Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Salazar to leave Interior post

Interior secretary Ken Salazar will soon go home to Colorado.

The former U.S. senator, 57, who has served at the helm of the nation's natural resources watchdog since the Obama administration began, said Wednesday that he would leave his job at the end of March.

“I have had the privilege of reforming the Department of the Interior to help lead the United States in securing a new energy frontier, ushering in a conservation agenda for the 21st century, and honoring our word to the nation’s first Americans,” Salazar said in a statement.

Among his accomplishments are the authorization of the first renewable energy projects on public land. During Salazar's tenure the Department of Interior has given the go-ahead to 34 geothermal, solar, and wind generation facilities to be built on government real estate.

Salazar also revamped the department's organizational structure for managing offshore oil and gas leasing by separating its royalty-collection function from its regulatory function. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement are now autonomous units within the department, having replaced the Minerals Management Service.

Salazar also settled a multi-billion dollar lawsuit from native American tribes that alleged mis-management of trust fund and oversaw the establishment of seven national parks and 10 national wildlife refuges.

Critics attacked Salazar during and after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, arguing that the secretary's advocacy of a drilling moratorium and strong rhetoric aimed at BP and other entities involved in the operation of the Deepwater Horizon rig indicated a hostility to oil extraction.

In 2012 domestic oil production reached its highest level since 2003, and although overall fossil fuel extraction from federal public lands has been on a recent declining trend, Salazar has overseen a significant increase relative to a similar period during the George W. Bush administration.

Other noteworthy achievements during Salazar's tenure include an overhaul of the government's system for leasing native American lands and an agreement with Mexico on dividing up Colorado River flows.

Environmental groups generally lauded Salazar in the aftermath of his announcement. The Sierra Club, for example, praised him.

"Thanks to Secretary Salazar, more national parks and wildlife refuges are open, more of America's pristine Arctic is off-limits to dangerous drilling, and more public lands are in public hands," executive director Michael Brune said. "He also led the overhaul of safety standards for drilling in the wake of the BP oil disaster and stood up to defend American wilderness by protecting Drakes Estero national seashore."

Francis Beinecke, the president of Natural Resources Defense Council, was more cautious in her acclaim.

"He's laid a sound foundation for solar power on federal lands, while protecting special areas where development doesn't make sense," she said. "He moved quickly to improve public oversight of offshore drilling in the wake of the BP oil disaster. And he’s worked to end the global bazaar in polar bears, where his continued leadership will be vital in the waning months of his tenure."

But, Beinecke added, Salazar's successor "must clear out the unconscionable backlog that keeps endangered wildlife from getting the protection they need" and "do more to protect our waters, ranches, communities and farms from the ravages of gas and oil production."

"[T]hey must learn from Shell's disastrous performance in recent months that we cannot expose Arctic waters to the perils of offshore drilling,” Beinecke added.

Beinecke was referring to the recent incident involving a run-away oil rig that ran aground in Alaska.

Before becoming the nation's 50th secretary of the interior Salazar served four years in the Senate and six years as Colorado's attorney general.

Interior secretary Ken Salazar has told the White House he will leave the president's cabinet in March. 

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Interior.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Alaska federal court throws out polar bear critical habitat rule

A federal judge in Alaska has rejected a regulation that designated critical habitat for the polar bear.

According to a Jan. 11 article by Associated Press reporter Becky Bohrer:
U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline, in a written order dated Thursday, said the designation was too extensive and presented "a disconnect between the twin goals of protecting a cherished resource and allowing for growth and much needed economic development." He sent the matter back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to correct "substantive and procedural deficiencies."

Read more here:
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service set aside critical habitat for the polar bear in December 2010. The amount of critical habitat - about 187,000 square miles - is larger than California. However, that is only a small portion of Alaska, which encompasses more than 586,000 square miles.

Critical habitat is designated pursuant to section 4 of the Endangered Species Act. It is limited to areas that are occupied by a species when it is designated as threatened or endangered and that contains "physical or biological features essential to conservation" of the species which require special protection or areas outside the area occupied by the species at the time of listing that are "essential for conservation."

A critical habitat designation has no impact on purely private economic activities. Instead, it is relevant only when an activity that might affect a listed species or its habitat occurs on federal property or involves in some way the expenditure of funds from the U.S. treasury.

Ursus maritimus was added to the list of threatened and endangered species in May 2008. Polar bears are threatened because their seasonal ice floe habitat is disappearing as Earth's climate warms.

Photo of polar bear courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, photo by Terry Debruhn.

Read more here:

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Enviros to Obama: Kill Keystone XL pipeline

Dozens of environmental organizations urged President Barack Obama Monday to permanently terminate any prospect of the Keystone XL pipeline being built, warning that the project would deepen the nation's climate-changing commitment to fossil fuels.

The request came in a short letter signed by representatives of 70 organizations.

"Reject dirty fuels," the groups argued. "We should not pursue dirty fuels like tar sands  when climate science tells us that 80 percent of existing fossil fuel reserves need to be kept in the ground. More specifically, the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not in our national interest because it would unlock vast amounts of additional carbon that we can’t afford to burn, extend our dangerous addiction to fossil fuels, endanger health and safety, and put critical water resources at risk."

The U.S. Department of State is expected to decide soon whether to grant the authorization necessary for construction of the pipeline's northern section, which crosses the U.S.-Canada border, to begin.

The pipeline would allow transport of synthetic crude oil extracted from oil sands in Alberta to refineries in the midwest and along the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Obama previously rejected the pipeline in Jan. 2012 on grounds that it might have an adverse impact on the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region of Nebraska. However, the state's Department of Environmental Quality issued a report last week that is skeptical of arguments that significant adverse environmental impact would occur if the pipeline is built.

The report acknowledges that the pipeline's route would traverse the Ogallala aquifer, but asserts that any harm to the groundwater contained in the aquifer would be of limited geographic reach.

The developer of the pipeline now proposes to avoid the Sand Hills region altogether.

The report will not be finalized until it is reviewed by the state's Republican governor, Dave Heineman.

Oil removed from the the Bakken formation in eastern Montana and western North Dakota could also be carried by the Keystone XL pipeline.

NOTE: This story also appears at

Montana judge ends wolverine trapping

A judge entered an order Monday that effectively ended any possibility of wolverine trapping occurring in Montana this year.

Broadwater and Lewis & Clark County district judge Jeffrey Sherlock extended a temporary restraining order entered last month after the parties asked that a Jan. 10 hearing to decide whether to grant a preliminary injunction be rescheduled.

He set the expiration of the temporary restraining order after the end of the proposed trapping season on Feb. 15.

"Basically, the injunction is in effect and we're going to report back to the judge on March 1 whether we still need it," Matt Bishop, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, said.

By then, the fate of next year's trapping season may be known. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is scheduled to decide by Jan. 18 whether to add the wolverine to the list of endangered and threatened species.

"We're going to have to wait to see what the feds do," Bishop explained. "If they decide to list the wolverine, trapping won't be allowed in Montana."

According to a Dec. 19, 2012 report in Greenwire, the Obama administration is expected to propose Endangered Species Act protection for Gulo gulo luscus before the mid-January deadline.

The animal was designated a candidate for inclusion on the list of threatened and endangered species in  2010.

Montana is the only one of the lower 48 states to allow trapping of wolverines. The state had proposed to allow five of the rare and elusive animals to be killed that way during a season that it planned to start last Dec. 1.

The environmental group plaintiffs in the Montana anti-trapping case include Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan, Montana Ecosystem Defense Council, Native Ecosystems Council, Swan View Coalition, WildEarth Guardians, and Footloose Montana.

Photo of wolverine (Gulo gulo luscus) courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, photo by Steve Kroschel.

NOAA: 2012 was hottest year in U.S. history

The last year was a hot one.

The hottest on record, in fact, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and that's not all. The year 2012 was also characterized by weather significantly more extreme than usual.

In a report published today, NOAA said that the average temperature across the nation was 55.3 degrees Fahrenheit, a full degree higher than the previous record year of 1998 and 3.2 degrees above the 20th century average.

Spring was the biggest driver of the year's heat, with temperatures during that season setting a record. The summer was the second-hottest on record, the winter was fourth-warmest in known history, and the fall was warmer than average.

It was so hot in the United States last year that every state in the contiguous part of the nation set a temperature record. Moreover, 19 states had a year that set a warmth record.

All that heat took a toll on snow, too. The nation experienced its third-smallest snowpack ever, while the central and southern Rocky Mountain region received less than half of its historic average snowfall.

As for total precipitation, there was less than usual. The year was the 15th driest on record for the United States as the country received, on average, 26.57 inches through the course of 2012. It was the driest year since 1988.

The weather was crazy in 2012, too. NOAA also announced that there were 19 named tropical storms in the north Atlantic during the year, which included ten hurricanes. That made 2012 the third-most active year for tropical storms in history.

Landlubbers fared little better. By July, fully 61 percent of the nation was in drought condition and more than 9 million acres burned.

Tornadoes, however, were less frequent than average during the past year, with the number the lowest since 2002.

The report is here.

Graphic of selected climate extremes courtesy NOAA.

Graphic of significant U.S. weather and climate events courtesy NOAA.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

First environmental bill of new Congress would re-authorize elephant, tiger conservation laws

The first environmental law-related bill of the 113th Congress would re-authorize three laws that aim to conserve iconic wildlife native to other continents.

H.R. 39, which was introduced Thursday by veteran U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, would renew the African Elephant Conservation Act of 1989, the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act of 1994, and the Asian Elephant Conservation Act of 1997.

Young said that he is asking for re-authorization of the three laws because they provide benefits beyond conservation of the iconic species that are their subjects.

"In addition to preserving the local species, by working with local communities, the conservation programs improve people's livelihoods, contribute to local and regional stability, and support U.S. security interests in impoverished regions," Young explained in a statement provided by Michael Anderson, his press secretary.

The African Elephant Conservation Act aims to shut down international trade in ivory. To that end, AfECA gave the President authority to block imports of ivory from nations that do not establish and maintain a program to preserve African elephants (Loxodonta africana). President George H.W. Bush, by executive order, blocked imports of ivory from African elephants in June 1989.

AfECA also permits Washington to help finance elephant conservation programs in Africa. In 2011, Congress appropriated $1,774,465 for this purpose. That money was matched by more than $3.6 million in additional contributions from other donors and was put to work in 14 countries.

AfECA is aimed at maintaining a slow but steady rate of growth in African elephant populations that seems to have occurred between the 1930s and about 2006. 

The law must, however, contend with varying rates of elephant losses throughout its range. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the animal's numbers are on the decline in central and west Africa.

One recent scientific paper estimated that the number of African elephants in that region of the continent has declined by 50 percent during the last four decades. 

A leading cause of that trend is the drive to exploit elephant tusks to finance military operations in some African nations. The money comes mostly from China, which maintains a persistent demand for ivory.

The situation in Asia is the result of much different factors. Asian elephants compete with humans for space and must contend, in many areas of their range, with deforestation. 

Asian elephants are also killed with some frequency by humans with whom they come in contact. The killings are related to the frequently unfortunate consequences to humans of being proximate to Asian elephants.

One recent report calculated that more than 400 people are killed by elephants each year, while another estimated that the animals cause economic losses, mostly due to crop destruction, on the order of $2 to 3 million per year.

The Asian Elephant Conservation Act established a fund through which nations that have ratified the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species cooperatively finance habitat protection efforts for Elephas maximus.

Congress appropriated more than $1.5 million to the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund in 2011, which was matched by about $2.4 million from other sources.

The Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act works in essentially the same manner. The law aims to shut down commerce in rhinoceros horns and tiger body parts. A 1998 amendment to RTCA forbids any sale, import, or export of any product that contains any part of a rhinoceros or tiger, or which is labeled or advertised as including such body parts, if the product is intended for any type of human consumption.

RTCA applies to all five rhinoceros species and all five remaining tiger subspecies.

Both animals are in rapid decline.

According to a website maintained by the Wildlife Conservation Society, tigers occupy only about six percent of the available habitat on their native continent of Asia.

Meanwhile, the world's population of rhinos has dropped by 90 percent since 1970.

As with AfECA and AECA, RTCA established a fund through which Washington has supported international efforts to preserve increasingly scarce rhinoceroses and tigers. In 2011 Congress appropriated more than $2.6 million to the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund, an amount matched by more than $4 million in other contributions.

"All together, these three funds have financed 1,202 conservation projects to assist two species of elephants, five species of rhinoceros and six species of tigers over the past twenty-three years," Young said. "These funds have been the only continuous source of money for international conservation efforts, and conservationists across the globe believe that without these projects the African elephant, rhinoceros, tigers and the Asian elephant would disappear forever."

The bill must first be considered by the House Natural Resources Committee before any floor debate on it is possible.

Congress previously enacted, and President George W. Bush signed, legislation re-authorizing AfECA and RTCA in 2007. That re-authorization expired at the end of September.

AECA was last re-authorized in 2002. The period of that re-authorization expired in 2007.

Young's bill to secure re-authorization of all three laws during the 112th Congress did not get out of committee.

"I am committed to working with my colleagues on the House Natural Resources Committee to ensure that these bills are reauthorized,” Young said.

Photo of African elephants courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, photo by Andrea Turkalo.

Photo of Asian elephants courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, photo by Jennifer Pastorini.

Photo of rhinoceros courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, photo by Karl Stromayer.

Photo of Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) courtesy Wikimedia.

Three new Republicans on Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee

The Senate's GOP minority has replaced three of its representatives on the Energy & Natural Resources Committee and two of the new members are freshman.

Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Tim Scott of South Carolina, along with veteran lawmaker Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, replace Sens. Dan Coats, R-Ind., Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Schatz replaces Hirono on Energy & Natural Resources Committee

The Hawaii lawmaker on the U.S. Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee has been switched.

Sen. Brian Schatz, who was appointed to fill the seat left vacant when long-serving Sen. Daniel Inouye died last month, will replace fellow senator Mazie Hirono.

Hirono was sworn in as a member of the Senate Thursday.