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The Week Ahead

Obama's Vow Bolsters Climate Efforts; NRC Launches Review Of EPA's Arsenic Assessment

Posted: January 22, 2013

President Obama's inaugural promise to address climate change and promote cleaner energy sources is again bolstering environmentalists who have been pressing the administration to step up second-term efforts to curtail greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

A special National Research Council (NRC) panel is slated to begin discussions on how EPA should assess the risks of arsenic, a ubiquitous metal.

The New Administration

President Obama devoted significant time in his second inaugural address to addressing climate change and promoting cleaner energy sources, bolstering environmentalists who have been pressing the administration to step up its efforts.

“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise,” Obama said.

Many environmentalists said they are ready to work with the administration to advance the president's goals. “Our possibilities are limitless, and the Sierra Club’s 2.1 million members and supporters urge the president to cement our nation’s position as the global clean energy leader by going all in on sustainable energy, holding polluters accountable, and rejecting the dangerous [Keystone] tar sands pipeline,” the group's president, Micheal Brune, said in a statement. “We will work tirelessly to ensure the transition to safe, clean energy sources to fight the most pressing challenge of our time,” he added.

Key policymakers are also backing the president's call. "President Obama has it right: the U.S. must take practical steps on climate change," Senate energy committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) told the Portland Oregonian. "Moving to a low-carbon economy isn't just vital for our environment, it will also strengthen America's economy and make our employers more competitive internationally," Wyden said.

Among environmentalists' goals is issuance of a long-delayed EPA proposal to regulate GHG emissions from existing power plants. Late last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council unveiled what it called a flexible, state-based approach for a new source performance standard that appears aimed as much at assuaging administration concerns over the costs of GHG controls as criticisms from states and industry.

Other pending GHG decisions that environmentalists are seeking to advance include killing plans for the Keystone pipeline, regulating GHG emissions from stationary sources that burn biomass, creating a national low-carbon fuel standard for all transportation fuels and creating new incentives for cleaner energy sources.

While Obama and his supporters did not suggest a legislative effort to address climate change, industry officials cautioned that such action was unlikely. “I don’t want to be Debbie Downer to their cause, but it will take a lot more than a throw away mention in a speech to get a significant number of his squeamish Democratic colleagues and certainly a very antagonistic Republican House to go along,” one industry source says.

While Congress may not legislate on the issue, administration efforts to address climate change could still spark significant Capitol Hill debate when new nominees for EPA and other agencies come before Senate committees for confirmation.

Several potential nominees for EPA -- all of whom have worked closely on advancing GHG regulations -- would all face tough questions, including former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, EPA air chief Gina McCarthy and Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe.

At EPA

The NRC panel advising EPA on how to assess the risks of arsenic is slated to hold its first public meeting Jan. 24.

The meeting, the first of two the panel is holding before EPA begins recrafting the closely watched assessment, is intended to provide initial advice to the agency on some of the thornier questions the agency has long struggled to resolve, such as which data to use, how to extrapolate high-dose exposure data so it can be used in lower-dose environmental exposure scenarios and whether to use conservative “linear” risk assessment methods that assume no safe level of exposure.

EPA recently indicated at a first-time listening session that it planned to expand its review to consider inhalation risks for the first time, while merging previously separate studies on cancer and non-cancer effects.

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