ecosystems and further research will increase understanding and improve mitigation techniques. The measure reduces the funding levels for research below previous authorization levels; using instead the amount of funding used in fiscal year 2010.
ExxonMobil Pipeline Bursts under Yellowstone River (07/11)
At about 11 pm on Friday, July 1, ExxonMobil Pipeline Company’s 20 year-old Silvertip pipeline ruptured under the Yellowstone River releasing about 1,000 barrels of oil before the pipeline was shut down. The rupture occurred 20 miles upstream of Billings, Montana. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is leading the cleanup efforts in cooperation with the Department of the Interior, the Coast Guard and ExxonMobil. While crews are deploying booms and mats along river banks to absorb and dispose of the oil that has pooled in slow waters, EPA is collecting water and air samples to analyze for volatile organic compounds. The large snowpack, increased snowmelt and subsequent high flow rate on the river may have contributed to the rupture and is definitely complicating the cleanup efforts by limiting access and crippling equipment. As of July 23, EPA has announced that there is oil visible for about 72 miles downstream of the rupture. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has directed ExxonMobil to make safety improvements on the pipeline before operation can resume. In particular, they want the pipeline re-buried under the riverbed to protect it from damage. PHMSA is still determining the cause of the break.
At a July hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Cynthia Quarterman, PHMSA administrator, testified that the pipeline has a four foot depth-of-cover requirement. In June 2011 PHMSA requested a confirmation from ExxonMobil of the depth-of-cover for the pipeline because the flow rate and volume picked up in May as the large snowpack melted and rivers flooded. PHSMA warned all pipeline operators in flood prone areas to check their systems. ExxonMobil reported that there was 12 feet of cover at the south bank but did not report a depth-of-cover in the riverbed. ExxonMobil last reported a depth-of-cover in the riverbed in a December 2010 survey which found the pipeline to be at a depth of five feet, one foot below the four foot minimum.
ExxonMobil Pipeline Company President Gary Pruessing has promised to do “whatever is necessary” to clean up the spill, but this has not stopped Montana’s governor, senators and other lawmakers from calling for more oversight and information. After initially being a part of the joint command team, Montana state officials backed out one week after the spill. Governor Brian Schweitzer explained the state was not satisfied with ExxonMobil’s transparency. Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Jon Tester (D-MT) have told ExxonMobil Corporation Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson that ExxonMobil should pay for the full cost of the cleanup. The senators have requested information on inspections and communications with federal regulators regarding the pipeline.
Immediately after the spill, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) distributed a discussion draft of the Pipeline Infrastructure and Community Protection Act of 2011. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power passed a version of this draft on July 27. This bill would set penalties for major violators, create minimum engineering standards to reduce pipeline damage, require automatic or remote-controlled shut-off valves, expand inspection and regulation coverage to non-petroleum fuels, and require PHMSA’s inspection information to be available to the public. During the subcommittee mark-up, Representative John Dingell (D-MI) and Chairman Fred Upton introduced an amendment that included two provisions designed to respond to recent high-profile pipeline breaks. The first would require gas line operators to report their maximum allowable operating pressure, a key issue in the 2010 rupture that killed eight residents of San Bruno, California; the second, would set up a PHMSA review of existing rules for the burial of pipelines under waterways. This issue has been reviewed recently as questions about the cause of the Yellowstone River spill remain unanswered. Representative Jackie Speier’s (D-CA) bill, the Pipeline Safety and Community Empowerment Act of 2011 (H.R. 22), contains a series of provisions that require pipeline owners and operators to make information about the operation of the pipeline available to the public. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s bill, the Strengthening Pipeline Safety and Enforcement Act of 2011 (S. 234), is similar to the House Energy and Commerce bill but it would increase PHMSA’s inspection force by 100 employees.
The incident has reopened congressional debate about the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. Keystone XL would extend from the Canadian tar sands in Alberta to the Texas coast if the State Department approves the pipeline extension. Representative Steven Cohen (D-TN) has stated that the Montana spill is a small example of what could happen with Keystone XL. He noted that there have already been 12 spills in one year along the current Keystone pipeline in Canada. Policymakers are looking for assurances that pipelines have proper oversight and are not prone to breaks or leaks.
Bill to Reduce EPA Water Control Passed in House Committee (06/11)
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011(H.R. 2018) sponsored by Representative John Mica (R-FL). The bill takes away the power of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Water Act (33 U.S.C. 1251 - 1376) and gives it to individual states. The goal of H.R. 2018 is to allow state control over waterways to reduce delays and promote economic growth. Critics argue water regulations should be managed at the federal level, especially as waterways cut across state boundaries; a downstream state might be negatively impacted if water pollution is not regulated at the federal level.
House Panel Approves Coal Ash Bill (06/11)
On June 21, 2011, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Economy approved a measure to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating coal ash as a hazardous substance. Many in Congress agree that standards for ash disposal need to be tougher, but coal supporters believe a hazardous designation is unnecessary and will cause economic hardship. Under minimum federal guidelines, the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act (H.R. 2273) allows the states to create, implement, and enforce a coal ash disposal program. If a state fails to enforce a coal ash disposal program, the EPA will have the authority to intervene. Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) believes that the legislation to limit EPA’s ability to regulate the disposal of coal ash will add burdens to the agency and increase spending. Waxman stated in a letter to Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) that the Congressional Budget Office’s preliminary review of this legislation will “most likely increase discretionary costs by more than $500,000 over the next five years.” Waxman introduced an amendment to authorize millions of dollars to cover the bill’s cost. Republicans voted down the amendment and stated that setting up these coal ash programs at the state level will not result in significant costs.
OSM Moves Forward in Drafting Stream Protection Rule (06/11)
Consistent with plans to produce a rule to protect waterways from mountaintop-removal mining by the end of this year, the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) announced the hiring of a consulting firm, Industrial Economics Inc., to prepare an impact analysis. The rule will be designed to replace the stream buffer zone rule introduced by the Bush administration, which opponents argue is too lenient regarding dumping mining waste near waterways. The effort to rewrite the buffer zone rule has been criticized by House Natural Resource Committee Republicans and the mining industry.
Bill to Analyze Impacts of EPA Regulations Offered (05/11)
Representatives John Sullivan (R-OK) and Jim Matheson (D-UT) introduced the Transparency in Regulation Analysis of Impacts on the Nation (TRAIN) Act of 2011 (H.R. 1705) in May. The TRAIN Act would form a committee to analyze the economic impacts of covered rules and actions undertaken by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on energy and manufacturing in the United States. Specific rules regulated by the EPA to be considered by the committee include hazardous air pollutants emissions standards, air quality standards, and waste management rules. The committee would also analyze the impacts of any actions undertaken by the EPA under the Clean Air Act (42 USC 7411) to combat climate change as a result of the 2009 endangerment finding. The bill has been referred to the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Senator Burr Proposes Department of Energy and Environment (05/11)
Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) introduced legislation this May that would create the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) by effectively combining the Department of Energy (DOE) with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Consolidation of Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency Act of 2011 (S. 892) is being touted as a shrewd way of providing savings and streamlining a coordinated approach to the administration of energy and environmental policies. As part of the transition, there would be a reduction of funding for oil and gas research and development (R&D), energy technology development (including the Advanced Research Program Agency – Energy), a repeal of ultra-deepwater and unconventional on-shore natural gas R&D, and a prohibition on refurbishing the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center. Major EPA programs that would be reduced include multiple water-related grants and pollution control programs while local government climate change grants, diesel emissions reduction grants, and target watershed infrastructure grants would all be terminated. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
FWS Releases National Plan to Fight White-Nose Syndrome (05/11)
First reported in Albany, NY in 2006, the mysterious white-nose syndrome has since killed more than a million bats in eastern North America. Named for the fungus that is visible as a fuzz on the muzzles, ears, and wing membranes of infected bats, the disease has spread rapidly outward from New York and can be found as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina. The outbreak has invigorated bat research and a recent report shows that bats’ appetite for insects saves the United States agricultural industry $3 billion per year. Still, significant questions, such as how the disease actually kills bats or how the fungus spreads, have yet to be answered. The Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service has now released a national plan to coordinate a strategy of investigating the cause and finding a means of preventing the spread of the disease. Titled The National Plan for Assisting States, Tribes, and Federal Agencies in Managing White-Nose Syndrome in Bats, the report was compiled by the Department of the Interior, the Department of Defense (Army Corps of Engineers), the Department of Agriculture, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, and state agencies in Kentucky, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Virginia. More information about white-nose syndrome can be found here.
Federal Agencies’ Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data Released (04/11)
White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chairwoman Nancy Sutley announced in April the latest assessments of greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution by the federal government. In all, the federal government was responsible for 66.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions last year, about 2.5 million metric tons fewer than in 2008. While the Office of Management and Budget has kept track of these numbers for years, this is the first year these metrics have been made public. The Department of Defense tops the list as the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions of any government entity.
Congress Votes on EPA Regulations (04/11)
In early April, the Senate and the House voted on language that would stop the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. In the Senate, four different amendments to limit EPA’s authority were offered to a small business bill (S. 493) but were all defeated. The four amendments, offered by Senators James Inhofe (R-OK), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Max Baucus (D-MT), and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), varied in the limitations placed on EPA. The Inhofe amendment, which would have stripped EPA of its ability to regulate heat-trapping emissions from stationary sources, garnered fifty votes while the other three amendments received fewer than 13 votes each. Every Republican senator (except for Senator Susan Collins of Maine) plus four moderate and conservative Democrats voted for the Inhofe amendment.
The next day, on April 8, the House voted on an identical measure to the Inhofe amendment, the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 (H.R. 910). After defeating 9 different Democratic amendments, the vote passed 255-172 with nineteen Democrats joining the Republicans.
Coast Guard Releases BP Oil Spill Response Recommendations (04/11)
The Coast Guard’s internal Incident Specific Preparedness Review (ISPR) of the agency’s response to the BP Oil Spill is now available to the public. The report found the agency was unprepared for the devastating spill and issued recommendations to improve response plans, mitigation strategies, and coordination among government entities. Compiled by representatives from the Coast Guard, other federal and state agencies, and advisors from industry and non-governmental organizations, the report shows that funding for the Coast Guard’s marine environmental programs has declined over the past decade due to increased competition with new homeland security responsibilities since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The ISPR warns that “if the public and Congress expect significant improvements in this Nation’s ability to respond to catastrophic oil spills, additional funding will be needed for improvements.” In addition to failed communication protocols, the report criticized the Coast Guard’s lack of attention to environmentally sensitive areas saying, “had they been given appropriate attention … adverse impacts could have been much less.”
Draft Proposal for Stream Protection Draws Disagreement (04/11)
In April 2010, the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) published in the Federal Register a Notice of Intent to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement for the Stream Protection Rule, which will replace the Bush Administration’s Stream Buffer Zone Rule. Provisions under consideration in the new rule include requiring coal mining companies that elect to mine through or bury streams to gather more specific baseline data on a proposed mine site's hydrology, geology, and aquatic biology; finalizing a definition of the term "material damage to the hydrologic balance" of watersheds outside the permit area; and developing more effective requirements for mine operators that disagree with the requirement that mined areas be reclaimed to their approximate original contour. In January of 2011, an Associated Press report published in the Charleston Gazette disclosed government documents that estimated job losses in the thousands as a result of the proposed changes. In April, a group of bipartisan senators from coal states asked for a congressional investigation of possible job losses as a result of the new rule. Senators John Barrasso (R-WY), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Rand Paul (R-KY) sent a letter to Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee requesting a hearing. As of May 6 2011, no hearing has been scheduled.
House Republicans had the chance to question OSM Director Joe Pizarchik on April 7 at a budget hearing. Representative Bill Johnson (R-OH), who has sponsored a House amendment to stop OSM’s efforts to draft the proposal (H. AMDT. 131), and Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-CO) were particularly vocal about their disagreement with the proposals. Even the lone environmentalist witness disagreed with OSM’s draft proposals and suggested the Obama Administration instead should reinstate the rule promulgated during the Reagan Administration.
EPA Releases Clean Water Act Guidance Draft (04/11)
After some companies threatened to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding attempts to strengthen the regulation of waterways and streams under the Clean Water Act (CWA), the EPA released a scaled back draft on water regulations in April. The draft starts by saying that the policy “is not a rule, hence it is not binding and lacks the force of law.” The CWA applies to “navigable waters of the United States” and ever since its enactment, there have been questions about what bodies of water are covered by the act. Defining the scope of the CWA has been the subject of multiple Supreme Court rulings and many failed legislative attempts. In this latest interpretation, EPA is basing its guidelines on a “significant nexus” model proposed by Justice Anthony Kennedy in Rapanos vs. The United States.
That ruling did not establish a case law and several justices wrote their own opinions. Justice Kennedy wrote that protected waters must share a “significant nexus” with the “navigable” waterways protected under the CWA. This nexus would exist when a wetland or waterbody, either by itself or in combination with other similar sites, significantly affects the physical, biological, and chemical integrity of the downstream navigable waterway.
Pennsylvania Stops Drilling Waste Water Transfer to Treatment Plants (04/11)
The Pennsylvania Department of the Environment has asked Marcellus Shale gas drillers to voluntarily stop sending wastewater to water treatment facilities starting on May 19, 2011. In a press release, the department noted increased levels of bromide in water handled by treatment facilities in the western part of the state where the most drilling is occurring. The bromide may convert to total trihalomethanes when combined with chlorine in these facilities and these compounds are carcinogenic. While the department notes that there are many sources of bromide, they believe that reducing the drilling wastewaters will decrease the bromide levels in water at treatment facilities.
BOEMRE to Recruit Environmental Scientists (03/11)
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) has begun a nationwide recruiting effort to attract the nation’s top environmental scientists for positions at the agency responsible for offshore energy development. Director Michael Bromwich will visit 12 colleges and universities throughout April and early May to seek candidates for positions relating to environmental studies, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review and environmental compliance. “These aggressive recruitment efforts underscore our seriousness about environmental issues and reflect our emphasis on science in decision-making,” Bromwich explained. See the press release for more information.
EPA Drafts Toxic Emissions Rules for Power Plants (03/11)
Alongside the leaders of the American Lung Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson revealed a draft plan to require coal- and oil-fired power plants to reduce emissions of mercury and 83 other toxins by 2016. The proposed rules, which limit the amount of toxin released for every unit of electricity generated, are projected to cost about $10.9 billion per year. Many power plants will need to purchase and operate carbon injection units to reduce mercury emissions, desulfurization scrubbers to limit acid gas emissions, and filtering units to keep toxic metals out of the air, among other capture technologies. While acknowledging the high cost of implementation, Jackson compared those costs to health saving benefits of $59 billion to $140 billion according to EPA’s analysis. “The Clean Air Act is literally a lifesaver,” Jackson stated, referring to the landmark law at the heart of these proposed rules. The final rule will be announced in November.
Failed Blowout Preventer Contributed to Oil Spill (03/11)
The results are out on why the blowout preventer on the BP Deepwater Horizon rig failed to stop the Macondo well from gushing more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico from April to July 2010. The Columbus, Ohio office of the Norwegian company Det Norske Veritas (DNV) completed a forensic examination of the blowout preventer at a NASA facility in Michoud, Louisiana. The two volume report (Volume 1, Volume 2) was made available on March 23 by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE).
The report concludes that a buckled piece of drill pipe within the wellbore prevented the heavy duty blades called blind shear rams from cutting through the pipe and sealing the well. After loss of well control, the sudden rush of oil and gas had forced the drill pipe upward, and additional forces from below caused the pipe to bend and move off center. Based on the findings, the report recommends that industry study the equipment responsible for the failure and implement additional blowout preventer testing.
The BOEMRE/U.S. Coast Guard Joint Investigation Team announced it will hold a seventh session of public hearings to focus on the results the week of April 4 in Metairie, Louisiana.
Amendments to Limit EPA and cut $200 Billion from Spending (03/11)
The Senate is expected to bring to the floor in early April three amendments concerning the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to regulate greenhouse gases (GHG). The most prominent amendment attached to the Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer Reauthorization Act of 2011 (S. 493) is one that would prohibit EPA from regulating GHG. The amendment (S.AMDT. 183) was introduced by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and reflects a bill sponsored by Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) (H.R. 910).
Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is behind an amendment (S.AMDT. 280) that began as a bill (S. 231) that would delay any EPA actions on GHG by two years. It is seen as an alternative to the McConnell amendment.
The third amendment (S.AMDT. 236), by Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), would in part reinforce EPA’s tailoring rule by making the agricultural exemption from GHG regulations permanent. The agricultural community is divided over whether the measure would protect farmers from potential negative impacts, such as increased energy costs, of GHG regulations.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) added an unrelated amendment (S.AMDT. 199) to cut $200 billion in federal spending for the remainder of fiscal year (FY) 2011, down from his original previously filed budget bill of $500 billion. It proposes to reduce funding to the Department of Energy by 50 percent.
Bill to 'Rein in' EPA Climate Regulation on the Move (03/11)
The House Energy and Commerce Committee passed the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 (H.R. 910), a bill that would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating greenhouse gases (GHG) under the Clean Air Act, on March 15, 2011. The bill, crafted by Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), would repeal EPA’s 2009 finding that carbon dioxide and other GHG endanger human health and public safety. It would strip the agency’s authority to regulate GHG emissions from stationary sources and, in 2016, from vehicles.
Supporters of the bill say EPA has overstepped its authority and that GHG regulation is a congressional responsibility; some claim the regulations would drive up energy cost. Opponents warn that the bill would prevent EPA from carrying out its crucial mission—to protect public health. Others argue that repealing the endangerment finding is what Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) has called an “arbitrary rejection of scientific fact.”
The bill moves to the Senate, where its fate is unclear. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has introduced a bill (S. 231) as an alternative that would delay any EPA actions on GHG emissions by two years.
House Members Question Hydraulic Fracturing (02/11)
Representatives Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rush Holt (D-NJ), who serve on the House Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on February 28, 2011, asking for more information about hydraulic fracturing on public lands. Their letter reacts to a detailed New York Times story on possible human health effects of hydraulic fracturing and other recent stories and debates.
Hydraulic fracturing is used to extract natural gas from rock formations, primarily shale-based formations, by pumping in water and fluids that fracture the rock and allows the gas to migrate to extraction sites. The news story discusses high levels of radioactivity and other potential toxic substances that concentrate in the waste waters and may not be properly disposed of. Given the significant increase in the use of hydraulic fracturing throughout the U.S., there is growing concern about a significant increase in harmful waste water potentially contaminating drinking water and rivers.
Within days of the news story and congressional letter, a magnitude 4.5 earthquake in Arkansas increased concerns about possible connections between seismic activity and salty waste water pumping in the area. In Arkansas, hydraulic fracturing is used to extract gas and then the salty waste water is pumped into the abandoned injection wells. There have been more swarms of earthquakes in Arkansas since an increase of pumping over the past few years and the magnitude 4.5 earthquake was the largest event in about 35 years. The Arkansas Geological Survey, the New Madrid Seismic Network, and the U.S. Geological Survey have more information about seismicity in the state.
With significant discoveries of natural gas resources, which are cleaner burning, and concomitant increases in the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract the natural gas, there needs to be consideration of the most effective methods for dealing with the waste streams, while conserving energy and resources throughout the extraction process.
DOI Will Look at Oil Shale Rules, Water Sources (02/11)
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Bob Abbey announced on February 15 that the BLM will review the current commercial oil shale rules and plans issued in November 2008 under the Bush Administration. If necessary, DOI will update the rules depending on projected water needs in the West, the latest research and technologies, and cost. The review will look specifically at whether royalty rates for oil shale should be established only after more is known about oil shale technologies, whether future applications to lease should include specific resource protection programs, and whether aspects of existing regulation should be clarified.
Abbey stated that BLM, which recently solicited and reviewed nominations for research, development, and deployment (RD&D) leases for oil shale on public lands in Colorado and Utah, remains committed to helping companies take a bench-scale technology to commercial scale. GAO recommended in “Energy-Water Nexus: A Better and Coordinated Understanding of Water Resources Could Help Mitigate the Impacts of Potential Oil Shale Development” that the USGS begin an analysis of baseline water resources conditions to increase understanding of how groundwater and surface water are affected by commercial oil shale activities. DOI believes that enough time exists for the review before a “commercially and environmentally viable method for development of oil shale” becomes profitable on a larger scale.
Forest Service Announces Forest Service Planning Draft Rule (02/11)
On February 10, the USDA released its proposed Forest Service Planning Draft Rule. The proposed rule would establish a fresh national framework to develop land management plans for the National Forest System that are more adaptive to stressors such as climate change and would increase public collaboration. No such update has been made on public land management planning procedures since 1982. The goal of the new rule is to create guidelines to protect water and wildlife while contributing to economic and social sustainability. Publication of the draft rule begins a 90 day period ending May 16, 2011 during which the public may comment on the proposed rule and draft environmental impact statement. Further information may be found at http://fs.usda.gov/planningrule.
EPA Drafts Plan on Hydraulic Fracturing (02/11)
Details of EPA’s study of hydraulic fracturing have been made available with the release of their draft plan in February. The scope of the research, a “life-cycle” approach, has come under fire for being too large by industry officials and members of Congress. The study is expected to include both retrospective case studies, prospective case studies, and a thorough investigation of all substances used in hydraulic fracturing. The fundamental questions of the study ask how drinking water will be affected by large water withdrawals from the ground and surface water, by releases of hydraulic fracturing fluids, by the injection and fracturing process, by releases of flow back and produced water, and by inadequate treatment of the wastewater. Due to the timeline of the prospective case studies, the complete report will not be released until 2014 but EPA will compile an interim report to be released sometime in 2012.
Obama Announces Report on America's Great Outdoors Initiative (02/11)
Reiterating his call for Americans to enjoy the outdoors and conserve the country’s wilderness, President Obama spoke on February 16 about the America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) Initiative and announced the release of the initiative’s report, America's Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations. Obama launched the initiative in 2010 to improve communication and integration among the federal government and stakeholders at the grassroots level. The report was a collaborative effort of the Department of the Interior (DOI), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Leadership from each entity traveled around the country to attend public listening sessions to get comments from citizens. The report focuses on ways to connect Americans to the outdoors through careers and service opportunities; strategies to conserve and restore parks, green spaces, forests, waters and ranches; and efforts to make the federal government a more effective partner. A section of the report is dedicated to youth involvement with conservation and nature.
Policymakers Want Safer Drinking Water (01/11)
Congress is zeroing in on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and not just in regards to climate change regulations. Many policymakers want the EPA to do more to ensure safe drinking water. California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation (S.79) to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to require a standard and advisory for hexavalent chromium in drinking water for vulnerable individuals. Senator Boxer introduced a bill (S.78) to protect vulnerable individuals from perchlorate in drinking water. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) intends to introduce legislation to add more potential drinking water contaminants to the growing list of chemicals that EPA regulates. Lautenberg wants standards and rules for gasoline additives like MTBE, pesticides and “fracking chemicals”.
Chemicals associated with hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas extraction remain a significant concern for members of Congress. On January 31, Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA), Ed Markey (D-NJ) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) posted a letter addressed to the EPA about the amount and use of diesel fuel in hydraulic fracturing. They want to know what EPA is doing about potential contamination of drinking water by the diesel fuel and if the past use of diesel fuel violates any part of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Oil Spill Response Bills in the House (01/11)
Energy policy in the 112th Congress, while focused on clean energy, will also need to consider measures regarding mitigation and response to oil spills in the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010.
On January 5, 2011, Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA) and other co-sponsors, introduced the Gulf Coast Restoration Act (H.R. 56), to establish a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force and a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Fund. The bill has been referred to the Natural Resources and Transportation and Infrastructure Committees for consideration.
On January 26, the House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member, Edward Markey (D-MA) and other House Democrats introduced an oil spill response measure (H.R. 501) to enact many of the recommendations of the President’s Oil Spill Commission. The bill would reorganize offshore drilling programs, eliminate the $75 million liability cap for companies involved in causing oil spills, and initiate a dedicated funding stream for oil spill cleanup research and development. The bill is similar to a measure put forward at the end of the 111th Congress, but has been updated to consider more of the Commission’s recommendations. Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) also introduced a bill (H.R. 492) to ensure that companies pay the full costs of oil spill clean-up.
Over in the Senate, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced two measures (S.214 and S.215) to ensure that companies pay the full costs of oil spill clean-up while Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) introduced two measures (S.203 and S.204) to require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to conduct research on oil spill prevention and response in the Arctic and to permit funds from the Oil Spill Liability Trust to be used for NOAA oil spill research.
Congressman Questions Use of Science in Oil Spill Response (01/11)
Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) sent a letter to President Obama on January 25 questioning the administration’s use of science in their response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The letter, interspersed with the text of internal government email exchanges, indicates that the administration ignored or altered federal scientists’ comments or analyses in its published oil budget report from August of 2010. The oil budget report was used by Carol Browner, Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Policy at the time, to publicly state that most of the oil was gone.
The congressman writes "While there is room for legitimate internal debate about scientific issues, this exchange gives the distinct impression that the White House was more concerned about public image than scientific accuracy in describing the effectiveness of its cleanup efforts."
BOEMRE Splits and DOI Adds Safety Group for Offshore Drilling (01/11)
Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) Director Michael R. Bromwich and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the restructuring of the former Minerals Management Service (MMS) and discussed the next steps in revamping the nation’s offshore drilling program on January 19, 2011.
Two new bureaus have been created. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) will be responsible for resource development, including leasing, and will house a Chief Environmental Officer. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) will enforce safety and environmental regulations.
Salazar announced the creation of the Offshore Energy Safety Advisory Committee within the DOI. It will be made up of representatives from government, industry, academia, national labs and various research organizations and will advise the DOI on research and development relating to drilling safety, spill response and containment and drilling testing technology.
While some policymakers welcomed the added safety regulations and measures to improve enforcement, they say that it must not slow down the permit process and lessen domestic oil production.
EPA Delays Greenhouse Gas Permitting for Biomass Fuels (01/11)
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced January 12 that it will delay for three years setting greenhouse gas (GHG) permitting requirements for industries that use biomass as fuel. In a news release, EPA indicated it will use the additional time to gather more input and analysis from the scientific community. EPA will revisit comments received from a July 2010 Call for Information to better understand whether burning biomass results in a net increase or decrease in emissions. EPA will formulate a decision concerning how to deal with the emissions and whether permits are necessary.
The move signals to some an approval of biomass as a form of clean energy by EPA, while others view it as an indication towards a more moderate approach to regulation. The deferral comes as EPA is enacting controversial permit requirements for newly built and modified facilities that emit large amounts of GHG, such as power plants and refineries.
EPA Releases Guidelines for Hexavalent Chromium in Water Supplies (01/11)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued guidelines on January 11 to all public water systems on how to monitor and test for hexavalent chromium (chromium-6), a possible carcinogen, in drinking water. The guidelines give recommendations for where to take water samples, how often to take them and which laboratory procedures should be used for detection. The guidelines come in response to a study released by the Environmental Working Group (see AGI Monthly Review December 2010 summary for more details).
The EPA released a draft review of chromium-6 in September 2010 and will release a final human health assessment in 2011. In their news release , the EPA states that it will carefully consider and review the conclusions to determine if a new standard should be set.
Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), introduced S. 79, a bill to set a deadline for EPA to establish chromium-6 levels in drinking water.
National Oil Spill Commission Releases Final Report and Recommendations (01/11)
The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling released their final report, Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling, on January 11, 2011. The Oil Spill Commission (OSC) discussed the results and their recommendations at a conference at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
During the conference, members stressed the urgency and importance of creating a more effective safety and regulation system while at the same time increasing research and development regarding all aspects of for offshore oil and gas development as well as renewable offshore energy resources.
A “culture of complacency” regarding safety standards and regulation within the industry and the federal government led to a series of preventable mistakes that caused the disaster, highlighting what the commission called a systemic problem with offshore drilling. In turn, the commission recommends creating a new safety entity within the restructured Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), that would have the enforcement authority and oversight of all aspects of offshore drilling. Taking guidance from the nuclear and chemical industries, the oil and gas industry should create an industry-run private safety organization, separate from the American Petroleum Institute, to develop and enforce safety standards.
The commission suggests giving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), along with input from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a formal consultative role in the leasing process; involving NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Department of Energy (DOE) and academia in risk assessment; and creating an environmental science division led by a Chief Scientist within BOEMRE to advise the safety authority on environmental considerations concerning leasing. The report also recommends giving NOAA, the Coast Guard and EPA a role in evaluating, reviewing and approving oil spill response and containment plans.
The report discusses the need to research the effects of oil and gas development in less understood frontier areas, such as the Arctic and the Atlantic, and suggests creating a board of experts from NOAA, USGS, DOI, DOE, EPA, professional societies, academia, industry and nongovernmental organizations to head such research. Research gaps to fill include understanding and predicting the fate of underwater oil plumes, estimating the amount of oil spilled and characterizing the subsurface geology.
The commission recommends that Congress provide mandatory funding for oil spill response research. OCS member Terry D. Garcia called for improvements in response and containment technology for offshore drilling.
The commission suggests that funding for additional research, technology development and safety enforcement should come from portions of fees that drilling companies pay for federal leases. The report recommends providing incentives, such as tax credits, for private investment in oil spill research. It suggests using eighty percent of fees collected for Clean Water Act penalties for long term restoration and monitoring of the Gulf of Mexico.
Commission members applauded the efforts by scientists during the disaster. Co-chair Bob Graham mentioned that the flowing well was ultimately successfully sealed because a hydrologist at the USGS, under the direction of USGS Director Marcia McNutt, developed a model that showed it was safe for the final capping device to remain in place. Without the expertise and analysis from the hydrologist with experience in fluid flow the containment cap may have been removed because of concerns about pressure anomalies.
At the conference, commissioners discussed the report in a broader context of a long-term U.S. energy plan. Commissioner Fran Ulmer acknowledged the U.S.’s need for a vibrant oil and gas industry but stated that “we can do it more safely.” The commission acknowledged that the proposed recommendations are not intended to put an end to offshore drilling, but Commissioner Frances Beinecke did stress the importance of developing a plan to avoid “drilling our way to dependence.”
BLM to Designate More Wild Lands (12/10)
Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar has issued an order (No. 3310) at the end of December that would expand wild lands designation to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas that preserve “Wilderness Characteristics”. The order would create an additional class of lands, complementing those that are already designated as Wilderness Areas and those that are pending designation, called Wilderness Study Areas.
Mining and energy interests have opposed the order, on the grounds that it would restrict the beneficial development of natural resources on those lands. The Chair of the House Appropriations Interior subcommittee, Mike Simpson (R-ID), plans to hold a joint hearing of authorizers and appropriators to review the change in policy. Court cases regarding the policy are also pending. In October, Uintah County sued the Obama Administration for contradicting a Bush-era agreement that would leave lands in northeastern Utah free from wilderness protection.
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Superfund is the name given to the federal government’s environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites. It is also the name of the fund established by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), which was signed into law and last revised by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA). A Superfund site is defined as any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment. CERCLA compels responsible parties to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA led cleanups. The EPA maintains a Superfund website dedicated to educating the public about hazardous waste sites, including remediation activities, policy, cleanup process, and list of current sites.
Brownfields are contaminated sites with lower concentrations of hazardous material than Superfund sites. They are defined as a property where the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of the site may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. In 1995 the EPA began its Brownfields Program, to help involved parties prevent, assess, safely clean up, and sustainably reuse brownfield sites in a timely manner. Through passage of the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act (H.R. 2869) in 2002, polices that EPA had developed over the years were signed into law (Public Law 107-118). The Brownfields Law expanded EPA's assistance by providing new grant programs and other tools to promote sustainable brownfields cleanup and reuse. For fiscal year 2009, the EPA has already announced that 12 states will receive job training grants for Brownfield cleanup.
The term asbestos refers to the fibrous form of six different minerals that have been used in industry for such products as insulation, roofing shingles, ceiling tiles and brake pads. Occupational exposure and inhalation of certain types of asbestos has been linked to asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The EPA classifies it as a toxic material and as a carcinogen, though it does not distinguish among the chemically and physically different minerals. The EPA issued a rule prohibiting the manufacture, processing, and importation of most asbestos products in 1989 due to the related health problems. However a 1991 ruling by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in response to a lawsuit brought by the American and Canadian asbestos industries, essentially negated the rule. The lawsuit argued that the EPA had not thoroughly studied alternatives to an asbestos ban.
In 1999 a Supreme Court ruling revoked a $1.5 billion class action settlement and said it was up to Congress to develop legislation to help move the numerous asbestos lawsuits through the court system at a faster pace. A 2002 report “The Impact of Asbestos Liabilities on Workers in Bankrupt Firms,” written by Joseph Stiglitz and put out by Sebago Associates and the American Insurance Association, estimated the cost of asbestos claims resulted in more than 60 companies filing for bankruptcy. Despite repeated efforts and growing support to pass legislation banning asbestos, previous Congresses have not been able to create any laws further defining the asbestos issue.
The EPA maintains an asbestos website dedicated to educating the public about asbestos, the health hazards, and the EPA’s role in the asbestos regulation efforts.
Contributed by Linda Rowan, Geoscience Policy staff; Dana Thomas, AAPG/AGI Spring 2011 Intern; Vicki Bierwirth, AIPG/AGI Summer 2011 Intern; Erin Camp, AAPG/AGI Fall 2011 Intern; Krista Rybacki, AIPG/AGI Summer 2012 Intern; and Kathryn Kynett, AAPG/AGI Spring 2011.
Background section includes material from AGI's summaries and updates for Asbestos the 110th Congress, Superfund/Brownfields in the 109th Congress, and the EPA website.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Geoscience Policy.
Last updated on October 5, 2012