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Scientists Warn Federal Government of Failed Sage-grouse Conservation Plans

Even as Congress threatens to meddle again in sage-grouse conservation, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service are moving forward on their unprecedented planning process to protect and recover the species on more than 60 million acres of public land. Credit to the agencies—it’s difficult to do one’s job with legislators scrutinizing your every step. But there are also some problems with the planning process that are entirely the agencies’ doing. Last week independent sage-grouse scientists highlighted those problems in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that may be pivotal to the future of the species. The scientists’ letter, endorsed by 11 experts on sage-grouse and sagebrush habitats, notes that draft conservation plans produced as part of the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy do not correspond with the best available science, and so may fail to conserve the species and its habitat. As the scientists clearly, concisely stated, there are just some basic measures that management plans must adopt if they are to successfully protect and recover sage-grouse:

  • Protect sage-grouse breeding, nesting and brood-rearing habitats from oil and gas drilling and other development. It is well known that oil, gas and grouse don’t mix.
  • Ensure that livestock grazing is managed to allow for tall grasses and other vegetation to provide cover for sage-grouse hens and chicks from predators. Sage-grouse evolved with golden eagles, ravens and coyotes, but they need healthy habitat with lots of places to hide.
  • Do not purposefully burn, plow, spray or otherwise eliminate sagebrush habitat. There’s less and less of the Sagebrush Sea left every year for sage-grouse and hundreds of other wildlife. We’ve got to protect what’s left of the landscape.

The scientists’ letter affirms Defenders of Wildlife’s own assessment of the planning process last spring, finding that key management prescriptions in the draft plans fell short of what science recommends for conserving sage-grouse. The agencies’ failure to adopt these measures is perplexing to say the least, since the BLM itself has identified them as being important for the species’ persistence.

Fortunately, there is still time for federal planners to improve conservation plans for the grouse, and we understand that the agencies are working to strengthen certain measures in the final plans. But the finals can’t merely be better than the drafts—they’ve got to include all of the science-based standards included in the scientists’ letter if they are to achieve their purpose of conserving sage-grouse and their habitat. The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are expected to release final plans this spring, when they will be subject to another round of public input. Armed with the scientists’ letter, Defenders of Wildlife and our partners will once again weigh in with recommendations to improve conservation measures for this iconic bird and the quintessential western habitat that it represents.

Posted in Energy, Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands, Uncategorized0 Comments

The President’s Climate Action Plan at One Year- A Retrospective

On June 25, 2013, President Obama released the President’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), signaling his Administration’s intent to make good on his promise to “respond to the threat of climate change” – with or without the cooperation of Congress. For the one-year anniversary of the CAP, Defenders has put together a retrospective showing the Administration’s progress on the three key pillars of the plan: 1) Cut Carbon Pollution in America; 2) Prepare the U.S. for the Impact of Climate Change, and 3) Lead International Efforts.

CUT CARBON POLLUTION IN AMERICA. The first major key of the CAP is on mitigating climate change. The President has proposed to cut U.S. Emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Progress to date on those proposals:

I.   Deploy Clean Energy

A.   Cut Emissions from Power Plants

1.    New Power Plants Rule  A proposal to reduce carbon pollution from new power plants came out in 2012, but was revised and re-issued on September 20, 2013. Coal-fired plants would be required to emit not more than 1,100 lb CO2/MWh gross over a 12-operating month period, or 1,000-1,050 lb CO2/MWh gross over a 7-year period. Natural gas would be limited to 1,000 or 1,100 lb CO2/MWh depending on their size.

2.  Existing Power Plants Rule   The Administration’s most recent initiative, proposed on June 2, 2014.  This rule will cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide below 2005 levels by 2030. A hallmark of the plan is that it gives states tremendous flexibility in how to meet this threshold.

B.  Renewable Energy

1.   Renewable Energy Permitting.  The CAP envisions 20 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy on public lands by 2020. As of February 2014, the number stands at 14 GW. The CAP also calls for 3 GW on military bases by 2025, and the Department of Defense is on track to have between 1.4 and 2.1 GW deployed by 2018. The Administration is also taking steps to expand residential and municipal renewables and efficiency through financing, grants, building code changes, and technical support.

2. Expanding and Modernizing the Electric Grid.  In June 2013, the administration signed a Presidential Memorandum to streamline transmission siting review and permitting.

C.   Investment in Clean Energy Innovation

1.   Loan guarantee program for Advanced Fossil Energy.  $8 billion in loan guarantees available for projects” that avoid, reduce, or sequester anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.” Solicitation for applications was announced December 12, 2013.

2.  Quadrennial Energy Review Established by Presidential Memorandum on January 9, 2014, with the first review due January 31, 2015.

II.  Transportation Sector

A.    Fuel Economy Standards

1. Heavy duty vehicles (trucks & busses): Phase 1, requiring 20% reduction in fuel use by 2018,  was finalized in 2011. Phase 2 was announced in Feb 2014, with Notice of Proposed Rulemaking  expected in March 2015 and Final Rule targeted for March 2016.

2.    Passenger vehicles: A standard of 54.5 mpg by 2025 was finalized on 08/28/2012

B.    Advanced Transportation Technologies

1.   Research and development on next-generation biofuels

2.    eGallon electric vehicle operation cost info

3.   Broadening use of alternative fuel vehicles and other transportation options

III.  Cutting Energy Waste in Homes, Businesses & Factories

A.    Efficiency standards for appliances and buildings. 24 new standards have been set since 2009; anticipated effect of all standards is a cumulative reduction of 6.8 billion tons of CO2 emissions by 2030.

B.   Reducing barriers to investment in efficiency. The USDA rural utilities loan program is providing $250 million to finance efficiency improvements in rural communities (finalized December 5, 2013). Multifamily Energy Innovation Fund (2011) provides $23 million for upgrading the efficiency in affordable housing units.

C.    Better Buildings Challenge  was launched in December 2011; partners commit to 20% energy reduction. 190 organizations participating to date.

IV.  Reducing Other Greenhouse Gas Emissions

A.   Hydrofluorocarbons. The new fuel economy standards contain incentives for upgrading vehicle air conditioning systems. Also, the EPA’s Significant New Alternatives Policy program identifies and evaluates alternatives to ozone-depleting chemicals; several new compounds were deemed acceptable in May 2013.

B.   Methane. The Interagency Methane Strategy  to reduce emissions from multiple sources and improve measurement, was released on March 28, 2014. Collaborative efforts with agriculture, oil and gas industry are also underway. {update: on Jan 14, 2015, the White House announced new standards to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations}

C.   Preserving the Role of Forests in Climate Change Mitigation. The Administration is “working to identify new approaches to protect and restore forests. . .grasslands, and wetlands.”

V.  Leading at the Federal Level

A.   Leading in Clean Energy.  The President has set a goal of 20% renewables by 2020 for federal agencies, energy performance tracked through Strategic Sustainability Performance Plans.

B.   Leading in EfficiencyPresidential  Memorandum in December 2011 on energy efficiency contracting; integrating Green Button energy reporting into federal data portal.

PREPARE THE UNITED STATES FOR THE IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE. The second major element of the CAP is on preparing for impacts, also known as “adaptation” to climate change. Many of the elements of this part of the CAP are reflected in Executive Order 13653, “Preparing the United State for the Impacts of Climate Change,” which was released on November 1, 2013.

I.  Building Stronger and Safer Communities & Infrastructure

A.   Directing Agencies to Support Climate Resilient Investment. Section 2 of E.O. 13653 directs federal agencies to “modernize federal programs to support climate resilient investment” through inventory and reform of policies, funding programs, and other activities; progress on milestones is to be incorporated into Agency Adaptation Plans.

B.   State, Local & Tribal Leaders Task Force. Established by Sec. 7 of E.O. 13653, the Task Force consists of eight Governors, mayors and commissioners from 16 cities and counties in 14 states, and two tribal representatives. They are currently taking recommendations on “opportunities within existing Federal authorities that could be taken to remove barriers to and encourage resilient investments; modernize grant and loan programs to better support local efforts; and develop information and tools to better serve communities”

C.  Supporting Community Preparation. The CAP outlines initiatives that are ongoing through a number of agencies; for instance, the Department of Transportation highway vulnerability and resilience pilot programs, which are ongoing in 19 states in 2013-14. The Bureau of Indian Affairs assisting tribal preparedness with $600k in grants announced January 2014. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Progress Report for 2014 includes a section describing how EPA views climate change as a priority in its work with vulnerable communities. Finally, FEMA and DOE are building on lessons from Sandy on power and fuel supply restoration.

D.  Boosting Resilience of Buildings & Infrastructure. The CAP describes efforts through the agency Climate Adaptation Plans, which are emphasized in Section 5 of E.O. 13653, and a National Institute of Standards & Technology panel on disaster-resilience standards, which convened in April 2014.

E.   Rebuilding & Learning From Sandy. The Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy mentioned in the CAP was released as scheduled in August 2013. Restoration projects through Department of the Interior are ongoing, as is evaluation for the Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grants Program

II.  Protecting the Economy & Natural Resources

A.   Identifying Vulnerabilities of Key Sectors. The CAP mentions departmental vulnerability assessments for Energy and Agriculture.  Additional reports recently released or due in 2014 include Health, Transportation, Food Supplies, Oceans, and Coastal Communities.

B.  Promoting Resilience in Health Sector. Goal of this part of the plan include improving resilience at hospitals and training public health professionals on preparing for health consequences. Both objectives are mentioned in the HHS Strategic Sustainability Plan, but no more recent updates were found.

C.   Promoting Insurance Leadership. The CAP signals the Administration’s intent to convene the insurance industry and others to “Explore best practices for private and public insurers” to reduce climate risks, but it is not clear if this meeting has occurred.

D.   Conserving Land and Water Resources. The Administration has already released climate change adaptation strategies for Fish, Wildlife and Plants, Freshwater Resources, and Oceans. Section 3 of E.O. 13653 directs the major land and resource management agencies to “complete an inventory and assessment of proposed and completed changes to their land- and water-related policies, programs, and regulations necessary to make the Nation’s watersheds, natural resources, and ecosystems, and the communities and economies that depend on them, more resilient in the face of a changing climate”  These inventories are due “Within 9 months of” the release of the E.O. (i.e., August 1, 2014).

E.  Maintaining Agricultural Sustainability. The USDA Regional Climate Hubs mentioned in this section were launched in February 2014.  The Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency grants program managed by NRCS and Bureau of Reclamation last month announced the recipients of $6.3 million in projects to be funded this year.

F.   Managing Drought. The National Drought Resilience Partnership was launched in November 2013. Headed by USDA and NOAA, it also includes Interior, Army Corps, FEMA, EPA and Energy. Its web-based portal for drought information and recovery resources is at

G.  Reducing Wildfire Risks. In addition to expanding restoration efforts in forests and rangelands, the Administration in January 2013 also launched the Western Watershed Enhancement Project, which currently has project in five states to reduce wildfire risk near reservoirs and other critical water supply infrastructure.

H.  Preparing for Future Floods. Agencies are updating their flood risk reduction standards based on sea level rise projections, following the lead of the Hurricane Sandy rebuilding effort.

III.  Using Sound Science

A.   Developing Actionable Climate Science. “Actionable science” has been a theme of agency activities (see below), as reflected in the budget requests and program priorities of  USGS, NOAA, NASA, NSF, and USDA.

B.  Assessing Climate Change Impacts in the US. The third U.S. National Climate Assessment was released on May 6, 2014. Covering observed and projected trends, impacts to sectors and regions, and response options, the NCA is the definitive guide to climate change in the U.S. With over 300 authors and input from thirteen agencies, the NCA represents the apogee of “actionable climate science.”

C.   Launching Climate Data Initiative. The Climate Data Initiative launched on March 19, 2014. It currently has tools for visualizing coastal flood risk, but will be adding additional sets of tools relating to human health, ecosystems, and other sectors.

D.   Providing a Toolkit for Resilience. Several of the tools mentioned in the CAP, such as the National Stormwater Calculator and the USGS’s Global Visualization Tool and National Climate Change Viewer, are already available. The Climate Data Initiative is creating a “one-stop shop” by tools from multiple sources and soliciting for more through its “Challenges” program.

LEAD INTERNATIONAL EFFORTS TO ADDRESS GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE.  International efforts described in the CAP are led through the State Department, and are described in detail at their Global Climate Change site.

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Federal Policy1 Comment

Climate Change and NEPA: Getting it Right

Climate Change and NEPA: Getting it Right

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law in 1969 and has gone on to be one of our country’s most important environmental laws. The law creates a framework and process by which federal agencies must consider the impacts of their actions on the environment – including natural resources, human health, infrastructure, and land use. Since climate change is one of the most important environmental issues to emerge in the past few decades, and promises to remain so for the foreseeable future, it is clear that NEPA has an important role to play in how agencies consider the effects of climate change both on their investments, and also on the resources that their projects affect. It is increasingly critical for agencies to thoughtfully and thoroughly consider climate change, from both an emissions and adaptation standpoint, as part of NEPA analysis, particularly in the most detailed and through decision documents, Environmental Impact Statements.

In order to facilitate agencies’ consideration of climate change, the administration released Draft NEPA Guidance on Consideration of the Effects of Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2010. The Draft Guidance clearly indicated that relevant climate information includes both greenhouse gas emissions information, and also climate change impacts and adaptation. To date, however, most of the attention paid to the guidance has been from the point of view of emissions analysis.

To get a better understanding of whether and how well agencies were incorporating the adaptation recommendations, we analyzed 154 Final Environmental Impact Statements released between July 2011 and April 2012. To our dismay, we found that very few incorporated the climate adaptation elements of the 2010 draft guidance. Even the best-performing EISs tended to incorporate climate change into a limited number of the elements of the affected environment, failed to make a full comparison between the various alternatives, or used short and qualitative statements rather than full analysis based on the best available science. We explore the possible reasons for this and present recommendations for overcoming these obstacles in our new report Reasonably Foreseeable Futures

The Chiracahua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest support the sky island ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands.  Portions of the sky islands would be put at risk by this bill.

The Chiracahua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest support the sky island ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands. These ecosystems are severely threatened by climate change, and climate-smart management will be key to their survival.


Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, NEPA, Public Lands, Smart from the Start, Uncategorized0 Comments


The Case of the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard: A Candidate Species Denied

On June 12, 2012, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided that the dunes sagebrush lizard, a candidate species for over a decade, no longer warranted listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Yet only 18 months earlier, it concluded that the species warranted listing as “endangered.”  This abrupt reversal was based largely on two candidate conservation agreements for the species, one for New Mexico and another for Texas.

Photo courtesy of  -  N.M. Game and Fish Dep't

Photo courtesy of – N.M. Game and Fish Dep’t

In a report released yesterday, we describe for the first time serious problems with the Service relying on the Texas agreement to support its decision.  Some of these problems include the following:

  • The Service is unable to determine what conservation measures participants will actually implement under the Texas agreement. This is the result of several compounding factors, including the vagueness of the agreement and the Service never having reviewed or approved any of the certificates of inclusion that describe what conservation measures participants committed to implementing (the New Mexico agreement, fortunately, does not have any of these problems).
  • The confidentiality provisions of Texas law, as currently interpreted by the Texas Comptroller’s Office and the Texas Office of the Attorney General, will prevent the Service from reviewing any part of the original certificates of inclusion, unless participants voluntarily disclose their certificate (which only one participant has done).
  • The Service’s decision relies largely on the claim that the Texas agreement limits habitat loss to only one percent within the first three years of implementing the agreement.  We discovered that this limit cannot be ensured because the Service has not enrolled enough habitat (99 percent) under the Texas agreement. In fact, the Service was about 76,550 acres short of this goal as of May 2012.

We also recommend eight specific improvements to ESA policy to address these and other problems, so that they are not repeated in future listing decisions for candidate species.  Some of these improvements can be implemented before the Service ever decides whether to list a candidate species.  For example, the Service should create policy clarifying that the conservation goals for candidate species are identical to those for recovering listed species.  Other improvements can be implemented as part of the listing decision.  For example, the Service should more clearly explain why a candidate species no longer warrants listing based on both its biological status and the threats it faces.  With listing decisions for high-profile species like the lesser prairie chicken and greater sage grouse around the corner, these recommendations are very timely.

Dunes sagebrush lizard

Posted in Fossil Fuels, Imperiled Wildlife, Southwest0 Comments

West Front of the Capitol. Photo Credit- Architect of the Capitol.

Secure Capital for Renewable Energy is Good for Wildlife and the Economy

The Obama administration has done a commendable job jumpstarting renewable energy development and is well on its way to achieving the president’s goal of providing enough renewable energy to power three million homes.  Although the administration’s efforts to boost the renewable energy sector have been successful to date, there is little doubt that concern for continuing access to capital –the result of the potential loss of the production tax credit and grant programs, the impact of cheap natural gas, and the failure to agree on a national energy policy that would spur investment in clean energy development — is undercutting the administration’s successful effort to move the clean energy economy forward. This uncertainty – especially for financing and a growing market for clean energy – will continue to thwart the growth of this energy sector.

Congress could address these concerns by extending tax credits (which could be paid for by redirecting current oil and gas production subsidies) and by passing legislation to establish a national goal for renewable energy production or by finally putting a tax on carbon pollution. These solutions would help spur private-sector investment in clean energy and reduce the industry’s dependence on federal subsidies.  The result would be good for economic growth, stimulate employment, and reduce the federal deficit (by reducing federal outlays and generating increased tax revenue over the long term).

Instead, Congress has chosen to do none of the above — leaving the market uncertain while complaining that the Obama administration has no energy policy.  At the same time, anti-environmental members of Congress choose to argue that regulations designed to protect human health and natural resources are thwarting efforts to promote clean energy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To the contrary, the conservation community has worked in partnership with the solar and wind energy industries to frame policies to guide solar development on public lands and promote responsibly wind energy projects.   With encouragement from the industry and conservation groups, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is poised to finalize a first-of-its-kind plan for responsible solar energy development on public lands, which should help solar energy projects move forward more efficiently by reducing risk to wildlife and natural and cultural resources.

In addition, the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued guidelines for wind energy development that were based on the recommendations of a scientific panel (established, in fact, by the Bush administration) and fully-supported by the wind energy industry association and leading conservation organizations. This is ground-breaking progress for the energy sector that has never been seen before and a reflection of a common understanding of the need to develop cleaner, more environmentally-responsible and secure sources of energy.

But to keep the clean energy boom from going bust, our nation’s leaders need to act quickly to shore-up the nascent industry. Congress can start by creating demand for renewable energy, following the lead of some 33 states – most notably California, which has set the highest target aiming to generate 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 – and setting a national renewable energy standard. Although such legislation is currently pending, its prospects for passage are not good, to no one’s surprise.   Congress must also make financing for renewable energy development – solar, wind and geothermal projects – more secure as President Obama has called for time and again. The uncertainty of our nation’s commitment to clean energy discourages investment from the private sector. The oil and gas industry receives billions of dollars worth of incentives each year. For the clean energy industry to take flight, Congress must at least make a commitment to renewables on par with fossil fuels.

Last, but certainly not least, the Obama administration must put in place a national program for siting and permitting responsible clean energy projects. As mentioned earlier, the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed solar-energy program stands as an example of “smart from the start” clean energy policy. It was developed with input from conservation organizations, industry representatives, clean energy advocates, utilities, and investors. The program aims to accelerate solar energy development by guiding projects to low-conflict areas that are least likely to impact imperiled wildlife and sensitive lands. This approach reduces risk for investors and provides developers with greater certainty that their projects can move forward and conservationists with greater confidence that risk to wildlife and the environment will be minimized.

If the clean energy sector goes bust, it cannot be blamed on the Obama administration, the solar and wind energy industries, or conservation groups. The blame will fall squarely on Congress, which chooses instead to complain about the lack of a national energy policy, while blocking any effort to help advance our clean energy future and pointing a finger at others for their failure to lead.

Posted in Renewables, Smart from the Start0 Comments

Biofuel Certification Design Flaws

European leaders offer a biofuel certification program which appears to deny markets to biofuels that are produced unsustainably, but this program will not work.  Economic analysis finds that vegetable oil that fails certification for biodiesel use can simply be sold as food, without any reduction in price, to countries like China and India which are major importers of vegetable oil.  In addition, the damage to tropical forest and other ecosystems caused by biofuel demands are indirect, as biofuel expansion raises crop prices for vegetable oil, corn, and wheat.  These higher crop prices cause an estimated 25 million hectares net forest conversion to crop uses, or potentially several times that amount if we consider all forest, savanna, and prairie land conversions.  Biofuel certification programs in Europe and elsewhere fail to confront these indirect price effects, as well as failing to deny markets to uncertified biofuel.

Certifying all vegetable oil, not just the portion used as biofuel, would be far more effective at protecting tropical forests compared to the European Commission approach that just certifies the portion of vegetable oil used as biofuel.  However, any remedy that successfully protects forest and savanna ecosystems will cause additional crop price increases.  Crop producers in exporting countries could see profit increases estimated in the tens of billions of dollars due to the higher crop prices from any program that protects tropical forests and savannas.  The world’s poor, who depend on vegetable oil for calories would experience the majority of these costs.  Researchers find that crop price increases can pose sustainability problems affecting billions of poor people in developing countries.

China, India, and other poor countries spend immense amounts of money trying to protect their consumers from today’s high crop prices, so they are unlikely to participate in vegetable oil certification programs that raise vegetable oil and other basic food prices further.  Without the participation of these major importers of vegetable oil, and of other poor country importers, oil crop certification programs likely will remain ineffective.

Recognizing the above design flaws regarding certification remedies to ecosystem and to hunger problems caused by biofuel subsidies and mandates could lead to consideration of more effective policy options.  These options should include reducing biofuel subsidies and mandates in Europe and reducing biofuel mandates in the U.S.

Posted in Energy, Paying for Conservation0 Comments


Minnows in the Marsh: The Gulf’s Canary in the Coal Mine?

Several weeks ago, researchers published a seminal study on how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has harmed fish in coastal marshes.  To date, most studies on wildlife affected by the spill focus on acute and direct effects.  But equally important are sub-lethal effects, such as impaired reproduction and embryonic development, which are far more difficult to observe.  Indeed, sub-lethal effects are “critically important for predicting longterm population-level impacts of oil pollution,” according to the researchers.


The study tracked the effects of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on Gulf killifish (Fundulus grandis) during the first 4 months of the spill.  At one of the study sites, researchers found that although sampled water and fish tissue did not show abnormally high levels of oil, there were “significant biological effects” on the fish and an increased risk of health problems.  For example, juvenile fish had genetic evidence of exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can lead to cardiac impairment in adulthood.  The researchers also found that the spill contaminated marshes at a time coinciding with “the spawning season for many marsh animals, including killifish, and reproductive effects are predictive of long-term population-level impacts from oil spills.”

This study has several important implications.  It shows that although seafood from the Gulf of Mexico may be safe for human consumption, affected wildlife may continue to suffer population declines.  As a result, it could be a long time before the public is “made whole” again following an oil spill, as required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.  Last year, we had questioned whether the government was properly assessing how the spill may have harmed many coastal marsh species.  In particular, we saw no evidence that the protocols created to assess natural resource damages resulting from the spill were comprehensive enough to cover the Saltmarsh topminnow (Fundulus jenkinsi), a species endemic to Gulf marshes and now being considered for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, in part because of the spill.  It’s easy to lose sight of these inconspicuous, non-iconic animals, which is why this recent study is especially important.

Another underappreciated aspect of the Gulf spill is that if it results in species being listed under the Endangered Species Act, the public and other business will bear the cost of listing and recovering the species, as well as complying with the restrictions of the act generally.  This cost should be shifted to the companies responsible for the spill as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

Journal reference:
Andrew Whitehead, Benjamin Dubansky, Charlotte Bodinier, Tzintzuni I. Garcia, Scott Miles, Chet Pilley, Vandana Raghunathan, Jennifer L. Roach, Nan Walker, Ronald B. Walter, Charles D. Rice, and Fernando Galvez. Science Applications in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Special Feature: Genomic and physiological footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on resident marsh fishes. PNAS, September 26, 2011 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1109545108

Gulf Killifish. Credit: USGS

Saltmarsh Topminnow. Credit: Joseph R. Tomelleri

Posted in Fossil Fuels, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Government’s Role in Renewable Energy Goes Well Beyond Financing

Government has often played a big role in providing financial support for many categories of energy production, providing capital and tax breaks to help nascent industries gear up to enter the market place. And it’s quite rational to question whether this role should continue, particularly for energy sectors that have benefitted from those government subsidies and tax breaks and are now well established, such as oil, gas and ethanol.

Ironically, all of the recent focus on federal loan guarantees and the bankruptcy failure of Solyndra has overshadowed the much bigger role that the federal government plays as an energy supplier, providing access to oil, gas, coal — and now renewable sources like solar, wind and geothermal energy — on public lands and in our coastal waters. You can also add to that the role that government plays in providing for the transport of energy from points of production to the places where that energy will be used as reflected in the Obama administration’s announcement last week of 7 pilot energy transmission projects. In terms of lands and resources affected – including financial, cultural, and natural resources – energy generation and transmission on federal lands is a much bigger deal.

Currently, the Obama administration is aggressively promoting the development of onshore solar, wind and geothermal resources and is planning for the development of wind resources off the Atlantic coast. Thus far, 34,000 acres of public lands have been permitted for solar development and thousands more acres are proposed for wind and geothermal development. Last week’s announcement of proposed transmission lines would affect approximately 2,500 miles of mainly public lands creating the equivalent of a 4 lane highway nearly long enough to stretch coast to coast, but instead crossing large sections of America’s wild landscapes. That’s not to say that renewable energy generation and transmission aren’t needed. The better question is simply this : “Are these projects being built in the right places and under the right conditions?”

Controversy over the impacts of energy development on public lands and resources is long-standing. This controversy is often made worse by an antiquated system for acquiring development rights on public lands, a failure to give adequate consideration to wildlife and important natural resources in project planning, and by past and present administrations’ haste in trying to fast-track poorly sited projects that have been in the pipeline for some time.

Despite long established environmental laws and processes designed to insure careful evaluation of the environmental impacts of proposed energy development on federal lands prior to project approval, a number of the fast-tracked projects have done a poor job in this regard. Poorly sited energy development can generate significant adverse impacts upon sensitive or imperiled wildlife and sever important migratory routes and corridors. Improperly sited generation and transmission projects can also adversely affect threatened and endangered species and hasten the demise of species not now listed but under consideration.

If the federal government is to continue supporting energy development and transmission by making publicly-owned and managed lands and waters available – and it’s hard to imagine how that is likely to change – then it must put real safeguards in place to avoid, minimize and mitigate significant effects to natural and cultural resources. Renewable energy – the fastest growing energy sector, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency — is no exception. Current efforts to site and develop renewable energy sources, including transmission facilities, highlight the need to significantly improve the process for project siting. Lands leased for energy development over the past several years have often been controversial because an inadequate effort was made up-front to locate such projects to low conflict areas. And while many solar and wind projects continue to move ahead, the costs and consequences for wildlife and the environment of these projects could have been substantially reduced or avoided through better “up-stream” planning.

The same is true for transmission. The public’s perception of the administration’s announcement to improve coordination and expedite permitting for transmission lines will be greatly influenced by the company that it keeps – in this case the 7 “pilot projects” that were announced simultaneously with the new process for expediting transmission line permitting. At least one line, the Susquehanna to Roseland line, has been dubbed by opponents as the “superhighway for coal” and would move largely coal-generated power from the coal fields of Pennsylvania through the Delaware River corridor and New Jersey Highlands to users on the coastline.

Other pilot project lines are located in areas where conflicts with wildlife and important natural resources are already known. The proposed Gateway West Transmission Line is likely to cross through approximately 235 miles of lands already designated by the State of Wyoming to protect the sage grouse – a candidate for ESA listing — fragmenting important habitat for the species. The present alignment of the Sun Zia transmission line in New Mexico and Arizona raises similar concerns for its impact on biodiversity in the fragile desert ecosystems of the southwest.

Some of these concerns may be fixable as the projects undergo belated review and analysis through the permitting process. The work of the proposed Rapid Response Team for Transmission (RRTT) could be helpful in this regard if, in fact, the RRTT provides the means to facilitate improved analysis of the impacts of alternative routes for each line, better access to data associated with wildlife consultations and environmental reviews, and is a means to engage the agencies involved in a dialogue with stakeholders that leads to permitting that avoids significant conflict altogether or reduces unavoidable conflicts to the maximum extent possible. The presumption that producing and transporting clean, renewable energy is an adequate rationale for ignoring significant impacts on biodiversity needs to be challenged. While climate change is widely recognized as the greatest global threat to humankind and nature, there is no need to sacrifice important wildlife, threatened and endangered species and their habitats for the sake of getting poorly sited renewable energy projects built. It is a false choice not unlike the false choice that some would argue Americans need to make between producing jobs and protecting the environment.

Through smart planning, thoughtful analysis and improved coordination, renewable energy generation and transmission can be directed to places with high energy potential and minimal environmental conflicts. For example, the EPA and the Arizona BLM have taken inventories of brownfields, abandoned farmlands and previously disturbed lands that fit this category. And the BLM is now working on a strategy to guide future renewable energy development to these and other low conflict zones. This is a strategy that could actually accelerate permitting and development by providing developers, investors and conservationists with the environmental information and certainty they need to support utility-scale renewable energy and transmission projects.

Clearly, the status quo is unacceptable. Continuing to fast track renewable energy projects on sites regardless of the environmental values of the affected areas will only produce conflict, prolong project analysis, and delay permitting. As a result, some poorly sited projects are likely to be challenged where their impacts are too great or simply cannot be mitigated. A more thoughtful and rational approach – one that attempts to guide projects to places where conflicts with wildlife and other resources are low – will work better. This kind of approach is desperately needed if our public lands and coastal waters are to continue to produce energy, sustain local economies, and generate jobs for thousands of Americans, without sacrificing irreplaceable habitats for increasingly threatened wildlife and wild land resources.

Posted in Renewables0 Comments

Bureau of Land Management stands up for environmental review

Recently a judge in Wyoming, citing procedural flaws, blocked the BLM’s attempts to reform the way categorical exclusions (CXs) have been abused to rush oil and gas drilling on BLM administered lands.  Rep. Rush Holt (D, NJ) and other members of Congress maintain that the procedure was, in fact, not flawed and have urged the Department of Justice to appeal the ruling.  In the meantime, the BLM has responded to that ruling by initiating a public rulemaking process to remedy the procedural flaws.  While it is unclear at this early stage what exactly the proposed rule will include, BLM deserves applause for continued efforts to respond to major abuses in the use of CXs, as pointed out in a 2009 GAO report (stating that 85% of CXs were applied illegally).

The rulemaking is great news for wildlife and the many other natural resources put at risk by poorly planned oil and gas drilling throughout the west.  Historically, CXs have been used for smaller non-controversial projects where environmental review at a larger scale was already completed and was sufficient to make an informed decision regarding the impacts of the project.  CX policy put in place under the Bush Administration, however, abused the tool, allowing full field oil and gas development to proceed unfettered without consideration of impacts or development of mitigation measures for wildlife habitat, connectivity, endangered species, and other resources.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R, CO), chair of the subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources in the House of Representatives, held a hearing last week covering the CX issue.  Unsurprisingly, the oil and gas industry continues to claim that environmental review is a superfluous burden rather than a process to ensure that energy development doesn’t run counter to the nation’s longstanding policy of multiple-use of public lands.

The fact is that industry attacks on environmental review don’t hold up: under the Obama CX policy, oil and gas drilling is back to pre-recession levels and nearing a 20 year high in the U.S., all while oil and gas companies hold more than 6,500 unused permits to drill and millions of acres in leased areas they have yet to pursue development on.  Rep. Raul Grijalva (D, NM) has said that big oil companies “shouldn’t get to call the shots when it comes to public lands,” has applauded the BLM for moving forward with reforms to CX policy, and has called for additional GAO research.  Rep. Diana DeGette (D, CO) was quick to point out that the BP oil spill disaster occurred at a well approved using a CX to bypass environmental review.

BLM’s new rulemaking should find a balance by providing for complete site level review to protect public resources when heavy duty development is proposed, while allowing truly duplicative reviews to be bypassed and encouraging efficiency through processes like Master Leasing Plans.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public Lands0 Comments

Attacks on oil and gas leasing reforms continue

Attacks on oil and gas leasing reforms continue

Prairie dogs are among the wildlife species impacted by oil and gas drilling in the Western U.S. (Photo: Michelle Thomas).

The Obama administration initiated reforms to make the oil and gas leasing process on public lands work better for industry, government, taxpayers, and wildlife.  The reforms have received praise and  demonstrated results – environmental groups have filed fewer objections to leases in response to this more transparent process.  The reforms have also ensured full environmental reviews that examine the risks to wildlife and provide for mitigation measures whenever potential impacts are present or when previous environmental analysis has not been completed on a site.

Energy industry groups, however, have challenged the reforms from the beginning.  Reversing the reforms would mean a return to a closed system in which companies select public land acres they want to lease for drilling and proceed to development with almost no transparency, out of reach from members of the public that want to ensure wildlife, water, air quality and other concerns are fully incorporated into decision making.

Last week, at the request of an energy industry trade group, a Federal Judge in Wyoming vacated a segment of these leasing reforms.  The Western Energy Alliance sued the Department of the Interior over Secretary Salazar’s Instruction Memorandum 2010-118 clarifying the use of categorical exclusions (CX’s), which exempt certain activities from environmental review.  This memorandum is important because it responds to deep concerns about the misuse of categorical exclusions to fast-track oil and gas development projects on public lands without adequate environmental or public review.  IM 2010-118 resolved long-standing issues (highlighted by the GAO) by making the following changes:

1.      BLM would evaluate whether “extraordinary circumstances” were present that precluded use of the CXs to skip environmental review;

2.      BLM would require environmental analysis prior to permitting new drilling at a site where drilling had occurred, but might not have been analyzed before;

3.      BLM would require specific analysis of place-based development before permitting new drilling at a site that was part of a larger field (previously not required).

The judge’s decision to vacate these three targeted reforms found that the BLM’s process for changing its position on CXs was not correct – it did not find that the changes themselves were illegal or wrong.  Industry spokespeople, however, have already tried to use this ruling as proof that leasing reforms should be thrown out or ignored.  This is an incorrect interpretation of this narrow ruling.

The ruling expressed no opinion on the merits of the agency’s policies to ensure that oil and gas drilling will not proceed without necessary environmental analysis. The court’s decision means BLM cannot rely on its 2010 guidance right now, but it does not require BLM to return to a practice of endangering our wildlife and natural resources to permit drilling without any common sense limitations. The BLM retains ultimate discretion over both deciding what lands should be leased for drilling and if, how, and when they should be drilled – and the agency can and should continue to exercise its authority wisely.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public Lands0 Comments

oil and gas drilling

The push to “un-reform” oil and gas leasing reform

After taking office the Obama administration took common sense steps to reverse the Bush administration’s unbalanced approach to developing oil and gas on our public lands.  The administration rightly recognized that a “drill baby drill” policy posed a significant threat to wildlife, water, wild places and western values, and was leading to more and more conflict over every lease.  In an effort to reduce the conflict in the leasing process and balance out resource considerations, the Department of Interior provided a number of reforms through Instruction Memoranda.  Reforms from these memos require the Bureau of Land Management to do things like:

  • Standardize oil and gas lease stipulations that protect wildlife and other resources by setting a baseline of protections that have to be incorporated into any drilling project
  • Incorporate new adaptive management features that allow adjustments to be made as more information is gained on how drilling is impacting the natural environment
  • Establish local “Master Leasing Plans” throughout the west to facilitate thorough environmental review of potential drilling impacts BEFORE offering leases in areas with high energy potential and high risk of environmental conflicts
  • Get rid of policies that previously reduced the amount of environmental review required for oil and gas leasing

BLM’s fact sheet on the reforms is here and a chart comparing the old and the new is here.

These reforms were an important step in streamlining and modernizing the process by fully taking into account all resources affected by leasing and by pushing leases into lower conflict areas.  However, as is the case with many of the common sense policy changes initiated on our public lands, these reforms are under attack in this Congress.  Despite the fact that recent reports show onshore oil and gas drilling at a twenty year high even with these reforms in place, a bill introduced in the Senate would reverse the administration’s reform agenda along with a number of other important progressive actions taken by the Obama administration to improve oil and gas leasing.

In addition to the bill, a recent letter from Republican Senators attacked the BLMs leasing reforms.  In response to this letter, former head of the BLM Mike Dombeck said: “It is disappointing to see members of Congress, presumably at the request of industry, attempting to roll back such common sense policies on the land that belongs to ‘we the people.’”

A halt to the Master Leasing Plans (MLPs) currently under development, in particular, would be a huge loss.  These innovative plans provide a new and powerful opportunity to avoid and minimize wildlife and other environmental conflicts that could result from poorly planned oil and gas leasing before a project is sited and investments are made.  This type of “smart from the start” planning results in a win-win because it has the potential to resolve conflicts prior to the siting and development of oil and natural gas wells, thus avoiding costly controversies that always seems to end up in court.  A law that gets rid the MLP process would stop this good policy in its tracks.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public Lands, Smart from the Start1 Comment

Ethanol and food prices

Ethanol and food prices

Iowa State University has a new study out this week on what their economists say are relatively modest links between ethanol production, ethanol subsidies and food prices.  For example, the report notes that soybeans had only a 2.8 percent price increase and corn and wheat less than a 1 percent price increase because of ethanol subsidies and chicken and beef were only 3 cents per pound and 2 cents per pound more expensive to consumers in 2009 because of the expansion of ethanol as fuel.

Well 3 cents may not sound like a lot to an economist, but Americans ate 42.4 billion pounds of chicken and 26.4 billion pounds of beef last year so that 3 and 2 cents adds up to more than $1.7 billion in higher food costs that we all paid.  Iowa State also reports that corn was 76 cents per bushel more expensive in 2009-2010 than it would have been if not for expansion of ethanol –  consumers paid that 76 cents on the 60 percent of 13 billion bushels of corn that went into food (not ethanol).  Thus consumers in the U.S. and abroad paid at least $2-$4 billion in higher corn ingredient prices.

Add those food price increases on top of the $6 billion federal handout that refineries received for adding ethanol to gasoline and you begin to get a measure of the real dollar price that Americans pay to prop up an industry whose product lowers car fuel economy, increases lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to tropical deforestation and destruction of U.S. prairies .

Now you know why Defenders of Wildlife and many other groups encouraged the Senate to vote to eliminate the $6 billion ethanol subsidy.  The Senate voted 73-27 in favor of doing so last week.

Posted in Agriculture, Energy0 Comments

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.