The U.S. Senate voted Thursday to repeal federal tax credits for ethanol, dealing a blow to the controversial biofuel — and hinting at trouble ahead for other energy subsidies, including those for renewable power sources like wind and solar. The 73-27 vote may turn out to be merely symbolic, the Washington Post notes, since the ethanol amendment is part of a broader bill that isn't expected to pass, and since President Obama would likely veto it, anyway. But it does signal that, in their quest to cut costs, lawmakers are open to axing some popular energy subsidies.

Congress currently shells out about $5 billion a year in subsidies for ethanol, a liquid fuel that comes mainly from corn in the U.S., but can be made from a variety of plants. Those subsidies provide 45 cents a gallon in tax relief to oil refiners who mix ethanol into gasoline, reducing their demand for petroleum. On top of nixing those tax credits, the amendment would also repeal a 54 cents-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol, which mainly restricts imports of sugarcane-based ethanol from Brazil. As Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., tells the AP, ethanol should be able to sustain itself in a free market without federal support. "The best way for ethanol to survive is to stand on its own two feet, without spending something we don't have to get something we're going to have anyway," Coburn says. Opponents of ethanol are welcoming the vote, arguing that ethanol subsidies drive up corn prices and don't help the environment. "A tax break from ethanol is a gift to the oil companies and grain producers, a gift that actually harms American consumers and our environment," says Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.

The measure also has plenty of critics in the Senate, however, who contend that eliminating tax credits for ethanol producers would harm "a truly homegrown industry," as Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, describes it. And according to Harkin's Hawkeye State colleague Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, any threat to ethanol subsidies foreshadows future threats to other up-and-coming forms of alternative energy. "Before the year's out," Grassley tells Bloomberg News, "you're probably going to have people attack wind and solar and biomass and biodiesel."

(Sources: Washington Post, Associated Press, ReutersBloomberg News)


While U.S. senators took on ethanol subsidies this week, their colleagues across Capitol Hill were chewing on a very different environmental issue: genetically modified salmon, aka "frankenfish." A small group of House lawmakers voted in favor of a measure that would ban the Food and Drug Administration from approving the bioengineered fish, using a voice vote to attach the amendment to a farm-spending bill. The move was led by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who says the modified fish would compete with wild salmon in his state.

"Frankenfish is uncertain and unnecessary," Young said in a statement. "Should it receive approval as an animal drug, it clears the path to introduce it into the food supply. My amendment cuts them off before they can get that far. Any approval of genetically modified salmon could seriously threaten wild salmon populations as they grow twice as fast and require much more food." The amendment directly targets a company called AquaBounty Technologies, which has designed a type of GM salmon that grows twice as fast in hopes of boosting its profitability in fish farms. The FDA has spent years mulling whether to approve the salmon, but drew attention last fall when it held public meetings about the issue. Supporters say AquaBounty's fish could benefit the environment by moving salmon farming away from coastal areas, where it's known to cause damage, but critics worry about escapees competing with wild salmon, as well as unknown dangers from eating genetically altered animals. AquaBounty will induce sterility into its all-female fish to prevent them from breeding in the wild if they do escape, but it admits it can't guarantee 100 percent sterility.

The FDA plans to decide this year whether to approve the GM salmon, and said last year it appears to be safe — although an advisory panel added that more studies may be required before it can be sold commercially. If the fish is approved, it would be the first time the U.S. has allowed a genetically altered animal to be marketed for human consumption, the AP reports. The FDA would also need to decide whether to mandate that GM salmon be labeled to differentiate it from natural salmon. The House is expected to vote soon on the bill containing the "frankenfish" amendment, but its future remains uncertain the Senate.

(Sources: AP, New York Times)


Wildflowers are having trouble surviving all summer in the warming Rocky Mountains, according to a new study in the Journal of Ecology, raising concerns that climate change is already disrupting key parts of some major U.S. ecosystems. Wildflower season in montane meadows used to extend throughout the summer months, but the study's authors say it now drops off dramatically at midseason — potentially spelling trouble for important pollinators like bumblebees, which need a full summer's worth of pollen and nectar to keep their colonies buzzing.

The midseason flower declines are associated with rising temperatures in places like the Elk Mountains of Colorado, the researchers report, where blooms begin disappearing across the entire ecosystem as midsummer sets in. High-altitude areas throughout the southern Rockies are becoming both warmer and drier during the early-season months, changing the moisture availability for flowers and disrupting longtime flowering schedules in subalpine meadows. "These meadows are heavily affected by snowmelt and temperature," says the University of Maryland's David Inouye, a co-author of the study. "Wildflowers use information from these natural cues to 'know' when it's time to unfurl their petals." Such large-scale changes in flower density could decimate entire populations of pollinators, the researchers warn, which includes bees, hummingbirds and other species that feed on pollen and nectar.

"Some pollinators with short periods of activity may require only a single flower species," the researchers write, "but pollinators active all season must have flowers available in sufficient numbers through the season." Bumblebees are especially at risk, they note, since the insects normally forage throughout summer to gather enough food for their queen to produce a colony.

(Source: e! Science News)


Conservationists are heralding what they call the most successful comeback of any species to be declared extinct, as an antelope species that reportedly inspired the unicorn legend has rebounded from the brink of oblivion. Formally known as the Arabian oryx, the "unicorn" antelope now numbers about 1,000 animals after it was eliminated from the wild in 1972, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. 

"To have brought the Arabian oryx back from the brink of extinction is a major feat and a true conservation success story, one which we hope will be repeated many times over for other threatened species," says Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, director general of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi. "It is a classic example of how data from the IUCN Red List can feed into on-the-ground conservation action to deliver tangible and successful results." While the oryx actually has two long, slender horns, they can look like a single horn when viewed from the side, the AFP explains, which may have helped the antelope give rise to early legends of unicorns. 

Despite the success of this species, however, the IUCN's Red List — an assessment of how well roughly 60,000 plant and animal species are surviving in the wild — is still filled with some troubling statistics. In a new update accompanying the good news about oryxes, the IUCN reports that nearly 800 species are known to be completely extinct, and another 64 are extinct in the wild. Some 3,800 are "critically endangered" by global extinction, while more than 5,500 are endangered and 9,900 are vulnerable.

(Sources: Guardian, Agence France-Presse)


The Manhattan Project begins, Newt Gingrich is born, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (closeup of sweet corn on the cob): WayTru/Flickr

Photo (salmon at the San Francisco Fish Co.): Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Photo (wildflowers in North Cascades National Park): U.S. National Park Service

Photo (Arabian oryx at Sir Bani Yas Island, United Arab Emirates): ZUMA Press

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Weekend Briefing 6/17/2011
Congress tackles ethanol and 'frankenfish,' warmth killing flowers and bees, and Arabian oryx seems to be making a come back from extinction.