Wednesday, February 12, 2014

This blog has moved

Natural Resources Today has moved to the WordPress platform. You can find it at Please visit!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

USFWS offers reward for information on shooting of fifth endangered red wolf in North Carolina in past month

The federal governments' principal fish and wildlife agency is offering a reward for information about the shooting of another red wolf in North Carolina.

Five of the critically endangered mammals have been gunned down in the state just within the last month. The latest victim, shot on or about Nov. 18, was the eighth at the hands of a gunman this year.

Canis rufus was once a common mammal in the American southeast. Efforts to eradicate predators and loss of habitat sent the population plummeting to less than two dozen individuals by the late 1960s. Captive breeding began in 1977 and, in 1980, the species was declared extinct in the wild.

USFWS re-introduced the red wolf to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and, later, to several other sites. There are now about 100 individuals in the wild.

An adult Canis rufus is larger than an adult coyote, but smaller than a full-grown gray wolf (Canis lupus).

Informants are urged to contact USFWS resident agent-in-charge John Elofson at (404) 763-7959, USFWS refuge officer Frank Simms at (252) 216-7504, or North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission officer Robert Wayne at (252) 216-8225.

Killing an endangered animal is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. Conviction could result in one year's imprisonment and a maximum fine of $100,000.

The reward could total up to $26,000.

Photos courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The lower photograph shows the red wolf killed by gunfire in North Carolina on Nov. 18.

Commentary: Senate rules action allows respite in partisan tug-of-war over DC Circuit ideology

When U.S. Senate Democrats moved Thursday to alter the right of the chamber's minority party to block executive and some judicial nominees, it made a decision that, on the surface, promises an easier path for all of President Barack Obama's judge candidates.

From an environmental law perspective, the changes to the Senate's filibuster rule are likely to mean that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will soon have all of the judges authorized by law.

Right now, there are three vacancies on the 11-seat court. Of the eight sitting judges, four were appointed by Democratic presidents and four were appointed by Republican presidents. However, the court also has six senior judges, five of which are GOP appointees. Those senior judges do sit on panels and decide cases. As a result, the real partisan divide on the court is 9-5 in favor of Republicans.

This divide has significant implications for environmental law. For example, the Congressional GOP, and many of the party's governors, have opposed the Obama administration's efforts to use the Clean Air Act to combat climate change. One of those efforts - the recently proposed and critical regulation that would cap the greenhouse gas emissions of new power plants - is likely to be challenged in the DC Circuit.

Having a full complement of active judges will mean two things: first, that the mostly-Republican senior judges will not be as likely to play the central role they now occupy in the court's deliberations and, second, that the far-reaching decisions on regulatory matters, including those indicating the administration's policy response to climate change, that come before the court will be more likely to get an even-handed evaluation.

This is to be applauded, but it is not the only benefit of today's landmark Senate action. There are 93 vacancies in the federal judiciary, including dozens in the U.S. district courts. It is those federal district judges who decide everything from criminal cases to huge commercial disputes. They also handle citizen suits to enforce the country's bedrock environmental laws. Now that President Obama will not face the seemingly perpetual Republican blockade of his judicial nominees, perhaps those seats can be filled in short order, which will lead to faster, and maybe fairer, resolution of critical environmental cases.

New study casts doubt on effectiveness of nature preserves in Latin America

A new study indicates that protection of nature preserves may not be enough to conserve ecosystems.

Researchers studied all preserves that are larger than 500 hectares and that were designated or known before 2004. They concluded that more than 1 million hectares of reserves in 19 nations of Central and South America were degraded during a five-year period:  
In Latin America, the rate of land and forest degradation inside protected areas more than doubled from 2004 to 2009, increasing from 0.04% to 0.10% per year. This is a small fraction but of a large number. Thus, in 2004 there were 81,975 hectares of land and forest degradation inside protected areas in Latin America, while in 2009, there were 247,056 hectares—an increase of approximately 165,000 hectares. Assuming each land and forest degradation event was unique (i.e., no change, regrowth and change again during the six years) and considering only the negative changes in land cover, the 2004–2009 land and forest degradation in our protected area data set was 1,097,618 hectares—an area the size of Jamaica.
French Guiana and Guatemala experienced the most loss of natural characteristics in the studied preserves. Costa Rica, Mexico, Argentina, and Nicaragua suffered the least damage.

The researchers also examined potential causes for degradation of the region's preserves and found that only the degree of funding provided to operate them has a statistically significant relationship with the amount of damaged land. However, they also decided that the relationship is "tenuous."

Growth of a nation's gross domestic product did not have a statistically significant relationship with degradation within the preserves. That was also the case with per capita GDP and rural population growth. 

Instead, the authors posited that a variety of human economic activities accounts for the failure of the reserves to protect the  natural systems within them. "Moving away from the data and results, we hypothesize that agricultural expansion, grazing expansion, intentional burning, infrastructure development, and increased accessibility could all be causal factors driving protected area land and forest degradation in Latin America and are potential future areas of research," they wrote.

Terra-i, a remote-sensing system that monitors changes in land use, was used by the researchers to complete the study.

The paper appears in the journal Diversity.

The above graphic shows the percentage of protected land in each of the Latin American region's countries that was affected by degradation of ecosystems during the study period, 2004-2009.

Environmental groups, scientists urge opposition to bills that would expand National Forest logging

Opposition to efforts by some members of Congress to mandate more logging on federal forests is on the rise, with environmental organizations and scientists recently circulating strong statements.

The letters relate to two forestry bills pending in Washington: H.R. 1526 and S. 1479.

The scientists' communique, which is signed by 250 individuals, urges Congress to avoid any requirement to increase logging in forest stands that have been damaged by fire.

"Both bills ignore the current state of scientific knowledge, which indicates that such activity would seriously undermine the ecological integrity of forest ecosystems on federal lands," the scientists' letter argues.

The scientists explained that snags, which are the standing remains of incinerated trees, are important habitat for a variety of bird species and that the wild flowers that grow in burned areas encourage re-population of the area by pollinators. They also point out a variety of other ecosystem benefits of burned forest stand areas that the legislation would compromise:
Numerous studies also document the cumulative impacts of post-fire logging on natural ecosystems, including the elimination of bird species that are most dependent on such conditions, compaction of soils, elimination of biological legacies (snags and downed logs) that are essential in supporting new forest growth, spread of invasive species, accumulation of logging slash that can add to future fire risks, increased mortality of conifer seedlings and other important re-establishing vegetation (from logs dragged uphill in logging operations), and increased chronic sedimentation in streams due to the extensive road network and runoff from logging operations.
The environmentalists' letter, which is signed by 20, mostly West coast, advocacy organizations and is addressed to U.S. secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. secretary of interior Sally Jewell, highlights the likelihood that increased logging in disturbed areas of federal forests would contradict a recovery plan for the endangered northern spotted owl.

"Plans to boost post-fire logging in spotted owl habitat ignore the best available science and would cause harm to old-growth forests,” Steve Holmer, a senior policy advisor at American Bird Conservancy, said. “Government scientists have concluded that in order to recover the rapidly declining northern spotted owl population, protection is needed for forest structures created by fires such as large standing dead trees that are used by the owls to nest in.”

The impact of the bills on forest landscapes impacted by wildfire is not the only criticism aimed at them.

Several environmental groups have loudly objected to the House bill's waivers of laws that currently apply to logging operations.

"H.R. 1526 would carve gaping loopholes in the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and other bedrock environmental laws," The Wilderness Society president Jamie Williams said in a statement. "This would lead to dirty water and air, and destroy recreational opportunities."

The House bill would set a statutory floor on the amount of logging undertaken in federal forests, doubling the amount that now occurs.

It would also prevent judicial review of most decisions to cut trees within designated "forest reserve revenue areas" that, for the first time, would require Washington to comply with a "fiduciary" obligation to provide revenues from logging to counties in which federal forests are located.

H.R. 1526, the proposed Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, cleared the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 20. It is now pending in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee along with a similar bill, S. 1479.

President Obama warned on Sept. 18 that he would veto H.R. 1526, or similar legislation, if it reaches his desk.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Proposed new air quality regulations in Colorado draw acclaim

Colorado has proposed revisions to the state's air quality regulations that aim to crack down on pollution by oil and gas operations, including first-in-the-nation provisions that would limit methane emissions from the industry's infrastructure.

Gov. John Hickenlooper announced the changes Monday.

"The rules will help Colorado prepare for anticipated growth in energy development, while protecting public health and the environment," Hickenlooper said. "They represent a significant step forward in addressing a wider range of emissions that before now have not been directly regulated."

Methane is among the most potent of greenhouse gases. The second-most prevalent warming air pollutant in the U.S., after carbon dioxide, it has 20 times the impact of CO2 over a century.

It constitutes as much as 90 percent of natural gas and is emitted during all stages of the process to extract the booming energy source from subterranean chambers and caverns.

A January 2013 study published in the journal Nature concluded that as much as nine percent of the methane extracted from the ground during hydraulic fracturing operations in Colorado and Utah escapes to the atmosphere. 

Unlike federal air quality rules, the Colorado proposal would impose specific limits on discharges of the gas to the atmosphere.

The proposal would also require oil and gas producers, who in Colorado are primarily engaged in hydraulic fracturing, to detect leaks from storage tanks, pipelines, and other facilities, repair any such leaks on a specified timeline, and to conduct regular inspections of potential air pollutant sources.

The rules would cover volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in addition to being the first in the nation to specifically limit methane discharges to the air.

A prominent spokesperson for the environmental community lauded the Colorado proposal, as did representatives of the energy industry in the state.

"If this package is adopted, Coloradans will breathe easier, knowing they have the best rules in the country for controlling air pollution from oil and gas activities,” Fred Krupp, the president of Environmental Defense Fund, said.

A joint statement by energy companies Anadarko, Encana, and Noble promised support for the regulations.

"This collaboration is a good model for developing effective regulations and activities to monitor, control and reduce methane leaks and VOCs," the statement said. "The process and increased accountability established by the proposal will provide transparency and build public trust."

The new rules will not be finalized until after the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission conducts hearings.

The Hickenlooper administration's proposal for increased regulation of the air pollution caused by the state's burgeoning oil and gas industry follows indications that the state's residents are becoming restive over the presence of extraction activities.

Four communities along the northern Front Range voted earlier this month to ban, either permanently or for several years, fracking operations within their municipal boundaries. 

California holds fifth cap-and-trade auction

California continued its pioneering program of auctioning allowances that authorize polluters to emit greenhouse gases to the atmosphere this week, holding the fifth auction in the past year on Tuesday.

Results of the auction will not be available until Friday. However, given that all the allowances for both the current year and for 2016 were sold at the last auction in August, there is reason to surmise a that Tuesday's event showcased a similar level of interest from the regulated community.

"We’re expecting participation to have been strong and that the futures are going to sell," Emily Reyna, a manager with the U.S. climate and energy program operated by Environmental Defense Fund, said. "I think that, like a lot of other folks have been saying, the price might come down a bit. That’s probably because it’s the end of the year and companies at this point know their emissions levels for 2013 and have a better sense of what their compliance obligations are going to be."

The latest auction comes on the heels of a California superior court decision that rejected a two-pronged legal attack on the state's cap-and-trade program. The plaintiffs in that case argued that it is not authorized by A.B. 32, the state's landmark 2006 climate change law, and that the auction proceeds are a tax that was not approved by a constitutionally required super-majority of state legislators.

Judge Timothy Frawley ruled on Nov. 14 that the state legislature authorized the California Air Resources Board to conduct the cap-and-trade auctions and collect money from regulated entities for emission allowances and did not violate the state constitution's taxation procedures.

"I think this case further injects confidence for participants that the market and the program is here to stay," Reyna said.

The nascent market will soon grow larger, as California regulators recently announced that the state's cap-and-trade program will be integrated with one run by Quebec authorities.

Implementation of that expansion will occur on Jan. 1, 2014.