From the Hill


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From the Hill

House approves bill to reform offshore oil drilling

After holding dozens of hearings on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and well rupture in the Gulf of Mexico, the House on July 30 passed a bill to reform offshore oil drilling and restore the Gulf Coast. A Senate bill did not make it to the floor but was expected to receive a vote after the August recess.

The House passed H.R. 3534, the Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources Act of 2009, by a vote of 209 to 193. The bill would remove the current monetary cap on the liability facing companies involved in offshore drilling accidents, impose new fees on oil production, strengthen off-shore oil drilling safety standards, and replace the Minerals Management Service (MMS) with three new agencies. The latter is consistent with action already taken by the Department of the Interior.

The bill would direct some revenue from offshore drilling to research and coastal planning efforts, and 10% of the revenues would go to an Ocean Resources Conservation and Assistance Fund, which would provide grants to coastal states and regional ocean partnerships for activities related to the protection, maintenance, and restoration of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems, including a competitive research and education grant program. The funds will also support the development and operation of an integrated ocean observation system.

The House bill contains provisions to better understand chemicals used to break up and disperse crude oil from the surface of water. The bill would institute a temporary moratorium on dispersant use until the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) develops regulations on their safe application. It would also require the release of information about the chemical ingredients of dispersants, which companies now keep secret for proprietary reasons.

On August 2, the EPA announced the results of a second round of testing on eight dispersants. Phase I testing found that none of the dispersants exhibited significant endocrine-disrupting activity. Phase II testing, which evaluated the toxicity of each dispersant when combined with varying concentrations of crude oil from the Gulf, found that the toxicity of the mixtures was no greater than that of undispersed oil.

At an August 4 hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Paul Anastas of the EPA testified that more research is needed to better understand the long-term effects of dispersant use. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) expressed concern that the approval processes for dispersant use did not take safety data into account, a position corroborated by Anastas. Testimony provided by academic scientists in toxicology, oceanography, and environmental science cited dispersant use in the Gulf as “a grand experiment.”

The Senate oil spill bill, The Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act (S. 3663), is similar in many respects to the House bill, although there are differences. Most important, there is no agreement in the Senate on liability limits or how revenue from oil drilling will be divided.

The Senate bill creates a new interagency research effort focused on oil spill prevention and response; expands the authority of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop oil spill response, restoration, and damage assessment capabilities; and requires an interagency effort to validate oil spill containment and removal methods and technologies.

Senate committee approves competitiveness bill

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on July 22 passed the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 (S. 3605) by a unanimous voice vote. The bill differs from the version passed by the full House on May 28 in a number of ways, although the purpose of both bills is to support science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and R&D and thus help bolster the country’s foundation for economic growth and competitiveness.

The America COMPETES Act, originally approved in 2007, makes investments in science, innovation, and education at three agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science. Because many of the provisions related to the DOE and STEM education in the House bill are outside the jurisdiction of the Senate committee, S. 3605 does not include them. If the Senate bill makes it to the floor for debate, which is becoming less likely because there are only a few weeks left in the fiscal year, it is expected that the Energy and Natural Resources Committee will offer an amendment authorizing DOE funding, and the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee would authorize funding for STEM education activities.

The House bill puts basic research programs at the three agencies on a path to doubling authorized funding levels over 10 years, and the Senate committee’s bill does the same for NSF and NIST.

The House legislation would authorize $7.48 billion for NSF in fiscal year (FY) 2011, with the authorization level rising to $10.16 billion in FY 2015. It authorizes $991 million for NIST for FY 2011, rising to $1.2 billion in FY 2015. DOE’s Office of Science is authorized for $5.2 billion for FY 2011, increasing to $6.9 billion in 2015. In the original draft of the Senate bill, NSF was authorized at $8.25 billion for 2011, $9.07 billion for 2012, and $9.94 billion for 2013; and NIST was authorized at $1 billion for 2011, $1.02 billion for 2012, and $1.13 billion for 2013. During a markup, an amendment by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was passed that cut funding by roughly 10% and put Senate funding more in line with that in the House’s bill. The Senate committee voted to authorize the funding for only three years, instead of the five in the House bill. Both bills also would support the NSF Robert Noyce Scholarships for students studying in science, mathematics, and engineering fields who plan to teach after graduation.

The main difference between the two chambers’ bills is that the Senate strategy is to essentially use the original America COMPETES Act as a template for reauthorizing funding for R&D and education programs, albeit with higher funding levels; whereas the House bill has taken the original legislation as a springboard for creating a set of new efforts to address innovation and education, in addition to putting the three agencies on a doubling path. For example, the House bill would create an NSF R&D grant for high-risk, high-reward research.

However, there are some new efforts in both bills. For example, the House and Senate bills would make the director of NIST an Undersecretary of Commerce and increase the federal government’s share of the Manufacturing Extension Program to up to 50%. The legislation would establish a green chemistry basic research program at NSF. The Senate bill gives NSF responsibility for helping to meet cybersecurity challenges.

The Senate committee approved an amendment proposed by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) that authorizes $10 million per year for five years for NSF to prepare science and engineering majors to be elementary- and secondary-school teachers. This provision is not in the House bill.

Both bills would authorize the Department of Commerce’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, an initiative first proposed by the Obama administration in September 2009 to support regional innovation initiatives and provide $100 million in loan guarantees to help small and medium-sized manufacturers use or produce innovative technologies. Unlike the House bill, the Senate’s bill would provide loan guarantees of up to $500 million total for science park infrastructure for the purpose of creating areas where businesses dedicated to scientific research can collaborate.

Additionally, both bills instruct the Office of Science and Technology Policy to create an interagency working group responsible for coordinating federal standards for sharing scientific information and establishing policies for public access to scientific research supported by federal funds.

GAO investigates genetic test companies

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is continuing to examine direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies. It released the results of its latest investigation at a July 22 hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s investigations and oversight panel.

Unlike the GAO’s 2006 report, which focused heavily on dietary supplements and lifestyle advice that companies claimed to be personalized to a customer’s genetic profile, the current investigation turned its lens on major, reputable players in the nascent direct-to-consumer genetic test market: 23andMe, Navigenics, DeCode Genetics, and Pathway Genomics. Pathway caused a stir in May 2010 when it made an agreement to sell its test at Walgreens, a major drugstore chain. But the agreement fizzled after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said the product appeared to constitute a medical device that must receive federal approval.

During the hearing, the GAO’s Gregory Kutz, managing director of forensic audits and special investigations, described the GAO’s methods. It submitted 10 samples from five donors—some with true donor information and some with false—to the companies. The results varied. Kutz said his own sample revealed that he was either at a high, average, or low risk for prostate cancer depending on which company was analyzing the results.

23andMe General Counsel Ashley Gould responded that it was not surprising that the results were different because each company has different methods for analyzing its data. Gould and representatives from Navigenics and Pathway argued that the different methods do not invalidate the science behind them. Gould called for the government to issue quality assurance standards for direct-to-consumer genetic tests.

Company representatives appeared to be surprised by recordings of telephone conversations between GAO investigators posing as customers and representatives from unidentified gene test companies. In one case, a company employee falsely implied that a customer was doomed to get breast cancer. In another, a customer was encouraged to sneak a sample from her fiancé and surprise him with the results—a practice that is legally restricted in 33 states, Kutz said.

Jeff Shuren, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, also testified at the hearing. Although genetic tests have been sold online for years, he said that it was the Walgreens-Pathway deal that prompted the FDA to take another look at regulating the tests. Since then, the agency has sent letters to 20 companies. The FDA is still determining next steps in regulating the young direct-to-consumer genetic test market.

House, Senate committees lay out plans for NASA’s future

House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) passed authorizing bills that essentially lay out their plans for the agency’s future. Both rebuff some of President Obama’s proposals, especially on commercial space flight.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, touted the bill passed by his committee as a compromise with the administration. Passed by the full Senate on August 5, it authorizes $19 billion, $19.45 billion, and $19.96 billion for NASA for FYs 2011–2013. It would allow $1.3 billion over three years to support private-sector efforts to develop spacecraft, an approach encouraged by the administration. It would also extend the life of the space shuttle through FY 2011, a priority for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), the committee’s ranking minority member.

The House bill, in contrast, provides just $450 million over the same time period for the commercial spacecraft effort. Many members of the House Science and Technology Committee support the Constellation program that Obama plans to dismantle. Constellation was a plan developed during the Bush administration that would have sent humans first to the Moon and later to Mars. The House bill would also extend the shuttle program.

Both bills call for the immediate development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle—not an Obama priority—and support the White House plan to keep the International Space Station operating until at least 2020.

Meanwhile, 14 Nobel laureates signed a letter supporting the president’s proposed strategy for NASA and criticizing the House authorization bill. The letter said the House bill would leave “substantially underfunded” the areas of technology development, commercial spaceflight, robotic missions, and university and student research.

Federal science and technology in brief

  • The House approved H.R. 4842, a bill to reauthorize the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. The bill would double the department’s cybersecurity R&D budget.
  • Coal state Sens. Rockefeller (D-WV) and Voinovich (R-OH) introduced the Carbon Capture and Storage Development Act of 2010 (S. 3589), which would invest $20 billion during the next 10 years to develop carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. The bill would support large-scale pilot projects and establish a regulatory framework to monitor and govern long-term geological storage of carbon. Meanwhile, on August 12, 2010, the interagency task force on CCS released a report examining the implementation of large-scale CCS technology within 10 years. The report highlights financial, economic, technological, legal, and institutional obstacles to CCS deployment and outlines several recommendations for a long-term plan. These include adopting a carbon price, improving federal coordination, and conducting an analysis of liability associated with CCS technology.
  • The House Committee on Energy and Commerce held its third hearing on antibiotic use in animals. Although scientists from three federal agencies testified that using antibiotics to promote livestock growth contributes to rising antimicrobial resistance, three Republican members argued that current scientific evidence is insufficient to link antibiotic use in animals to the development of resistant strains in humans. Meanwhile, the FDA released draft guidance urging farmers to stop providing nontherapeutic antibiotics to livestock. Antibiotics should be used only in cases where animal health must be protected, Principal Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein said, and not across the board to promote growth or for other nonmedical reasons. Sharfstein warned that the FDA would consider stricter regulations if the industry fails to comply.
  • Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) released a report on ghostwriting, the practice in which researchers sign on as authors of scientific journal articles that were actually prepared by third parties supported by drug or device makers. Grassley has called on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to adopt policies to ensure the disclosure of third-party involvement in journal articles and has recommended that NIH-funded research run only in publications with disclosure policies.
  • Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), architect of a major food safety bill that passed the House last July, sent a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in frustration over her desire to add to the Senate version of the bill (S. 510) a ban on the use of the controversial chemical bisphenol A in food and drink containers. Industry groups have threatened to pull support for the bill over the proposed ban, and Dingell believes Feinstein’s efforts will hurt the bill’s chances of passing the Senate. The bill would strengthen the FDA’s authority to police the nation’s food supply.
  • The EPA proposed new regulations to cut fine-particle pollution and ground-level ozone (smog) that drifts across the borders of eastern states. The regulation, called the transport rule, would reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants by 71% and nitrogen oxide emissions by 42% by 2014, compared with 2005 levels. The proposal would replace the 2005 Clean Air Interstate Rule, which a federal appeals court ordered the EPA to revise.
  • On July 19, President Obama signed an executive order establishing a National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Coasts, and Great Lakes. The Executive Order adopts the Final Recommendations of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, including establishing an interagency National Ocean Council composed of representatives of nearly two dozen federal agencies and offices. The order lays out 10 broad policy objectives for using, protecting, restoring, and increasing scientific understanding of the oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes, and outlines the mechanisms for promoting those goals. It also calls for marine and coastal spatial plans based on ecosystem management in each of nine regions.
  • The 2009 State of the Climate report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on July 28 found that the past decade was the warmest on record and that Earth has been warming during the past 50 years. “For the first time, and in a single compelling comparison, the analysis brings together multiple observational records from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean,” said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco. “The records come from many institutions worldwide. They use data collected from diverse sources, including satellites, weather balloons, weather stations, ships, buoys and field surveys.”

“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 27, no. 1 (Fall 2010).

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