Conservation Insider Bulletin, Aug. 7

Conservation Insider Bulletin
Published weekly for the Conservation Council of North Carolina
Conservation News to Peruse & Use
Editor: Dan Besse, cib@conservationcouncilnc.org

August 7, 2009

More complete legislative updates will be provided in future editions, but here's where some major environmental items stand as of today's CIB press time.

Budget Approved: More than a month late and pleasing no one, the General Assembly finally approved a budget. The combination of major program cuts and significant tax increases, in response to plummeting revenues caused by the deep recession, left a sour mood in all camps. In the process, critical environmental programs took their share of hard knocks. Within the context of these very rough times, Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural and Economic Resources, reports what has to be taken as the good news. The Office of Environmental Education was not eliminated, despite a Senate recommendation to do so. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund received a $50 million appropriation—not enough to make up for what was raided by the governor to cover last year's shortfalls, but much better than nothing. Finally, the Farmland Preservation Trust Fund got $2 million. Overall, spending in the categories of "natural and economic resources" took $61.2 million in cuts compared to last year's budget.

An Ill Wind: The Senate this week approved a version of SB 106 "Permitting of Wind Energy Facilities", which would effectively ban commercial wind generation in the mountains. This unfortunate turn has pitted scenic preservationists against advocates of renewable energy development. Clean energy advocates point out that the two perspectives don't have to be taken as in fundamental conflict, and that a reasonable accommodation can both preserve scenic mountain vistas and make use of a clean, reliable energy source. The Senate-passed version of the bill fails to meet that test. Fortunately, the House referred the legislation to the House Energy and Energy Efficiency Committee, to be followed by review in the House Finance Committee. This seems to indicate that the measure will be reviewed with deliberation, and improvements will be sought. Final action will likely come in 2010.

Positive Energy: Not all the energy-related news was bad. Two important energy-related items have received late legislative approval. The state's renewable energy tax credit (HB 512) was extended until 2016; and local governments were authorized to establish revolving loan funds for energy improvements (HB 1389). HB 1389 will authorize municipalities and counties to use federal stimulus and other funds to finance loans for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. These two bills will help to keep clean energy development moving in our state during a very tough economic period.

Judicial Watch: Roadless Rule Restored

There's good news for our national forests from the federal courts this week. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (out in California) has reinstated the 2001 "roadless rule" enacted by the Clinton administration just before he left office. The court's ruling tosses out a 2005 decision by the U.S. Forest Service under the Bush administration, which had reversed the Clinton rule.

The restored Roadless Rule blocks most commercial logging, mining, and other development from 58.5 million acres of roadless areas in the national forests. These roadless areas are de facto wilderness, often including areas of our remaining old growth forest, including areas in North Carolina.

The court's decision should provide regular rule underpinning to secure the Obama administration's temporary moratorium on further development in these important wilderness areas. U.S. Interior Secretary Tom Vilsack had taken personal review of all development proposals in these areas under a directive to the Forest Service on May 28 of this year.

The Other Side: Big Coal Pays for Fake Lobbying Letters

Sometimes the machinations of the forces opposing action on climate change impress even the hardened cynics. One such case was revealed this week with news that the "American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy" was bankrolling a PR firm which sent blatantly fabricated letters opposing climate change legislation to members of Congress.

The "Clean Coal Energy" group, of course, is just a front group for the coal industry itself. Nothing new there. The PR firm it hired, Bonner & Associates, was generating "astroturf" (artificial 'grassroots' lobbying) letters to swing voters in Congress. Ho-hum, old story.

But here's the kicker. These letters weren't just goosed up by Bonner; they were made up. The letterheads of real groups, like a Hispanic network group and a Virginia NAACP chapter, were used to fake letters purportedly coming from those groups, in opposition to climate change action.

According to news reports, the newspaper Charlottesville(Va.) Daily Progress "broke" news of the scandal in the case of the fake letters sent to first-term U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA5). Since then, other similar fakes have been found to representatives from Pennsylvania. The PR firm apparently sought to target recently elected Democrats from swing districts in states where the coal industry has political clout.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has had a field day reporting on the scandal this week, including an interview with Perriello. Among her points, she noted that the "shocked, shocked" reaction from the "Clean Coal Energy" group ignored a previous history of similar scams involving the Bonner firm. According to Maddow's research, the "Clean Coal" group even knew about the fake letters before the House voted on ACES (American Clean Energy and Security Act) in late June, but failed to reveal the scam.

Debate in Congress over recent weeks has focused primarily on health care reform efforts—but some scandals are just too juicy to be entirely suppressed. Lettergate may prove to be one of these.

Education & Resources: eRulemaking Site Upgrades Public Access

The EPA announced this week that its eRulemaking Program has launched a "significant upgrade" to www.regulations.gov, the site which provides "one-stop, public access to information related to current and forthcoming regulations issued by the federal government." The 8/3/09 EPA news release specifically touted "improved search capabilities, new navigation tools, and easier access to areas for the public to provide comments on proposed regulations." The EPA acts as managing agency partner for the inter-agency eRulemaking Program.

This is no doubt news eagerly awaited by the burgeoning Green Cybergeek Community, of which there may be more members than I might have thought a couple of years ago. It will probably even be useful for the rest of us who periodically need to check the content or status of a federal rulemaking proposal.

And the odds are, you heard it here first. Another scoop for CIB. Eat out your hearts, mainstream media.

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