Policy & Regulation Outlook for 2009 (Part 1)

December 24, 2008

OBAMA LIKELY TO SHIFT FOCUS OF MANY ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

Environmental policy, legislation, and regulation are likely to be different under the Obama administration than the Bush administration. It's difficult to know yet what the priorities will be, or what shifts will occur. But 2009 promises to be a busy year for journalists covering the environment. Among the potential topics to keep an eye on are:

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CLIMATE CHANGE

This is likely to be one of the higher priorities, though it may take years to fully flesh out. Among the many people and offices to watch are new climate and energy czar Carol Browner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA). Most of the major federal agencies will also have an important role to play.

Starting points for climate efforts may include portions, or even large segments, of some of the scores of legislative proposals that have been pitched in the past couple of years. Search THOMAS, using words such as "cap and trade climate."

    • Information on Obama and Vice President Joe Biden's approach to climate and energy issues is available at Obama's "New Energy for America."

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ENERGY

An important component of climate change actions will be federal energy policy.

Coal will likely continue to play an important role, and will remain an issue on matters such as:

Nuclear power will also likely remain a consideration, especially since the federal government has established a major program intended to boost the prospects for nuclear power.

Hydroelectric capacity may not change significantly, but issues such as renewal of licenses for dams could be a big issue, especially if greater consideration is given to issues such as impacts on fish, drought, and rising water demand. Security and safety of dams could also make news.

Currently minor contributors to US energy could become much more newsy, depending on government priorities, economic influences, and technological developments. These include:

Infrastructure for all these energy sources may also become a far bigger issue, especially if power sources are developed in areas not currently well-served with power distribution lines.

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CLEAN AIR

As efforts are made to address climate change, the Clean Air Act could readily be brought into play, especially in response to the April 2, 2007, Supreme Court directive to EPA that carbon dioxide can be considered an air pollutant the agency can regulate.

Some methods of reducing greenhouse gas emissions will likely reduce many other air pollutants at the same time.

In addition, extensive Bush administration efforts to implement new air pollution rules have often been thwarted by the courts.

Efforts to address issues covered by the rejected rules, as well as work on many other air pollution issues, could proceed on numerous fronts, such as:

For more perspective on potential clean air actions, see the Dec. 16, 2008, recommendations on priorities by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies:

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CLEAN WATER

Though some progress has been made in cleaning up the nation's waterways, they remain polluted and overtaxed, and are far short of meeting the goals of the Clean Water Act. Efforts to address these problems may include actions to clarify the murky Rapanos decision made by the Supreme Court June 19, 2006, and the muddled efforts of EPA and the Corps of Engineers to interpret the decision.

On a related note, in a letter to president-elect Obama released Dec. 16, 2008, Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) highlighted the results of their extensive investigation into what they say are significant declines in enforcement of the Clean Water Act during the Bush administration.

Other water-related efforts could address problems such as nonpoint pollution sources, runoff from agricultural lands and feedlots, and surface and drinking water contamination from sources such as pesticides, drugs, consumer products, and manufacturers.

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PUBLIC WORKS PROJECTS

One of the strategies being floated to help the economy recover is a large-scale public works program, designed to put many people to work while at the same time repairing and improving much of the country's basic components, such as bridges, roads, mass transit, water and sewer facilities, and schools. Many of these projects would have environmental impacts, either positive or negative.

One theme touted for some of these projects is "green infrastructure." It'll take careful reporting to ascertain whether such claims hold up, or are yet another form of "greenwashing."

Many states and organizations have already developed a laundry list of projects they say are ready to go, if only they had lots of federal money. A few examples include:

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AUTO INDUSTRY BAILOUT

While two rounds of federal help for the ailing U.S. auto industry have already been slated, the Obama administration may come up with its own version (or revise the Bush version). In any case, there is much talk about tying any federal funding to some requirements for greener vehicles, such as improved fuel economy or alternative power sources. If these kinds of conditions are included, stories about related issues likely will be common in 2009.

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UNDOING LAST-MINUTE REGULATIONS

As is typical of many recent administrations, the Bush administration has pushed through scores of last-minute regulations, many of them having an environmental tie.

The Obama administration and Congress may try to stall or reverse some of these actions, though it remains unclear exactly what mechanisms they may try to use. A number of options are available, as discussed in some of the articles in the sources noted above.

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AGRICULTURE AND FOOD SAFETY

Widespread concern about food safety, due to recalls of contaminated US or imported products, suggests there may be numerous stories about reforms. Those could include large-scale shifts in overall US policy, such as consolidation of oversight into one federal agency, and small-scale changes, such as more inspectors at US production areas and plants, and at ports and border areas.

Other food and agriculture issues that could make significant news include genetically modified foods, industrial-scale feedlots, fertilizer runoff that contributes to dead zones, near-monopolies such as in the meat-packing industry, and agricultural subsidies.

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NANOTECHNOLOGY

Under the Bush administration, the federal government became a prominent force advocating development of nanotechnology products.

However, the National Academies National Research Council issued a sharp rebuke of current efforts to understand the health and environmental risks of this new technology, in a Dec. 10, 2008 report.

With more than a dozen federal agencies already involved in this field, along with hundreds of companies around the world, changes in policy, research, and product development could lead to major news stories.

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MINING

Efforts to reform the country's basic mining laws, largely unchanged for more than a century, have ebbed and flowed in recent decades.

There have been many rumblings that this issue will surface again soon in the Obama years, but it's uncertain what progress may be made, especially with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid having significant input. Reid comes from a mining state, Nevada, and may resist some major reforms.

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FOREST SERVICE AND BLM

There are numerous forestry and rangeland lands issues carrying over from the Bush administration. Among them are:

Other potential topics include modifications to the Northwest Forest Plan; creation in 2004 of the Sierra Nevada Framework; the use of categorical exclusions; reductions in public input in the planning and implementation processes; wildfire suppression and control; and oil and gas drilling.

Continued: See Part 2.