ESA Policy News: February 15

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here.



President Obama’s fourth State of the Union address outlined a number of bold domestic priorities, including addressing climate change and diverting a series of automatic discretionary spending cuts set to occur in March as a result of congressional  failure to come to agreement on comprehensive deficit reduction.

“Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense,” said President Obama. “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.”

With regard to budget sequestration, President Obama affirmed his support for a bipartisan, balanced approach to deficit reduction while contending that he would oppose an effort that unduly burden discretionary programs. “Now, some in this Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training; Medicare and Social Security benefits. That idea is even worse,” said the president. “We won’t grow the middle class simply by shifting the cost of health care or college onto families that are already struggling, or by forcing communities to lay off more teachers, cops, and firefighters.” Among solutions to avert the sequester, President Obama endorsed changes to Medicare and tax reform proposals such as those outlined in the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, commonly known as the Simpson-Bowles commission.

Read or listen to President Obama’s full 2013 State of the Union address here.


On Feb. 14, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) unveiled a legislative proposal to avert automatic discretionary spending cuts to federal agencies. The deficit reduction in the bill is equally divided between spending cuts and new revenue. Members of Congress have until March 1 to pass a bill to avert the $1.2 trillion cuts to federal programs over the next ten years.

The American Family Economic Protection Act would postpone the sequester for one year by canceling out the first year of the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, which total $85 billion. In total, the bill includes $110 billion in deficit reduction, $55 billion in revenue increases and $55 billion evenly divided between defense and non-defense discretionary programs. The bill is similar to legislation introduced by House Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), H.R. 699, the Stop the Sequester Job Loss Now Act.

The revenue provisions set a minimum tax rate for the wealthy and change the tax treatment of oil extraction from tar sands. The $55 billion in revenue also includes $1 billion from ending tax breaks that motivate companies to move overseas. The discretionary spending provisions include a $27.5 billion reduction in agricultural subsidies known as direct payments (negotiated by Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)) and a $27.5 billion reduction in defense programs.

The House meanwhile has declared it will not take up legislation to avert the sequester this year, asserting that the Senate must act first. This political positioning likely is somewhat attributable to the fact that their most recent attempt to avert sequestration before the end of the 112th Congress (H.R. 6684, the Spending Reduction Act) passed the House Dec. 20, 2012 by a razor thin margin of 215-209. Twenty-one Republicans voted against the bill and one (Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT)) voted present. With Democrats having gained eight seats after the 2012 elections, it’s unlikely the same bill could pass the House again this year in the new 113th Congress. With the House and Senate both set to adjourn for recess the week of President’s Day, lawmakers now have only the final week of February to work out a deal to avert sequestration.

Senate Appropriations Committee holds hearing on sequester impacts

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) recently convened a hearing of federal agency heads outlining the specific impacts of sequestration on agencies. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has noted that enacting the sequester will lead to the loss of 750,000 jobs by the end of calendar year 2013.  To view the hearing as well as letters from individual agency heads (including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency), click here.


President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget proposal is slated to include a one percent increase for federal workers. If passed by Congress, the increase would end the pay freeze that has been in effect for over two years amid deficit reduction efforts.

Under current law, federal employees are slated to receive a 0.5 percent pay increase on March 27 unless blocked by federal law. House Republicans this week, however, voted on a bill (H.R. 273) to freeze pay for federal workers through the end of calendar year 2013. The bill passed Feb. 15 by a vote of 261-154. Ten Republicans broke with their party to oppose the bill. Meanwhile, 43 Democrats supported the bill while 144 voted against it. The White House opposed the bill, but issued no formal veto threat. The Senate is unlikely to take up the measure.

Among the Republicans to oppose the bill was Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who represents an area of northern Virginia home to many federal employees. Rep Wolf circulated a Dear Colleague letter to House Republicans that refers to the bill as a “political stunt,” asserting that any savings achieved under the bill would be “a drop in the bucket towards deficit reduction and a hollow gesture absent meaningful mandatory spending reforms.” He notes that federal employees include CIA and FBI agents, food inspectors, veteran’s doctors and nurses, firefighters, park rangers and scientists, “the people you call when you need help.” View the Wolf letter here.


The Ecological Society of America joined five other major scientific societies in a letter to President Obama to convene a high-level summit on climate change. Spearheaded by the Society on Conservation Biology, the letter outlines a number of actions the administration could take to mitigate the effects of climate change. Among its recommendations, the letter urges improving federal response to natural disasters, taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through regulating land-use activities and instituting a carbon tax, preserving national wildlife refuges, investing in renewable energy and reducing dependence on foreign oil. View the full letter here.


On Feb. 14, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment held its first hearing of the 113th Congress entitled, “The State of the Environment: Evaluating Progress and Priorities. The hearing sought to review whether additional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulatory efforts are necessary, given the current progress made under existing environmental protection laws.

Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD) noted that progress that has been made in environmental protection, asserting that the nation’s biggest environmental challenges have been addressed and that President Obama and environmentalists’ calls for additional environmental regulations seek only to address “imaginary hobgoblins.” In his opening statement, Chairman Harris asserted “Americans are constantly bombarded by the media and this administration with doomsday predictions.  For instance, we have been told that extreme storms and increased childhood asthma are indicators that the environment is worse off than ever.  These allegations fly in the face of the hard facts that severe weather has always been a threat and that our air quality has improved dramatically.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Suzanne Bonamci (D-OR) countered that, particularly in light of the fact that healthcare costs are the primary driver of current federal deficits, continued investment in efforts enhance air and water quality are vital towards protecting human health and prosperity. “As we look ahead to future EPA action, including the issuance of new and updated regulations, it is worth reminding ourselves of the source of such regulation and the benefit to society. In the four decades since it was signed into law, the Clean Air Act has prevented hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, not to mention saving trillions of dollars in health care costs,” she stated. “With the cost of health care widely agreed to be one of the central drivers of our nation’s fiscal challenges, we as policymakers would consider this a good result.”

 View the full hearing here.


On Feb. 14, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee convened a hearing entitled “Drought, Fire and Freeze: The Economics of Disasters for America’s Agricultural Producers.” The hearing outlined the costly impacts droughts and warming temperatures have had on the agricultural industry.

“Nobody feels the effect of weather disasters more deeply than our nation’s farmers and ranchers whose livelihoods’ depend on getting just the right amount of rain at just the right time,” said Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). “All too frequently, an entire season’s crop can be lost or an entire herd must be sent to slaughter due to lack of feed. 2012 was a year of unprecedented destruction from drought, freeze, wildfires, hurricanes, and tornadoes – including the tornadoes that hit Mississippi and other parts of the South last weekend, and my heart goes out to all the survivors of those devastating storms.”

United States Department of Agriculture Chief Economist Joe Glauber noted how 2011 crop insurance indemnities (payments for crop losses) totaled a then-record $10.8 billion with $4.1 billion paid to producers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. He stated in his testimony that indemnity payments for 2012 are likely to top $17 billion. The losses were attributable to severe drought conditions and natural disasters. Glauber noted that “59 percent of winter wheat areas; 69 percent of cattle production; and 59 percent of hay acreage remain under drought conditions.”

The hearing’s second panel included farmers whose testimony included personal stories on how they have been impacted by crop loss. “Drought has reduced the number of cattle and processing facilities have closed as a result,” stated Montana rancher Leon LaSalle. Indiana soybean farmer Anngie Steinbarger said drought in 2012 had led to the lowest crop yields on record for her farm.  Michigan Cherry farmer Jeff Send noted how a mild winter had caused his cherries to grow early, leaving them vulnerable to subsequent freezing temperatures in April. All expressed the need for improvements in federal programs that deal with disaster assistance and extreme weather events.

View the full hearing here.


In his departure announcement to employees, outgoing Department of Energy (DOE) SParagraphecretary Steven Chu tied addressing climate change and reducing US dependency on foreign oil to addressing fiscal and economic concerns.

After outlining DOE’s accomplishments during his leadership, including research in new energy technology, Chu outlined the fiscal burden of continued dependence on foreign oil. “The United States spent roughly $430 billion dollars on foreign oil in 2012. This is a direct wealth transfer out of our country,” Secretary Chu noted. “Many billions more are spent to keep oil shipping lanes open and oil geo-politics add considerable additional burdens. Although our oil imports are projected to fall to a 25 year low next year, we still pay a heavy economic, national security and human cost for our oil addiction.”

Chu stated that he plans to stay on as Secretary at least through the end of February. He may stay on longer than that, partially contingent on when his successor is confirmed. View the full announcement here.


On Feb. 6, President Obama nominated Sally Jewell, Chief Executive Officer of Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI) as his second-term pick for Secretary of the Interior.

With a strong background in both conservation and the business industry, it is hoped that nominee Sally Jewell will be able to bridge the divide between constituencies that prioritize environmental stewardship with those that prioritize energy development. Her business background includes two decades in corporate banking, having worked for Rainer Bank, Security Pacific, WestOne Bank and Washington Mutual from  1981-2000. She also spent time as an engineer for Exxon Mobile (1978-81). In 2005, she became CEO of REI after having been its chief operating officer since 2000. She also serves on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

An avid hiker who bikes to work, Jewell  has contributed to the Outdoor Industry Association’s Political Action Committee, which has supported environmentally-friendly Democrats and Republicans, including Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), Dave Reichert (R-WA) and Mike Simpson (R-ID), who notably serves as Chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which drafts the annual bill to fund the agency she would oversee. Past personal donations include President Obama’s re-election campaign, Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Patty Murray (D-WA) (her two Senators), Mark Udall (D-CO), Mark Begich (D-AK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which will hold her confirmation hearing.

Current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will be leaving his post at the end March.


On Feb. 1, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced a proposal to list wolverines as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and is seeking public comments.

According to FWS, an estimated 250 to 300 North American wolverines reside in the Rockies of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and part of Oregon. The agency asserts that loss of snowpack habitat as a result of climate change combined with hunting and trapping of wolverines has put the species at risk.

FWS is also seeking comment on two proposed rules to help manage recovery of the species in the event it is listed under the Act: 1) to continue to allow snowmobiling, skiing and certain land management activities such as timber harvesting and infrastructure development to occur and 2) to facilitate reintroduction of the species to its historical range in Colorado. The latter proposal would be spearheaded through the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife.

Scientific information on the proposals will be accepted until May 6, 2013. Proposals can be submitted either electronically through the federal eRulemaking Portal at or via snail mail through the following address: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R6-ES-2012-0107; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222; Arlington, VA 22203.

More information on the FWS North American wolverine initiative is available here.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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