Senators call for natural gas probe
Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have called for investigations into natural gas prices that are ballooning despite record-high gas inventories. Lieberman and Schumer called for investigations by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and other federal oversight bodies; Hatch said he intends to hold hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. The requests for investigations were made in letters and statements over the past three weeks and were triggered when New York Mercantile Exchange natural gas future prices topped $7.00 per million Btu in mid-December, reflecting a 50% increase in price in only a few weeks. The high prices came despite gas inventories in storage at or exceeding five-year average levels. Pressure for the investigations has come, in large part, from chemical companies hit hard by high gas prices, affecting both feedstock and energy costs. In particular, Huntsman LLC has called on Congress to look into the extreme price volatility, which the company blames on speculators and traders, according to a statement. FERC has not determined whether to conduct an investigation, and Hatch has not set a hearing date, according to their staffs.
EPA to study chemicals in sewage sludge
On Dec. 31, 2003, EPA denied a petition from the Center for Food Safety for a moratorium on the land application of treated sewage sludge. However, on the same day, the agency announced in the Federal Register that it plans to study the risk of 15 chemicals found in the sludge to see if they need to be regulated. In doing so, the agency is following the recommendations of a 2002 National Research Council report. The report says there is no evidence that EPA's current regulations are not sufficiently protective, but it recommends more research on the health and environmental effects of the land application of sludge. The chemicals to be studied include acetone, anthracene, barium, diazinon, fluoranthene, manganese, and silver. EPA may add more chemicals to the list. Last October, the agency said it would not regulate dioxins in sludge because they pose a minuscule risk of cancer.
Taxes cut gas use more than standards do
A gasoline tax would cut vehicle gas consumption faster than would raising federal vehicle efficiency standards, says a report by the Congressional Budget Office. The report says that increasing corporate average fuel economy standards has the unintended effect of making it cheaper to drive more miles. It also has no effect on vehicles already in operation because of the lag time between when the standard goes into effect and when drivers replace their existing cars. On the other hand, a gasoline tax increase has an instant impact, and because of the cost, it discourages drivers from buying more fuel and driving more miles, and therefore encourages them to purchase more efficient vehicles. The report comes out as the Department of Transportation considers modifying fuel efficiency standards for the first time since 1990. The report is available at http://www.cbo.gov.
EPA reviewing water pollution limits for plants
EPA this year will scrutinize current wastewater discharge standards for manufacturers of organic chemicals, plastics, and synthetic fibers, including chemical formulators and packagers. The detailed investigation may result in revised limits for pollutants in the wastewater that these operations discharge into rivers, lakes, and streams. EPA says more than 200 facilities in the organic chemicals, plastics, and synthetic fibers category are impairing the quality of the waterways receiving their effluents. Some in the affected industry are suggesting that EPA consider switching from mass-based water pollution limits, which can be difficult to implement and enforce, to concentration-based standards for this part of the chemical sector. The agency is also studying wastewater discharge standards for petroleum refiners for possible revision.
NSF notes anniversary of R&D program
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of NSF's Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (IUCRC) Program, the agency hosted a conference in Washington, D.C., Jan. 8–9. Developed to facilitate long-term partnerships between academia, industry, and government, the program currently has 45 centers involving 80 universities and more than 600 industrial members in areas ranging from biotechnology to energy and environment to advanced electronics. "The centers provide a national resource," says Dennis Ray, executive director of the Power Systems Engineering Research Center, Madison, Wis. He notes that IUCRC helps academic researchers effectively collaborate with researchers in the industry sector and provides increased visibility of the expertise of participating faculty members.
GOVERNMENT & POLICY ROUNDUP
Michael Corradini, chairman of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, announced last week his resignation from the board, citing perceptions of potential conflicts of interest. The board oversees federal nuclear waste management activities, particularly the Yucca Mountain repository, and Corradini had been criticized for his support of the repository.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which implements the chemical weapons treaty, has declared the U.S.'s Rocky Mountain Arsenal free of chemical weapons. The arsenal, which more than 30 years ago produced 60% of the nation's chemical weapons, is slated to become a national wildlife preserve.
Stephen L. Johnson has been nominated as deputy administrator of EPA. Johnson is currently acting deputy and would succeed Linda J. Fisher, who resigned last June.
NASA has authorized three Earth System Science Pathfinder small-satellite program missions to measure atmospheric CO2, salt concentrations of the ocean surfaces, and soil moisture and freeze/thaw status of land surface.