Republican Budget Bill Threatens Land, Species, and Public Health

This week the US House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill that slashes funding for many of the nation’s most important environmental programs, while blocking safeguards to air and water quality and protections for natural areas.  From opening the Grand Canyon to uranium mining, to preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating toxic air pollutants, the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act seems like a public health advocate or outdoor enthusiast’s worst nightmare.

Part of the ongoing debate over how to allocate the national budget, the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies bill determines funding for the country’s most important environmental agencies.  Funds for programs that keep parks and wildlife refuges open to the public, reduce air and water pollution, and protect endangered species are all affected by this legislation

However this year leading lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are providing for environmental programs mainly by letting them lapse, or by slashing their budgets so much that implementation becomes almost impossible.  Here are some of the elements of this year’s appropriations bill that make environmentalists worry the most:

Freezing Clean Air Protections

After years of delay, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has for the first time moved to limit toxic air pollutants from cement and power-generating plants.  Regulations for mercury and other poisonous compounds would prevent thousands of cases of illness and premature death each year—but the House appropriations bill contains a rider that would freeze these rules in their tracks.  The bill would also restrict the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Leaving Endangered Species in the Cold

More than any other US law, the Endangered Species Act has helped bring imperiled creatures back from the brink of extinction.  Species like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon have seen dramatic recoveries partly thanks to this law.  Yet a rider in the House appropriations bill would put a moratorium on listing new species for protection.  If they are unable to receive much-needed help from the Endangered Species Act, many declining animals and plants could go extinct.

Opening Waterways to Pollution

Runaway algae blooms in lakes and streams aren’t just and eyesore—they produce toxins that threaten the health of those who swim, fish in, or drink from affected bodies of water.  A rider in the House appropriations bill would block the EPA from addressing just this sort of danger to health in Florida, where 1,900 miles of streams are subject to conditions that lead to algae blooms.  A separate provision exempts timber operations in national forests from clean water laws.

Threatening National Landmarks

Earlier this year the US Department of the Interior moved toward a moratorium on uranium mining in public lands around the Grand Canyon, protecting one of the nation’s best-known scenic treasures from the effects of a polluting industry.  The House appropriations bill would overturn this decision, opening the Greater Grand Canyon region to mining.  Perhaps just as important for those who love the outdoors, the bill cuts funding for basic services in parks and wildlife refuges—a move that could force some of these places to close to the public. 

Fortunately for public health and wild places across America, passage of the House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act is not yet a sure thing.  Even if it passed by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, the bill has to clear the US Senate before becoming law.  Meanwhile President Obama has threatened to veto the legislation in its current form, and environmental groups are urging lawmakers not to support the bill.

If you have thoughts about funding for agencies that protect the environment, and programs that safeguard public health, now is a great time to speak out.  Look up which Congressperson in the House of Representatives serves your part of the country here, and let him or her know what you think about this important issue.  

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Honduras Sets up a Shark Sanctuary

On Friday, Honduran president Porfirio Lobo Sosa signed legislation declaring a 92,665 square mile shark sanctuary in the country’s waters. The measure solidifies the moratorium on commercial fishing for sharks that the nation announced last year with the island nation of Palau.

Both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Honduras are included in the sanctuary, supporting evenly spread protection for sharks in the Honduran economic zone. 

The move helps Honduras both environmentally and economically. Last month, a group of Australian researchers and a study from the island of Palau both concluded that sharks are worth more alive than dead, benefiting tourism and marine ecosystems. Scuba tourism is a primary source of revenue for Honduras, whose sharks attract thousands of divers each year.

“When tourists come to Roatan and other destinations, they spend money to see the sharks,” said Honduran First Vice President María Antonieta Guillén de Bogran. “But these animals don’t just help the Honduran economy. Our coral reefs and marine environment thrive because these apex predators are safe in our waters. Today’s declaration will help us all, underwater and on land, for generations to come.”

Conservationists and animal rights activists alike have applauded the new legislation, praising it as a substantial step forward in protecting sharks. 

“All sharks take a long time to grow and mature,” said Jill M. Hepp of the Pew Environment Group, “so they really need more protection than just the traditional fisheries management tools like size limits and closed seasons. Wholesale sanctuaries are a much better option.”

Over the years, over-fishing and shark finning has wreaked havoc on marine ecosystems. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists about one-third of all cartilaginous fishes, a group that includes sharks, as threatened with extinction, and multiple species are listed as endangered or critically endangered.

Around the world, other nations have taken steps to protect sharks. The Chilean Senate is currently considering a bill to ban shark finning in the country’s water zone, which, if passed, could leave Venezuela as the only South American nation not restricting shark finning. In the United States, California is contemplating a bill to ban the sale, trade, and possession of shark fins. Hawaii, Oregon, and the state of Washington have already undertaken similar measures.

Yet, Honduras has become a leader in shark protection, boasting that its shark sanctuary improves legislation to conserve numerous shark species endangered by commercial fishing.

“We want to be a reference point for the world,” said Vice President Guillén de Bogran. “We’re a small country, but we can set an example.”

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Responsible Electronics Recycling Act Introduced In Congress

A new bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives to combat the country’s improper disposal of consumer electronics. The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (HR.2284) was presented in the House by Representatives Gene Green of Texas and Mike Thompson of California. The bill would ban exporting certain types of hazardous E-waste to other countries. The two Democrats and the bill’s supporters hope it will reduce health and environmental risks and even boost the economy by adding and keeping recycling jobs within the U.S.

Developing countries such as India, China, and Nigeria have few regulations concerning electronic waste disposal. As a result, the disposal methods used in these countries are extremely hazardous to the environment and to human health. E-recyclers in these countries have workers burn large amounts of e-waste and the materials and components left behind are picked apart and sorted. Workers also use corrosive chemicals to melt away plastic.

According Representative Thompson, in some countries, children are “picking through this stuff and exposing themselves to dangerous chemicals. It’s just an absolute mess.” In Guiyu, China, an area where a significant amount of electronic waste is shipped to, 80% of the children living there allegedly have high levels of lead in their blood because of the toxins and pollution released from burning and melting the waste electronics.

Additionally, the lack of legislation continues to entice some countries to export their e-waste to other countries. Despite the health risks and environmental damage it causes, some countries see the economic benefits of shipping out trashed electronics. Instead of disposing or recycling it themselves, sending e-waste to these developing countries is cheaper, for the most part. Although many producers of electronics have been publicizing how they are reducing their environmental impacts, some are also neglecting the impacts their products have when it is time for them to be disposed. Manufacturers should consider the entire life cycle of their products, from sourcing materials and production to the proper disposal or recycling of the product.

Across the US, many states have already set guidelines for the proper disposal and recycling of e-waste. However, individual states do not have the power to restrict the export of electronic waste; Representatives Green and Thompson believe the Federal government needs to step up in regulating e-waste export to other countries and set national guidelines for e-waste disposal.

In addition to regulating e-waste export, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act will allow the Department of Energy to research opportunities for recycling and recovering rare earth minerals from e-waste. These minerals can be used to produce computers and cell phones and also contributes to sustainability. They can be used to manufacture components of clean energy systems, such as solar panels, hybrid cars, and wind turbines.

The U.S. would benefit from a local source of rare earth minerals. China, which has 97% of the world’s supply, has raised prices and cut down on exporting these minerals because they themselves have increased demand or rare earth minerals within the country.

Lastly, the bill will address growing security concerns with exporting e-waste, such as computers which may contain confidential data. According to a 2009 Frontline/World report, the U.S. sent electronic waste to Ghana and amidst the waste were hard drives containing sensitive information from several government agencies, including the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and NASA.

The bill is already gathering support from both Democrats and Republicans, and many leading consumer electronics companies, such as Apple, Best Buy, Dell, HP, and Samsung. Also, since it benefits the environment and the nation’s economy, supporters of the bill feel confident it will pass. Says Jim Puckett, of the Basel Action Network., “With it, we stop squandering critical metals resources, stop poisoning children, and we create good recycling industry jobs in the USA at the same time.”

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3 Bills in the House: Drill, Baby, Drill!

This week, the House could vote on three bills to expand offshore oil and gas drilling in the United States. Despite the fact Congress has done very little to actually make the process of drilling safer. Here is the rundown of the three bills on Big Oil’s wish list.

Let’s start with the most outlandish bill of all, H.R. 1231. This bill will ensure that oil drilling occurs off the East Coast from Maine to North Carolina, off the coast of Southern California, in the Arctic Ocean, and Bristol Bay. Mandating that at least half of the currently unleased areas in each region be put up for lease sales each and every time the government puts the outer continental shelf territory up for lease which would effectively open up all the acreage for drilling over the course of time. Under this bill, neither the current nor future administration could decide to limit drilling off the coast of New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, Southern California or Alaska because of economic or environmental concerns.

The second bill, H.R 1230 mandates that the government conduct three lease sales within the next year. The sales would occur for oil and gas drilling in the central and western Gulf of Mexico, and off the coast of Virginia. Removing restrictions on the areas the current administration decided not to release after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. This would short cut any environmental review before a sale, particularly, a court’s review of the Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The third bill, H.R. 1229 sets a time limit of 30 days for reviewing drilling permit applications and will grant automatic approvals if no action has been taken within 60 days. This would make environmental reviews of oil and gas drilling weaker than it was before the Gulf disaster.

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European Union to Push Clean Energy Use Through Tax

On Wednesday, the European Union pushed plans to tax carbon emissions to advocate clean energy use through raising the price of coal and diesel among other dirty fuels.  

The European Commission plans to tax carbon dioxide emissions at 20 euros per tonne, motor fuel at 9.60 euros per gigajoule, and heating fuels at 0.15 euros per gigajoule.  

The overall idea is to stimulate growth and employment by redesigning their tax structures and “shifting taxation from labour to consumption.”

According to Algirdas Semeta, EU taxation commissioner, the adoption of the new taxes will push the EU towards reaching their energy and climate target goals.

Concerned leaders cite economies that will be hard hit if the taxes are put in place.  Luxembourg, France, and Germany all rely heavily on sectors that produce heavy carbon emissions.  Opponents contend that the new taxation plans do not take into account the needs of many businesses, particularly businesses in the transportation, construction, and farming sectors.

Matthias Wissman, the head of Germany’s auto industry division, opposes the decision because it would penalize people who owned diesel vehicles and add to road transportation costs.  

Other opponents, such as German Economy Minister Rainer Bruderle, see “no merit” in the plan, and believed that states of the union should have the right to set their own energy taxes.

According to the European Commission, EU economies will not be completely bereft of any benefits. Semeta insists that the receipts from the taxes will create a million jobs within 20 years, though he acknowledges that implementing the new plans will be no easy task.

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California Legislature Passes Renewable Energy Bill

On Tuesday March 29, California legislators finally passed a bill that would require public and private energy utility companies to obtain at least 33% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, an increase from the 20% that is required currently.

The bill, which has stalled many times in the previous years, passed with a 55-19 vote in the assembly and a 26-11 vote in the senate; most of the votes were split over party-lines, with most Democrats supporting the bill.  The bill now heads to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for approval, who lobbied for an increase to 33% during his campaign for office last year.

If it is approved, this legislation would be one of the nation’s most aggressive and ambitious policies to incorporate the use of wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable energy sources.

Proponents of the bill say that the new mandate will provide more jobs and bolster the economy, as green energy companies grow in competition for contracts and business with the electric utilities.  Other supporters are also touting the bills environmental benefits, like reduced air pollution and emission of greenhouse gases, as well as reduced reliance on foreign oil for energy.

Still, those against the bill claim that the new law is too restrictive on the utilities, and would raise prices for taxpayers and drive up the price of electricity.  Even though it would attract more green businesses and create jobs, they contend that the bill would ultimately hurt existing businesses and their workers and drive costs up.

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