From the Hill


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Climate change debate remains deadlocked

Climate change debate remains deadlocked

Although the House passed a climate change bill in 2009, the Senate remains deadlocked, an outcome that effectively took the steam out of the international climate change talks that were scheduled for Copenhagen December 7 to 18.

The Copenhagen talks were aimed at forging a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. But even before the talks began, it was announced that only an interim agreement would be sought in 2009, with negotiations for a new treaty to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are causing climate change delayed until 2010.

At a November 4 hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, Todd Stern, the special envoy for climate change at the State Department, said that U.S. expectations for Copenhagen included a restatement of the need to act and an agreement on language for mitigation assistance, forest protection, and adaptation. Stern said that any meaningful international agreement would require that developing countries reduce emissions below business-as-usual levels. Vulnerable countries should receive financial and technological assistance to meet these goals, he said.

Limits on emissions and foreign aid to achieve these cuts in developing countries, particularly those with sizable emissions such as China and India, have been key points of contention in the negotiations. In recent bilateral meetings, the United States appears to be making progress with China. The two countries recently established several partnerships on clean energy, and both countries have announced carbon emissions reduction goals. Stern was optimistic in the hearing, noting that countries such as China will probably do more on their own to reduce emissions than they are willing to agree to in an international treaty.

Meanwhile, the Senate has begun to advance climate legislation, though much work remains. After a week of hearings with more than 50 witnesses that covered R&D needs, green jobs, nuclear and renewable energy, national security, and economics, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Democrats reported out the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (S. 1733) on November 5. The bill aims to reduce GHG emissions through a cap-and-trade program. The bill was approved 10 to 1, with one Democrat, Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), voting no. The Republicans refused to participate.

Five other committees have jurisdiction over climate change legislation, and several have begun to hold hearings. On November 10, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing examining the impact of climate change legislation on U.S. jobs. Committee Chair Baucus said he was committed to passing “meaningful, balanced climate change legislation,” but that Congress must “work to minimize any job losses.” As a result, he said that any climate bill would have to include a border tax adjustment to protect U.S. manufacturing from unfair competition from abroad.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), lead sponsor of S. 1733, announced bipartisan negotiations led by himself and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) to develop a compromise bill. The bill could include text from the Clean Energy Act of 2009, introduced by Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) to increase nuclear power production, carbon capture and storage, solar power, nuclear waste recycling, and green buildings.

Fiscal year 2010 budget work continues

As is usually the case, Congress once again failed to complete its budget work by the beginning of the new fiscal year on October 1, although the bills that have been passed and signed by the president generally reflect continuing good times for R&D spending. However, President Obama expressed concern about the budgets for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), pointing out that they were a total of more than $200 million below his request.

The Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies appropriation bill, signed into law on October 16, provides significant increases for R&D spending in various U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs, including $1.3 billion for the Agricultural Research Service, up 6.3% over fiscal year (FY) 2009, and $808 million for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), a 12.2% increase. The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, which is part of NIFA, would receive a $61 million or 30.3% increase.

The president signed both the Homeland Security and Energy and Water Development appropriations bills into law on October 28. Science and technology (S&T) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will receive $1 billion, up $74 million from last year. The Energy and Water bill provides $4.9 billion for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, an increase of 2.7% ($131 million) over FY 2009 levels.

The Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies bill, signed by the president on October 30, provides $1.1 billion for the U.S. Geological Survey, which is $68 million or 6.5% more than in FY 2009 and $14 million or 1.3% more than the president’s request. The Science and Technology program in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will receive $846 million, which is $56 million (7.1%) more than in FY 2009 and $4 million (0.5%) more than the president’s request.

Three appropriation bills—Defense; Commerce and Justice, Science and Related Agencies; and Transportation, all with significant R&D components— have been passed by the House and Senate and are waiting to be discussed in conference committee.

On November 5, the Senate passed its version of the Commerce and Justice, Science, and Related Agencies bill. The bill includes $11.2 billion for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which is $611 million more than the House approved; $5.2 billion for NSF, which is $14 million less than the House; $700 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is $22 million more than the House; and $672 million for NIST, which is $96 million more than the House.

The Senate passed its version of the Defense appropriations bill on October 6. The Senate version would provide less than the House for research, development, test, and evaluation programs ($78.5 billion instead of $80.2 billion). The biggest differences between the two bills are in the appropriation for the Navy, with the House approving $20.2 billion, $1 billion more than the Senate. The Navy programs of greatest contention are the VH-71A Executive Helicopter (House: $485 million; Senate: $30 million) and the Joint Strike Fighter (House: $2 billion; Senate: $1.7 billion), which involves disagreement about the development of an alternative engine for the aircraft.

In the Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies appropriation bill, the Department of Transportation would receive $100.1 billion, $1.3 billion less than the House version of the bill and $2.2 billion less than the president’s request.

Health care bills advance with S&T provisions

The massive health care reform bills being debated in Congress include some lesser-known proposals of interest to the S&T community. Specifically, the bills contain provisions on comparative effectiveness research, generic biologic drugs, and financial conflicts of interest between doctors and drug makers.

The House-passed bill would establish a Center for Comparative Effectiveness Research within the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to conduct, support, and synthesize research that compares medical interventions. The center would be funded through a trust fund run through the Treasury Department. The proposed Senate bill would create a nonprofit corporation called the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute to handle comparative effectiveness research. It would also be funded by a Treasury trust fund.

Both bills address generic biologic drugs, creating a regulatory pathway that allows a 12-year period of data exclusivity for developers of a drug. Data exclusivity, which is separate from patent protection, is the protection of clinical test data that is provided to the Food and Drug Administration during the approval process. The decision to use a 12-year time frame is a victory for the biotech industry and runs contrary to the preferences of the administration and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA), who sought a seven- and five-year period, respectively.

Both bills include provisions to require drug and device makers to disclose gifts to physicians. These provisions are borrowed from a bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) called the Physician Payments Sunshine Act. Grassley has shown a strong interest in policing conflicts of interest among researchers and medical professionals. Most recently, he has questioned the practice of ghostwriting in medical journals, in which medical writers, often sponsored by biotech companies, write an article that bears a scientist’s name.

New tuna quotas called insufficient

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), a body of 48 nations, has decided to decrease the annual catch quota for Atlantic bluefin tuna, a decision that environmental groups and the Obama administration said was insufficient to stem the continuing declines in tuna stocks, which have dwindled to an estimated 18% of preindustrial levels.

ICCAT said the quota would be reduced from 19,950 tons to 13,500 tons, a level it claimed was consistent with recommendations from its scientific advisory committee. Atlantic bluefin have been declining because of illegal overfishing, accidental bycatch, pollution, habitat destruction, and probably global warming.

Environmental groups wanted a zero catch limit, whereas the United States sought a quota of about 8,000 tons, a target supported by its scientific advisers. According to a statement released by NOAA, “The ICCAT agreement on eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna is a marked improvement over the current rules, but it is insufficient to guarantee the long-term viability of either the fish or the fishery.” If stocks continue to decline, NOAA supports “the commitment to set future catch levels in line with scientific advice, shorten the fishing season, reduce capacity, and close the fishery.”

The United States and other countries have announced their support for including the Atlantic bluefin tuna in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES, but some Mediterranean countries and Japan oppose the move. In addition, because CITES has an opt-out clause, simply listing a species under it does not guarantee the species’ survival.

Major players in the bluefin market include the European Union, Japan, Canada, the United States, North Africa, and Mexico. With the exception of Canada, most countries do not reach quota levels because of the scarcity of the fish. In Japan, which consumes up to a quarter of bluefin, one tuna can fetch a price of more than $100,000.

In order to continue to feed the world’s bluefin appetite, some companies have begun to explore “ranching,” which entails trapping young tuna and keeping them until they are grown and ready for market. Although some have said this has reduced overfishing, others claim this practice hurts the bluefin population by preventing spawning.

At the meeting, ICCAT also adopted measures to protect threatened shark species and swordfish.

Congress examines geoengineering of climate system

On November 5, the House Science and Technology Committee held the first congressional hearing on geoengineering, the deliberate large-scale modification of Earth’s climate systems to counteract climate change. Committee Chair Bart Gordon (D-TN) explained that his decision to hold this hearing “should not in any way be misconstrued as an endorsement of any geoengineering activity.” Instead, he said, “Geoengineering carries with it a tremendous range of uncertainties, ethical and political concerns, and the potential for catastrophic environmental side effects. But we are faced with the stark reality that the climate is changing, and the onset of impacts may outpace the world’s political and economic ability to avoid them.”

Gordon said that the hearing will be the first part of a joint effort to examine issues surrounding geoengineering by the House and the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. The two bodies will hold parallel hearings, and the chairman of the Commons committee will testify before the Science and Technology Committee in a spring 2010 hearing on domestic and international governance issues surrounding geoengineering.

Ken Caldeira, senior scientist with the Carnegie Institution of Washington, outlined two main categories of geoengineering activities. The first, solar radiation management, would add tiny particles to the stratosphere to reflect the Sun’s rays back to space. This technique is intended to mimic the cooling that occurs after volcanic eruptions. Caldeira said this technique is not perfect and introduces many new risks, but “could address most climate changes in most places most of the time.” The second type of geoengineering activity is removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, either by storing it in the ground or using techniques to remove it from the atmosphere. With some exceptions, Caldeira noted, carbon removal techniques are unlikely to carry significant risk, but cost is likely to be primary constraint. Caldeira called for more R&D in both of these areas, a recommendation echoed by Lee Lane of the American Enterprise Institute.

University of Southampton Professor John Shepherd testified on a report he chaired, Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty. Released in September by the UK Royal Society, the report concluded that geoengineering techniques to reverse the effects of climate change are probably technically feasible, but that it is necessary to study major uncertainties about the effectiveness, costs, and environmental effects that may occur. The report calls for mitigation and adaptation but notes that “geoengineering methods could . . . potentially be useful to augment continuing efforts to mitigate climate change.” Shepherd’s testimony emphasized that geoengineering is not a magic bullet and that cutting GHG emissions must be the highest priority in addressing climate change.

Alan Robock, a professor at Rutgers University, agreed that global warming is a problem and reducing emissions should be the primary response. He concluded that “Geoengineering should only be used in the event of a planetary emergency and only for a limited time, not a solution to global warming.”

Senate committee passes biosecurity bill

On November 4, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention and Preparedness Act, aimed at improving the security and safety of research on select agents conducted in high-containment laboratories.

The WMD bill, introduced by Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Ranking Member Susan Collins (RME), would require the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the USDA to create a new kind of designation for select agents and pathogens that pose the greatest threat of a biological attack. It would also require that new personnel reliability measures be implemented at institutions that conduct research on high-risk pathogens.

The bill responds to recommendations issued by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism in its report A World at Risk. Hearings have been held in both the House and Senate during the past year, but only the Senate has introduced and passed a measure to address some of the report’s recommendations. The WMD Commission recommended that the regulation of registered and unregistered high-containment laboratories (called BSL 3 and BSL 4) be consolidated under one agency, preferably DHS or HHS.

The legislation, however, does not follow that recommendation precisely and works to create a tiered system for listing select agents based on the level of risks to national security and public health. Thus, the Lieberman/Collins bill would require HHS and the USDA to create a “Tier 1” designation for select agents and pathogens that pose the greatest threat. The new level would be based on intelligence and risk assessment analysis conducted by DHS and the intelligence community.

The bill also requires that DHS establish new biosecurity standards for laboratories that conduct research on these Tier 1 pathogens and would use a negotiated rulemaking process to allow consultation with the scientific research community before finalizing the standards. The standards are to address personnel reliability and background checks, education programs and staff training, and the conduct of risk assessments. Furthermore, DHS, in partnership with HHS and the USDA, would inspect the Tier 1 laboratories to ensure that they are in compliance with the new standards.

Although research on select agents is already conducted in high-containment laboratories, a central concern of the WMD commission centered on unregistered research facilities in the private sector. These labs have the necessary tools to handle anthrax, for example, or to synthetically engineer a more dangerous version of an agent, but whether they have implemented appropriate security measures is unknown. To the commission, this represents a serious lack of oversight that needs to be addressed and was an issue highlighted at a recent hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Gregory Kutz of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that a GAO assessment “found significant differences in perimeter security” at five of the nation’s BLS 4 labs. However, he emphasized that two of the five BSL 4 labs that lacked sufficient basic security controls, such as cameras, in a similar assessment done in 2008, have made progress in addressing the security gaps.

To address the issue of private-sector laboratories, the Lieberman/Collins bill would require HHS to create and maintain a database of laboratories and facilities that conduct research that could pose a health and safety threat to the public or to animals and agriculture, but do not necessarily pose an imminent security threat. The criteria for defining which laboratories are required to register would be established by HHS in cooperation with DHS and the USDA.

Finally, the legislation would also authorize DHS to award grants for improving laboratory security at Tier 1 facilities and outlines a detailed response and countermeasure strategy in the event of a biological attack.

At the final markup session, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) was the lone dissenting vote, arguing that it was premature to pursue a legislative approach to securing laboratory safety because of a pending executive branch interagency report on the subject.

Odds and ends

  • The Science and Technology Committee unanimously approved H.R. 4061, the Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2009, on November 18. The bill expands NSF scholarships to increase the size and skills of the cybersecurity workforce and increases R&D, standards development, coordination, and public outreach at NIST related to cybersecurity.
  • The House approved H.R. 3585, the Solar Technology Roadmap Act, on October 22. Sponsored by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), the bill would establish a Solar Technology Roadmap Committee to advise the Secretary of Energy and set research, development, and demonstration objectives. The bill would authorize $350 million for fiscal year 2011, ramping up to $550 million in 2015.
  • The White House announced a series of partnerships involving leading companies, foundations, teachers, and scientists and engineers to motivate students to excel in science and math. The “Educate to Innovate” campaign has received an initial commitment of more than $260 million from private-sector partners.
  • The Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee heard testimony on H.R. 3650, the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2009 and reported it favorably to the full committee. The bill is designed to focus research funding on the mitigation and prevention of harmful algal blooms, which affect the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and marine coastlines. These toxic algae, a variety of which exist in fresh and salt water, present risks to human health by affecting drinking water, marine food sources, and recreation. Witnesses at the hearing said the main cause of algal blooms was excess nutrients in water bodies, most commonly nitrogen and phosphorus from agriculture and urban runoff.
  • The EPA and the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, and Interior released seven draft reports outlining efforts to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States. Developed in response to a May 12 executive order, these reports will be integrated into a coordinated strategy designed to be finalized by May 12, 2010.
  • The House passed the Coral Reef Conservation Act Reauthorization and Enhancement Amendments of 2009 (H.R. 860), which promotes international cooperation to protect coral reefs and codifies the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. The bill would extend existing grants programs supporting coral reef monitoring and assessment, research, pollution reduction, education, and technical support.
  • On September 22, the EPA announced a final rule that requires companies to track and report their GHG emissions data. Fossil fuel and industrial GHG suppliers, motor vehicle and engine manufacturers, and facilities that emit 25,000 metric tons or more of carbon dioxide–equivalent per year will be required to report GHG emissions data. These sources cover approximately 85% of U.S. emissions.
  • Interior Department secretary Ken Salazar signed an order that establishes a framework to coordinate climate change science and resource management strategies across the department. The framework includes a new Climate Change Response Council, eight regional Climate Change Response Centers, and a network of Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.

“From the Hill” is prepared by the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org/spp) in Washington, D.C., and is based on articles from the center’s bulletin Science & Technology in Congress.

Cite this Article

"From the Hill." Issues in Science and Technology 26, no. 2 (Winter 2010).

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