Big Trouble on Climate Change: President Obama and the Loss of Momentum

by Rena Steinzor | June 12, 2009

This past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a terrific piece by Matt Bai on the Obama White House and how it is “taking” Capitol Hill, one battle at a time. After extolling the team of congressional insiders Obama has assembled, and emphasizing the importance of their attentiveness to key players on the issue du jour -- health care reform -- Bai predicts that Obama will be compelled to wade up to his neck in the messy details of the legislation because only his personal power will be enough to guide this behemoth through. This prediction, which has already begun to come true -- note the stories last week saying he’d be willing to consider taxing benefits -- could spell disaster for a different issue: climate change legislation.

Allow me to pause for just a moment, in fairness to the Obama team, to lament congressional gridlock, which has yet to be resolved by the Democratic leadership, especially in the Senate. Because Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is unwilling to play even the mildest hardball with his recalcitrant Republican opposition on even the smallest issue (see, e.g., closing Guantanamo), the “wisdom” has taken hold there that everything declared controversial by the minority will have its content decided by whoever holds the 60th available vote -- or put another way, the 41st least oppositional senator. Not only is Reid unwilling to allow actual talk-all-night filibusters to proceed on issues that would ...

IRIS Update: New CPR Report and a House Science Committee Hearing

by Matt Shudtz | June 11, 2009
This afternoon, Congressman Brad Miller (D-NC), Chairman of the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, will hold a hearing on recent revisions to the IRIS assessment process. IRIS (the Integrated Risk Information System) is EPA’s premier database of toxicological profiles for dangerous chemicals. The profiles are used for everything from setting cleanup standards at Superfund sites to determining liability in toxic tort suits. The problem is, IRIS only contains profiles for 548 chemicals. On average, 700 new chemicals ...

Executive Branch Agreement on Mountaintop Removal: A Positive Step, but Only a Step

by Holly Doremus | June 11, 2009
Over the past few months, the Obama Administration has sent mixed signals on mountaintop mining, the practice of blowing the tops off mountains containing coal and piling the left-over rubble in valleys and streambeds. Early on, things seemed to be going well for the environment. First, EPA objected to the issuance of two specific permits for mountaintop removal under Clean Water Act section 404, and announced that it would review hundreds of others. Then the Department of Interior asked a ...

11th Circuit Stirs the NPDES Pot

by Holly Doremus | June 10, 2009
Cross-posted by permission from Legal Planet. In a decision that shows the power of Chevron deference, Friends of the Everglades v. South Florida Water Management District, the 11th Circuit has upheld EPA’s water transfers rule, which provides that the act of moving water from one waterway to another does not require a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit under the Clean Water Act. The question of whether water transfers are subject to CWA permitting has been litigated several places, but ...

The Misleading Economic Criticism of Waxman-Markey

by Daniel Farber | June 09, 2009
The first line of defense against climate regulation was that climate change didn’t exist. The next line of defense was that maybe it was real, but it wasn’t caused by humans. Now we’re up to the third line of defense: it does exist and it is caused by humans, but it’s too expensive to fix. For example, the Heritage Foundation estimates that Waxman-Markey would cost society a whopping seven trillion dollars by 2035. These estimates fail to ask a critical ...

The Trials and Tribulations of Obama's Open Government Initiative

by James Goodwin | June 08, 2009
When President Obama launched his open government initiative on his first full day on the job, few assumed that the ambitious endeavor it contemplated would be easy.  After all, lack of transparency and even active efforts to conceal information had become almost an inextricable feature of the federal government’s internal operations and decision-making—especially during the George W. Bush Administration.  A recent series of developments confirms just how challenging the effort to achieve a more open government will be; fortunately, some ...

The "Bafflement" Standard: (Re)Interpreting the Clean Water Act

by Yee Huang | June 05, 2009
Last month, the Obama Administration urged Congress to resolve the uncertainty in the protection of the nation’s waters and wetlands under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  In a letter signed by the heads of several agencies, the Administration noted the confusion, delay, and even neglect in protecting the nation’s waters in the aftermath of two Supreme Court decisions: SWANCC and Rapanos.  Reports from the EPA and the EPA Inspector General have documented the impacts – 20 million acres of wetlands ...

FDA's Transparency Initiative: New Life in a Glass House?

by James Goodwin | June 04, 2009
In 2007, the FDA came under criticism for failing to inform the public about studies it had had for two years which indicated that users of the diabetes drug Avandia faced up to a 42% greater chance of suffering a heart attack.  More recently, it was revealed that Bush-era political appointees at the agency surreptitiously worked with chemical industry representatives to downplay evidence of the adverse health effects caused by bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical frequently used in making plastic toys and ...

FDA to Release New Decision on BPA Within "Weeks"

by Ben Somberg | June 04, 2009
On Tuesday, Representatives Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg asking the agency to re-examine its assessment that bisphenol A (BPA) does not pose health risks to consumers. The FDA responded that it was already planning on doing so, and that a new decision would be released within "weeks, not months" (AP, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel). ...

The BPA Backlash

by Ben Somberg | June 02, 2009
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported on Saturday, and the Washington Post on Sunday, about a meeting of industry groups in Washington last week to devise a plan to respond to criticisms of Bisphenol A (BPA). From the Post: Manufacturers of cans for beverages and foods and some of their biggest customers, including Coca-Cola, are trying to devise a public relations and lobbying strategy to block government bans of a controversial chemical used in the linings of metal cans and lids. The ...

Sharing the Catch

by Holly Doremus | May 28, 2009
Cross-posted by permission from Legal Planet. According to Science Insider (subscription required), NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has endorsed broader use of a “catch shares” approach to allocating the available catch in commercial fisheries. The shares strategy (also referred to as “individual transferable quotas” or “limited access privileges”) gives individual participants in the fishery a permanent and transferable right to a set proportion of the total allowable catch. In theory, assigning shares should contribute in several ways to a more sustainable ...

Fish Tales from West Virginia

by Catherine O'Neill | May 26, 2009
Here's some slippery regulatory logic: West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection says it is justified in setting less stringent levels for mercury in the state's waters than recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Why? Because, according to the WVDEP, a recent study shows that people in West Virginia eat less fish than the "average American" assumed by EPA. And if people consume less fish, they will be exposed to lower quantities of the toxic pollutants in those fish -- ...

Obama's Memo on Preemption -- Striking a Blow for Good Government

by Bill Funk | May 22, 2009
On Wednesday, by the stroke of a pen, President Obama reversed a major Bush administration policy, striking another blow for good government. For eight years the Bush administration sought to accomplish tort reform by stealth and indirection with several agencies proclaiming in preambles to regulations that the regulations preempted state tort law. These agencies included the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and most notably the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA's ...

FDA Political Interference with BPA Science

by Matt Shudtz | May 22, 2009
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel continued its impressive BPA reporting Sunday with disturbing revelations about former FDA political appointees’ utter disregard for the agency’s career scientists. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Journal-Sentinel uncovered e-mails showing that high-level officials went to industry lobbyists for advice about new research on bisphenol A (BPA) before asking FDA career staff. In one instance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's deputy director sought information from the BPA industry's chief lobbyist to discredit a Japanese study ...

Mountaintop mining update

by Holly Doremus | May 20, 2009
This item is cross-posted by permission from Legal Planet. In March, I wrote here about EPA’s newfound boldness on mountaintop removal mining. Under current regulations, the Corps of Engineers issues permits for that practice under Clean Water Act section 404, but EPA has the authority to veto those permits. EPA, which was entirely passive on the matter under the Bush administration, had sent objections to the Corps on a couple of permits, and announced that “it would take a close ...

On Offsets, New Waxman-Markey Bill is a Mixed Bag

by Victor Flatt | May 19, 2009
On Friday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee released its anticipated Beta version of its comprehensive GHG and energy bill. Among other goals, the new discussion draft attempts to address concerns from moderate and conservative Democrats concerning the proposed cap and trade system and how it would work. The most notable change involves the free allocation of allowances to certain economic sectors to assist in the transition to the new system, and this is the part that seems to most ...

COP-4: Beyond the Dirty Dozen

by Matt Shudtz | May 18, 2009
On May 9, at the conclusion of the Fourth Conference of the Parties (COP-4) to the Stockholm Convention, negotiators from around the world agreed to add nine chemicals to the list of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that are too dangerous for international trade. It was an important step toward protecting the world community from toxic exposures, but it unfortunately highlights our country's inability to take a leading role in international environmental law. How it works In 2001, representatives of nations ...

O'Neill Testifies on Mercury From Chlor-Alkali Plants

by Ben Somberg | May 15, 2009
On Tuesday, CPR Member Scholar Catherine O'Neill testified about mercury pollution from chlor-alkali plants at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection. At least one in ten women of childbearing age in the United States has blood levels of mercury that threaten the neurological health of her newborn babies. Chlor-alkali plants are a major source of mercury pollution (which we are exposed to primarily through eating fish), even though only four ...
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