ESA Policy News: January 18

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


As battle lines on both sides are beginning to be drawn, the initial makeup of what will prove to be a highly contentious battle next month over how to raise the national debt ceiling and address pending budget cuts to federal agencies has already begun to simmer.

On Jan. 11, Senate Democratic leaders formally aligned themselves in supporting President Obama utilizing a perceived, yet contentious constitutional authority under the 14th amendment to raise the debt ceiling through sending him a letter on the matter. In their letter to the President, the Senators said: “In the event that Republicans make good on their threat by failing to act, or by moving unilaterally to pass a debt limit extension only as part of unbalanced or unreasonable legislation, we believe you must be willing to take any lawful steps to ensure that America does not break its promises and trigger a global economic crisis — without Congressional approval, if necessary.”

Meanwhile House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has made two specific pledges to his conference on any potential debt deal: 1) that he will only bring legislation to the floor that a majority of Republicans support and 2) that any debt limit increase will only happen if it is met dollar-for-dollar with additional spending cuts. If the past is prologue, it is expected that House Republicans will try to tie any debt limit increase with further cuts to discretionary spending and mandatory spending programs that provide assistance to low-income individuals, similar to a bill House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) put forward last May.

It is anticipated that any potential deal to increase the national debt may also address budget sequestration, a “trigger” of automatic indiscriminate spending cuts across all federal agencies set to occur on March 1 if Congress doesn’t come up with $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. Congressional Democrats have insisted that such a deal included some type of revenue, likely the closure of tax loopholes. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, however, considers the tax issue “resolved” in lieu of the tax provisions passed in the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (P.L. 112-240).

The Senate letter to Obama is viewable here.


On Jan. 15, the House passed H.R. 152, the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, the second of two major bills to provide emergency federal assistance to areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

The bill originally included $17 billion for immediate repairs, including $5.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund, $1.4 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers, $3.9 billion for community development grants and another $5.4 billion for transit repairs. The Environmental Protection Agency would receive $608 million and another $287 million would be provided to restore national parks, federal lands and buildings.

The House amended the bill on the floor with an additional $33 billion for long-term relief assistance for programs and initiatives that will help prevent or deter damage from future natural disasters. The amendment, by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), passed by a vote of 228-192 with all but two Democrats supporting the amendment (Reps. Jim Cooper (D-TN) and Colin Peterson (D-MN). Republicans mostly opposed the added funding with 38 supporting the amendment and 190 opposing it.

The bill was brought to the floor in two parts (the $17 billion for immediate repairs and the $33 billion long-term repairs) in a political maneuver to appease fiscally conservative Republicans. The final $50 billion bill passed by a vote of 241-180 with all but one Democrat (Rep. Cooper) voting for the bill, 38 Republicans voting for it and 190 Republicans opposing it. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) supported final passage the bill. Republicans joining him included a few senior and moderate members of the GOP conference as well as lawmakers representing the New York and New Jersey regions. Chairman Rogers did not support the $33 million Frelinghuysen amendment. However, he voted against an amendment that would have required spending cut offsets for the disaster assistance, which failed 162-258. Five Democrats and 157 Republicans supported the amendment while 71 Republicans opposed it.


Two key conservation figures will be absent from the Obama administration’s second term. On Jan. 16, Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Ken Salazar announced that he was leaving his post in March. The announcement came just days after another key figure, Marcia McNutt, announced she was stepping down as head of DOI’s United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Highlights of Salazar’s tenure included various initiatives to protect public lands, including the administration’s “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative. His tenure also saw the reorganization of the former Minerals Management Service into the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Since 2009, the agency has established 10 new national wildlife refuges and seven national parks. According to Interior, the agency has authorized 34 solar, wind and geothermal energy projects on public lands that total 10,400 megawatts, enough to power over three million homes. During his tenure, Interior was also the first federal agency to establish a scientific integrity policy.

USGS Director Marcia McNutt will step down on Feb. 15, after seeing the next Earth-imaging satellite, Landsat 8, launched into space. McNutt, a Ph.D. geophysicist, has headed the agency since Oct. 2009. Her resignation announcement followed that of another prominent scientist from the Obama administration: the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco, a former president of the Ecological Society of America. Deputy Director Suzette Kimball has been named acting director of USGS until a successor is finalized.


On Jan. 6, Department of Interior Secretary Kan Salazar announced the formation of a new Strategic Sciences Group to help manage environmental crises.

Announced as part of a Secretarial Order from Salazar, the new group would produce scientific assessments of environmental disasters that affect Interior resources. The group will improve utilization of the best available science when mitigating responses to both man-made and natural disasters, including hurricanes, oil spills, wildfires and droughts. According to Interior, during an environmental crisis, the Secretary may direct the Strategic Sciences Group to “activate a Crisis Science Team, including scientists from government, academic institutions, non-government organizations, and the private sector as appropriate…”

The group of scientists will be led by Gary Machlis, Science Advisor to the National Park Service Director, and David Applegate, USGS Associate Director for Natural Hazards.  The group is required to compose an operational plan describing its organization and procedures within 90 days of the Secretarial Order.The Interior Secretarial order is available here.


On Jan. 11, the National Climate Assessment released its third draft federal report, which concludes climate change is already affecting US citizens in a number of ways including heat waves, droughts, rising sea levels and that the country could warm by five to ten degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the current century if action is not taken to reduce  greenhouse gas emissions.

The report notes that impacts of climate change such as an increase in extreme weather events, wildfires, insect-carrying diseases as well as reductions in air quality and scarcity of food and water resources will pose threats to human health. The report also concludes that while some degree of climate change is now unavoidable, there is still time for government leaders to limit the degree of its impact.

The report is a scientific document released in draft form by the National Climate Assessment and Development and Advisory Committee, which is comprised of experts from academia, various industries and elsewhere and is not an official report from the government with policy recommendations. It will undergo a three month public comment period as well as a separate review from the National Academy of Sciences.

Public comments are accepted through Apr. 12, 2013. The authors of the report will use the public comments received to revise the report before submitting it to the government for consideration. For additional information, click here.


On Jan. 14, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that it will honor the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act with a year-long commemoration noting the law’s successes in working to preserve at-risk species of plants and animals.

FWS has launched a new website that will chronicle the history of the law’s implementation, noting pivotal milestones in the recovery of many species. The site includes individual stories for protected species and the latest information on their recovery efforts.

The Endangered Species Act was first signed into law on Dec. 28, 1973 by President Nixon. The website is available, here.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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