CATCH AND RELEASE 

The most prominent U.S. project to capture carbon dioxide from a pre-existing power plant is being shelved, the New York Times reports, a major setback in efforts to reduce coal's contributions to global warming. American Electric Power will postpone plans to develop a full-scale carbon-capture program at Mountaineer — a coal-burning power plant in West Virginia that's three decades old — even though it has successfully captured and buried CO2 at a smaller scale for two years.

AEP officials say they're scrapping the more ambitious, $668 million carbon-capture project because they have no economic incentive to continue it: State regulators are unlikely to let the company recoup its costs by passing them on to customers, and without a climate bill in Congress, the future of federal CO2 regulations remains hazy. The Energy Department had offered to cover half the project's cost, but even the remaining half is more than AEP is willing to pay now that political conditions have changed since the effort was conceived. "We are placing the project on hold until economic and policy conditions create a viable path forward," AEP chairman Michael Morris tells the Times. The company, which serves 5 million customers in 11 states and owns the country's largest electricity transmission system, plans to formally announce its decision today. It will suspend the carbon-capture project indefinitely after completing its initial engineering studies, the Times reports.

A senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, tells the Times that AEP's reversal is a direct result of the political deadlock on Capitol Hill over CO2 regulation. "This is what happens when you don't get a climate bill," the official says. As Princeton University engineering professor Robert Socolow explains, AEP is doing what any shrewd business would do in its position: Innovating only as much as it has to. "Business wants to be ahead of the curve," Socolow says, "but not a lap ahead."

(Sources: New York Times, Reuters, American Electric Power)

TROUBLED WATER 

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday to dramatically weaken the EPA's oversight of water pollution, the Charleston (W.Va) Gazette reports, driven by complaints from coal companies that the Obama administration is being too hard on mountaintop-removal mining. House lawmakers voted 239-184 in favor of the "Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011," and although the bill faces steep odds in the Senate — and would likely elicit a veto from President Obama — it offers a symbolic victory for EPA critics, the Gazette reports.

"The reality is that the agency is strong-arming the states," says Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who joined House Republicans in supporting the bill. "Rather than bringing the sides together and bringing balance, they have widened the divide." Rahall was recently incensed by the EPA's rejection of a "dredge-and-fill" permit for what would be the largest mountaintop removal project in West Virginia history; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had already approved the permit, but the EPA concluded it didn't comply with the Clean Water Act. That gave Rahall something in common with bill sponsor John Mica, R-Fla., who is similarly upset with the agency for demanding cuts in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from Florida farms and businesses. 

Not only would the bill block the EPA from rejecting many Clean Water Act permits, but it would also go much further: It would stop the EPA from intervening if a state rewrites its water-quality standards, even if they fall short of what federal scientists say are needed to protect public health. The agency would lose its ability to withdraw federal approval of state water-pollution regulations, as well as its ability to challenge water-pollution discharge permits issued at the state level. Even though the bill has little chance of becoming law, it has still drawn scorn from environmentalists and public-health advocates, as well as from many House Democrats. "This bill is absurd," says Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. "It is designed to totally gut the Clean Water Act."

(Sources: Charleston Gazette, Library of Congress)

VIVID AMPHIBIAN 

A "lost" toad species — not seen since 1924 — has been re-discovered in the wild, the BBC and AP report, giving the world its first full-color glimpse of an animal whose vivid hues were previously only documented in illustrations. After scouring the dense forests of Borneo for months, scientists from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak finally found three Borneo rainbow toads hiding in trees during a recent nighttime search. The species had been one of Conservation International's "top 10 most wanted frogs," part of a Global Search for Lost Amphibians the group launched last year.

"Thrilling discoveries like this beautiful toad, and the critical importance of amphibians to healthy ecosystems, are what fuel us to keep searching for lost species," study leader Indraneil Das tells the BBC. "They remind us that nature still holds precious secrets that we are still uncovering." Robin Moore of Conservational International, who launched the lost amphibians program, agrees the discovery is a big deal. "To see the first pictures of a species that has been lost for almost 90 years defies belief," Moore says in a statement. "It is good to know that nature can surprise us when we are close to giving up hope, especially amidst our planet's escalating extinction crisis."

The newly found frogs, discovered on three separate trees, measured up to 2 inches long and included an adult male, an adult female and a juvenile, according to Conservation International. The researchers aren't revealing the exact location where the frogs were found, the AP reports, due to fears of illegal poaching driven by high demand for brightly colored amphibians. The next step for biologists and ecologists, Das says, is to find out more about Bornean rainbow toad populations to determine their conservation status.

(Sources: BBC News, Associated Press, MSNBC)

CATS OF WAR 

Scientists have discovered a "surprisingly healthy" population of snow leopards living in Afghanistan, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, suggesting the world's most elusive big cat may be thriving in one of the world's most war-torn countries. Only about 4,500 to 7,500 wild snow leopards are thought to remain on Earth, scattered across several countries in Central Asia, so the discovery of even a relatively small population is big news, the WCS points out.

"This is a wonderful discovery — it shows that there is real hope for snow leopards in Afghanistan," says Peter Zahler, WCS deputy director for Asia programs. "Now our goal is to ensure that these magnificent animals have a secure future as a key part of Afghanistan's natural heritage." Afghan community rangers, trained by the WCS, used camera traps to verify the presence of snow leopards at 16 locations scattered across a swath of mountainous Afghanistan. This marks the first time the big cats have been documented in that country using camera traps, and adds a major conservation incentive for the remote region.

Afghan snow leopards are threatened despite the region's remoteness, the WCS warns, due to poaching by local hunters and shepherds, as well as hunting of live animals for the illegal pet trade. The WCS has developed several conservation measures to protect the leopards, including the training of local rangers like the ones who used camera traps to confirm the cats' presence. Education and outreach programs with local communities will also be important, the group says. Anthony Simms, lead author of a new study based on the findings, is optimistic the efforts will succeed. "By developing a community-led management approach," he says, "we believe snow leopards will be conserved in Afghanistan over the long term."

(Sources: MNN, ScienceDaily)

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

Wildfires force U.S. vice president to flee Yellowstone, 20 Russian scientists are rescued from the Arctic, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (carbon dioxide emissions): U.S. Energy Department

Photo (mountains and water in California): ZUMA Press

Photo (Bornean rainbow toad): Indraneil Das/Universiti Malaysia Sarawak

Photo (snow leopard in Afghanistan): Wildlife Conservation Society

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