Friday, February 25, 2011

U.S. Commerce Dep't IG clears NOAA scientists of Inhofe fraud claims

A federal government investigator has rejected a powerful U.S. senator's claim that National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration scientists may have fabricated data to support the agency's case that climate change is ongoing.

Inhofe's allegation arose from his interpretation of email sent to and from scientists at East Anglia University's Climatic Research Unit. Many skeptics of the scientific consensus that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases are causing Earth's atmosphere to warm have raised a similar charge.

"In our review of the CRU emails, we did not find any evidence that NOAA inappropriately manipulated data comprising the GHCN-M dataset or failed to adhere to appropriate peer review procedures," U.S. Department of Commerce inspector general Todd J. Zinser wrote in a Feb. 18 letter to Inhofe that was released to the public Thursday.

Zinser was referring to the Global Historical Climatology Network-Monthly dataset, which is maintained by NOAA's National Climactic Data Center.

He also concluded that NOAA adhered to appropriate peer review procedures before releasing the historical climate change data about which Inhofe expressed concern.

The e-mails Zinser investigated were among 1,073 stolen and leaked to the public in Nov. 2009. Zinser and his team of investigators examined all of those emails but focused their attention on 289 that involved NOAA in some manner.

The inspector general's staff conducted a more detailed investigation of eight particular e-mails that were the principal source of Inhofe's expression of concern.

One of those eight e-mails, which was sent by CRU's deputy director, asked colleagues not to "let [the Co-Chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report Working Group 1] (or [a researcher at Pennsylvania State University]) push you (us) beyond where we know is right." The sender was referring to "conclusions beyond what we can securely justify."

The sender told Zinser's investigators that the purpose of this email was to encourage scientists working on the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report were assuring a clear statement about the factual support for the conclusions they provided in that report they wrote.

Another involving a 2007 exchange between a group of scientists not employed by NOAA that mentioned values on a climate data curve being "shifted" was found by Zinser to reflect the scientists' adherence to a long-established procedure used to compensate for missing data.

The third, which related to a controversy relating to the extent of urban heat islands in China, had involved the NCDC director. Zinser concluded that he had not contributed the Chinese climate data at the center of the dispute, had not analyzed that data despite being a contributor to a 1990 academic article that critics thought had reached an erroneous conclusion about the impacts of climate change on Chinese metropolitan areas, and had, in a manner consistent with general practice in scientific fields of inquiry, worked only on his section of that paper.

The fourth email to which Inhofe pointed as possible evidence of fraud by NOAA scientists was sent by the CRU deputy director to a researcher at Pennsylvania State University. That email, which was sent Apr. 29, 2007, said that the writer was "particularly unhappy" that he could not get a "statement" relating to reinforcement of results obtained during the IPCC's Third Assessment Report into the Summary for Policymakers section of the Fourth Assessment Report.

The CRU deputy director said he had done his "best" to get the information included in the Fourth Assessment Report, but had been "basically railroaded" by the co-chair of Working Group 1.

Zinser concluded that the information that the CRU deputy director wanted to have included in the Fourth Assessment Report was not included because the co-chair of Working Group 1 decided that the report would have greater clarity about the "similarities and differences" between the Third Assessment Report and the Fourth Assessment Report. Since the Third Assessment Report's publication some research had indicated that there was a greater than anticipated historical variability in Northern Hemisphere temperatures.

Inhofe had also pointed to a fifth email, written by a university researcher to an NOAA scientist, asking that earlier emails showing that researcher's participation in the development of the Fourth Assessment Report be deleted.

Zinser found that the emails referenced in the researcher's message were deleted by the NOAA scientist, but that the NOAA scientist had received the request before he commenced government service and, therefore, no agency records retention policies had been violated.

A sixth email at issue related to a Freedom of Information Act request for NOAA data used to compile a temperature trend report contained in a 2008 academic article. NOAA had informed the requester that it did not have the information sought, but in fact CRU researchers may have had such data.

Zinser concluded that the particular data the requester had sought was never in the hands of any NOAA scientists and that the data that the CRU researchers in fact had was not the data that had been requested.

A seventh email referred to "quality control procedures" applied by NOAA on temperature data after it is collected by GHCN, instead of at the time the data is reported to the agency.

Zinser found that this method is justified as a means for the NOAA to take account of new information contained in late reports and that, in any event, it will be less essential after the agency deploys improvements to GHCN-M.

Finally, Zinser's investigators found that an Oct. 6, 2009 email referring to "data gaps" in NCDC's database, as compared to those maintained by CRU and NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, referred to the separate collection of land and sea temperature data by NCDC or the omission of non-public data pursuant to NOAA policy. GISS researchers interpolate ocean data into a land temperature database, and vice versa, and both that agency and CRU may not have policies requiring the exclusion of proprietary data from their databases.

The report by the Commerce Department's inspector general is at least the sixth to conclude that the scientists who sent or received the 1,073 leaked emails did not engage in any improper behavior. There have been three inquiries in Britain and two in the United States, by the National Research Council and Pennsylvania State University.

Zinser's review and further investigation of two other emails did prompt some mild criticism of NOAA on grounds having nothing to do with adherence to proper research techniques or scientific methodology.

His report to Inhofe indicated that NOAA had improperly handled four requests for information under FOIA by failing to assure that individual scientists working for the agency were made aware of them. One other scientist who had been aware of the FOIA requests incorrectly concluded that the information they sought was the property of the IPCC.

Zinser suggested that NOAA review the CRU's compliance with the terms of two contracts awarded in 2002 and 2003 to conduct training on the impacts of the periodic La Nina and El Nino events. The total value of those contracts was $66,240.

The inspector general also criticized one e-mail message, sent by a senior NCDC scientist to a CRU colleague, that contained an "inappropriate image."

The image was a caricature of Inhofe, created by another NCDC scientist, in which the Oklahoma Republican was shown, along with several other famous climate change skeptics, atop an ice floe in the Arctic ocean. The second scientist created the cartoon on his government-issued computer during work hours.

Zinser reported that NOAA has disciplined the two scientists.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Obama administration: No endangered status unless species nearly extinct in wild, and polar bear doesn't qualify

The Obama administration told a federal judge in Washington, D.C. Wednesday that a species may be considered "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act only if it is on the very precipice of disappearing from its native habitat.

Because the polar bear isn't that close to extinction, a government lawyer said, its status as a threatened species should stand.

The argument came in a hearing held on a challenge to the administration's decision to stick with the George W. Bush administration's 2008 designation of the polar bear's status under the ESA.

Listing the polar bear as "threatened" does not require the administration to protect its habitat from adverse impacts, whether from oil drilling or climate change. An "endangered" listing would impose that duty on the government.

Judge Emmet Sullivan seemed to indicate that he was not certain whether the courts have any statutory authority to force the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to do more for the polar bear.

Kassie Siegel, a lawyer representing environmental groups that are challenging the threatened listing, bluntly told the veteran jurist that the only way to save the polar bear is to require "deep and rapid greenhouse gas reductions."

However, the regulation that creates the dichotomy in the treatment of a listed species' habitat appears to stand in the way of such a mandate from a federal judge.

The rule, which former interior secretary Dirk Kempthorne issued on the same day he announced the polar bear's listing as a threatened species, aims to prevent the ESA from being used as a tool to force a lowering of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

President Obama's secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, has not attempted to revise or revoke it.

The environmental group plaintiffs maintain that, because the sea ice upon which polar bears depend for hunting is expected to continue disappearing, the species must be considered endangered.

Sea ice in the Arctic, which is essential habitat for the polar bear during the summer months, is being lost as Earth's atmosphere warms. The National Snow and Ice Data Center has reported that the rate of melt is increasing during every month of the year.

Elements of industry and the state of Alaska argue that the polar bear does not merit even a threatened species designation. They do not dispute that the sea ice habitat upon which polar bears depend is disappearing, but maintain that its loss does not necessarily mean that the species will go extinct.

Washington, on the other hand, seemed to take the position that the listing provisions of the ESA is not the critical mechanism available in an effort to save the polar bear.

Clifford Stevens, the government lawyer representing the Fish and Wildlife Service in the case, told Sullivan that the recent critical habitat designation is the tool upon which the administration will principally rely.

Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

High Country News article investigates Alaska's extensive predator control programs

The High Country News published in its Feb. 21 issue an insightful article exploring Alaska's ongoing and pervasive efforts to limit mammalian predator populations.

The article, by Tracy Ross, is worth a read.

U.S. Supreme Court denies certiorari in case upholding spotted owl critical habitat

The U.S. Supreme Court sidestepped Tuesday an opportunity to review a lower court decision that upheld the designation of millions of acres of land as critical habitat for the threatened Mexican spotted owl.

The denial of a petition for certiorari came in a case filed by cattle ranchers in the southwest.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in June 2010 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had provided a valid economic analysis in support of the designation and did not violate the Endangered Species Act by including in the designation land that did not contain any owls.

In general, the ESA requires USFWS to designate critical habitat for a listed species at the time of listing.

In the case of the Mexican spotted owl, the administration of former President George W. Bush designated 8.6 million acres in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah as critical habitat in 2004.

The species was added to the list of threatened and endangered species in 1993. A previous critical habitat designation by the Clinton administration was withdrawn in 1998.

The Mexican spotted owl (Strix occidentalis lucida) is the smallest of the spotted owl species, which include the California spotted owl and the northern spotted owl. The species lives in old growth forests in mountains and canyons located in a range extending from southern Utah and Colorado through Arizona and New Mexico and into west Texas and northern and central Mexico.

A predatory animal, Mexican spotted owls are nocturnal. Climate change is the most significant risk to their forest habitat.

The case is Arizona Cattle Growers Association v. Salazar.

Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

House budget resolution includes cuts to many environmental programs

The U.S. House of Representatives passed early Saturday a landmark resolution that would impose the largest rescissions of appropriated spending on federal agencies in decades. Included in the targets for budget cuts are a variety of programs related to environmental law and policy.

According to the Washington Post, the Environmental Protection Agency was the target of a number of amendments aimed at limiting the agency's ability to enforce regulations or create new ones.

EPA would, if the relevant provisions of the resolution are adopted by the Senate and President Obama signs the final resolution, be forbidden to regulate greenhouse gases.

A 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision required EPA to determine whether carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas emitted to the atmosphere by motor vehicles, factories, and power plants, is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. If so, that law mandates that EPA limit its emissions.

Last year EPA issued a regulation that would cap CO2 emissions by the largest industrial sources.

The budget resolution would also deprive the agency of more than $8 million currently available to fund its greenhouse gas registry. That cut would be in addition to another $5 million reduction for this year already proposed by the majority party in the House of Representatives.

The registry does not force emitters of carbon dioxide, methane, and other industrial greenhouse gases to limit those emissions. Originally created by rule in October 2009, it requires emitters to report to EPA the amount of greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere above a specified threshold.

EPA would also be barred from spending money to grant waivers of requirements relating to the ethanol content of gasoline and be forbidden to spend money needed to revoke a Clean Water Act permit.

Other adopted amendments to the budget resolution would forbid any EPA efforts to regulate fossil fuel combustion waste, prevent the expenditure of money needed to modify the national ambient air quality standard applicable to course particulates, enforce a Clean Air Act regulation that limits cement plant emissions, and develop or implement surface mining and reclamation guidelines.

In addition, EPA would not be permitted to spend money to implement revised water quality standards in Florida and the agency's Environmental Appeals Board would be barred from spending money to decide whether air pollution permits have been properly granted to companies seeking to drill for oil off Alaska's Arctic coast.

Other agencies with environment-related missions are not spared, but the budget hits they would take are significant less than those aimed at EPA.

The Bureau of Reclamation would lose $1.9 million in funding for water and related programs, the Bureau of Land Management would lose $2 million in funds, and the Forest Service would be prohibited from spending money to implement the Travel Management Rule, which limits the use of roads and trails in the National Forest system by off-road vehicles.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation would not be able to spend money to implement any of its regulations, while the National Atmospheric & Oceanic Administration would be prohibited from spending money to create a Climate Service, as it announced it would in Feb. 2010.

The proposed Climate Service would consolidate NOAA functions related to acquisition of climate data and reporting of that information. The administrative organization would not require the expenditure of any more money on those functions than the agency already spends, according to an information sheet published by NOAA.

NOAA would also lose the ability to regulate fish harvests in four management zones along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

The recently announced agreement to remove several dams on the Klamath River in Oregon would be, at minimum, delayed by the budget resolution.

An amendment adopted during the marathon debate Friday night and early Saturday morning would forbid expenditure of any money needed to study the effects of removing Iron Gate Dam, John C. Boyle Dam, and the Copco No. 1 and No. 2 dams.

That study, which the U.S. government agreed to undertake as part of a settlement of a complex dispute over re-licensing the dams, is to assess the costs and benefits of removal. It is to be completed by Mar. 31, 2012.

If Congress and the voters of California approve removal of one or more of the Klamath River dams, they could be breached by 2020 under the historic 2010 agreements.

Ongoing efforts to clean up the heavily-polluted Chesapeake Bay would also be affected. Another adopted amendment deprives that program of most of its appropriation for this year.

The Obama administration had sought more than $400 million to fund that effort this year. Obama had ordered inter-agency cooperation in the effort in 2009.

Congress' in-house environmental programs would suffer a fiscal blow, as the "Green the Capitol" program would lose $1.5 million, and the White House would not be able to pay a senior advisor focused on climate change and energy.

Even the United Nations would suffer financial losses. The resolution would forbid the U.S. government to expend dollars in support of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The funding resolution proposes to cut more than $60 billion in federal spending this year. It does not attempt to significantly lower spending on entitlement programs or national defense, which are the principal contributors to federal spending.

The federal government's budget deficit for this fiscal year is anticipated to be about $1.6 trillion.

Congress must pass, and President Obama must sign, a funding resolution on or before March 4 if ongoing government operations in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, are to continue.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Feds say there are more Mexican wolves in Ariz., N. Mex.

The population of Mexican wolf in Arizona and New Mexico is rising, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

There were, at the end of 2010, 50 of the animals in the two states. That's up from 42 at the end of 2009.

Fourteen individuals are pups. At the end of 2009 there were seven wild pups in the region.

The total number of individual Mexican wolves reported by the annual survey is considered a minimum estimate of the population.

It is possible that other individuals that are not collared are roaming the region and were not counted during the fixed-wing aircraft- and helicopter-based census, which relies on telemetry data and actual sightings.

"We are moving forward with our recovery planning effort -- and our strategically planned releases this year -- and staying focused on our goal of having a genetically-viable and sustainable population of wild Mexican wolves in the Southwest," Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Region director Benjamin Tuggle said in a statement.

Despite the increase in the census of Mexican wolves since the end of 2009, the agency remains far short of the original recovery goal established when the 13 members of the species were re-introduced to the wild in 1998.

At that time the Fish and Wildlife Service said it would achieve a population of 100 individuals, including 18 breeding pairs, by now.

The latest count is also a decline from the population at the end of 2006. At that time there were at least 59 individuals in the region.

Federal wildlife managers also announced that a breeding pair of Mexican wolves has been released into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area that stretches across the Arizona-New Mexico border.

It is the first release of individuals into the wild since 2008.

Canis lupus baileyi, the smallest gray wolf subspecies on the continent, has been listed as an endangered species since 1976.

The animal was extirpated in the wild by the 1950s. Native to the Sonoran and Chihuahan deserts, it was re-introduced into Arizona in March 1998.

Mexican wolves are bred at 47 facilities around the country. About 340 individuals are known to be alive, both in captivity and in the wild.

A bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives would prevent the Mexican wolf, as well as other Gray wolves, from continuing to receive the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

The Fish and Wildlife Service terminated in 2009 a policy that had led to the removal from the wild of any Mexican wolf involved in the killing of three livestock animals.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Natural Resources Today nominated as one of Lexis-Nexis "Top 50" blogs

Natural Resources Today is getting some recognition!

This blog has been nominated as one of the Lexis/Nexis Top 50 Blogs in its Environmental Law and Climate Change Community. There are some truly outstanding competitors on that list of nominees, too, and we congratulate all of them.

Your support for Natural Resources Today as one of the Lexis/Nexis Top 50 in the field would be most appreciated. Please visit this site and post a comment by Feb. 14. Later, Lexis/Nexis will put the nominees up for a vote.

Thank you for reading, for your suggestions and ideas, and for supporting us!