ESA Policy News October 11

Research on hold in government shutdown, farm bill (in)action, EPA cleared in email scandal, climate skeptics denied

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


This week, Congressional leaders continued debating bills to temporarily fund the government, as well as yet-to-be-introduced legislation to prevent the nation from defaulting on its debt. The government shut down its “nonessential” functions on Oct. 1, the start of current Fiscal Year (FY) 2014, after the House and Senate failed to reach agreement on the contents of a temporarily spending bill. With the US Department of Treasury indicating the federal government may reach the debt ceiling on Oct. 17, it appears that a deal to continue federal spending for FY 2014 may be tied to a deal to raise the debt ceiling, which must be periodically increased to pay for federal spending already authorized by Congress.

In the week leading up to the shutdown, the House had passed a continuing resolution (CR) that funded the government through Dec. 15 with the exception of provisions related to implementation of the Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148). The Senate took up the bill and amended it by striking the Affordable Care Act provisions and shortening the CR’s length to Nov. 15. The shorter time frame on the CR was intended to incentivize Congress to address the sequester in a manner that does not continue or increase existing cuts to discretionary spending (reaching such a deal would free appropriators to fund government agencies at the higher spending caps outlined in the Budget Control Act of 2011). The House Republican leadership would not take up the Senate’s “clean” CR bill for a vote and, thus far, has only allowed a vote on CRs that contain provisions to defund the Affordable Care Act.

This week, President Obama offered to negotiate with House Speaker Boehner in exchange for voting on the Senate CR to temporarily reopen the government while a deal is worked out. Boehner thus far has dismissed this approach as “unconditional surrender” on the part of Congressional Republicans. Speaker Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), and House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) also met this week in the speaker’s office to discuss the shutdown standoff, but no headway seemed to have been made from the meeting. A subsequent meeting occurred Oct. 10 between the White House and eighteen House Republicans, comprising mostly of House leadership (including Speaker Boehner) and key committee chairs.

Debt ceiling proposals emerge

Amid the chaos over the federal government shutdown, federal policymakers also wrestled with how to raise the national debt ceiling. The US Treasury predicts the US will hit the limit around Oct. 17. As of Oct. 10, House Republican leadership seemed to be coalescing around a six-week plan to provide a clean increase in the debt-ceiling free of political riders to allow additional time to negotiate a spending deal. President Obama and Senate Democrats are open to the idea of temporarily raising the debt ceiling, but have stated that do not intend to negotiate on a budget deal until after the government reopens.

A message from the president to all federal workers is available here.


Federally-funded scientific research plows ahead – for the moment. However, if you’re applying for a new grant or renewal of an existing one, your application may be in limbo for the foreseeable future. Federal scientific research at the majority of existing agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been halted. In general, regulatory and permitting at activities at federal agencies have been postponed until the shutdown ends. Enclosed are impacts of the shutdown on several federal agencies of importance to the ecological community.


The Department of Energy’s research programs remain largely operational as much of its funding is appropriated on a multi-year basis, temporarily shielding much of its staff from furloughs. However, its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program will not function as it runs on an annual budget. Eventually, 69 percent of DOE employees will have to be furloughed under an extended shutdown scenario. Those who remain will be workers in charge of monitoring nuclear materials and energy power grids.

While existing federally-funded projects can move forward, a government shutdown that lasts not days, but weeks, can serve to waste countless numbers of dollars in projects that go uncompleted. Many scientific experiments require monitoring and measurements that must be documented over an extended time period. If funding runs out on such experiences, the researchers likely will have to restart the experiment from the beginning again.


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exempted an estimated 1,069 of its 16,205 employees from furlough to enforce activities “”where a failure to maintain operations would pose an imminent threat to human life,” according to the agency’s shutdown memorandum. According to EPA, 505 hazardous waste sites in 47 states will still see delays in cleanup activities because of the shutdown. The agency contingency plans also include having staff ready to support emergency response efforts related to an environmental disaster such as an oil spill. EPA will also continue to operate its 39 laboratories across the nation to protect research equipment and tested organisms.

Just 182 out of the 804 staffers in EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance are exempt from the shutdown. This means the agency, tasked with performing an average of 200,000 facility inspections and evaluations per year, will be short-staffed in carrying out its duties.  Typical office activities such as coordinating response to an environmental disaster, policing illegal disposal of hazardous waste or toxic disposal of harmful materials into potable water resources will be more difficult to enforce.


The US Fish and Wildlife Service will close its wildlife refuges off to the public and will not review plant and animal species considered for federal protection. Ecological research sites on federal lands and wildlife refuges are now closed to researchers. Consultations and reviews related to enforcement of the Lacey Act and the National Environmental Policy Act will also be postponed. Wildlife facilities will have at least one person on staff to care for animals. As law enforcement staff are considered “essential employees,” enforcement of existing Endangered Species Act protections will continue, but reviews of petitions for listing of new candidate species have been postponed indefinitely.


Nearly half of NOAA’s workforce will stay on the job during the shutdown. The agency continues programs directly related to weather monitoring with 5,368 of its 12,001 employees remaining to carry out such activities.  Nearly 4,000 of these employees works at the National Weather Service. Climate monitoring activities will continue within the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research for continuity purposes, but most all other areas of NOAA research carried out by federal scientists will be momentarily discontinued.


All national parks and visitor centers have closed. Guest staying on national park campgrounds were notified they had 48 hours to vacate. The National Park Service (NPS) will continue to provide law enforcement and emergency assistance personnel that handle such activities as border protection and firefighting. All education programs, including school visits were cancelled. Scientists conducting research on national parks are prohibited from accessing said areas.


The websites, and Fastlane will be closed, hence no NSF funding applications will be processed or monitored. Those who have already been funded will not be able to receive additional funding that has not already been allocated. NSF will also be unable to process no-cost extensions for existing grant awardees. All review panels scheduled during the shutdown will be canceled. Younger researchers, mainly graduate students who are often dependent on one grant source, are likely to disproportionately feel the burden of the funding shortfalls.


The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website has been totally disabled due to the shutdown with no information displayed or method to navigate the site. Food inspection will continue, albeit with fewer workers. Stations operated by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service will be closed. The Natural Resources Conservation Service will continue only operations that are essential for the protection of life and property. The US Forest has closed campgrounds and halted logging on national forest lands.


USGS continues its programs related to flood forecasting, volcanic activity, earthquake hazard and other responses to environmental and man-made biological disasters. Landsat 7 and 8 operations would also continue as would detection of zoonotic threats in wildlife. General scientific data collection on natural resources will cease, however, as will public dissemination of water quality data. Ecosystem health and restoration efforts will be discontinued.

A full list of agency contingency plans is available here.


On Oct. 7, a group of conservation organizations sent a letter to the president and House leadership requesting enactment of a five-year farm bill reauthorization. The most recent extension of the farm bill expired Sept. 30.

The organizations spearheading the letter are Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. While crop subsidies and food stamps programs are not immediately affected by the expiration, key conservation programs within the bill to help farmers conserve wildlife habitat, including Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program and Grasslands Reserve Program, will no longer be available.

“Outdoor recreation, including hunting and bird watching, contributes $646 billion to the U.S. economy each year. The industry also creates 6.1 million American jobs – more than the oil and gas, finance or real estate sectors,” the letter notes. “Conservation measures in the Senate farm bill, like re-coupling conservation compliance to crop insurance and a national Sodsaver program, are critical to ensuring this positive economic impact continues.”

The Ecological Society of America recently issued an action alert encouraging its members to voice their support for key farm bill conservation programs. For additional information, see the Sept. 13 edition of ESA Policy News. The Ducks Unlimited organizational letter is available here. 


On Sept. 30, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) independent Office of the Inspector General (IG) released a report in response to a congressional inquiry The report found “no evidence that the EPA used, promoted or encouraged the use of private ‘non-governmental’ email accounts to circumvent records management responsibilities or reprimanded, counseled or took administrative actions against personnel for using private email or alias accounts for conducting official government business.”

The report was conducted in response to an inquiry from senior Republican members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. The Republicans were concerned over former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s use of a separate email address under the name “Richard Windsor” to conduct official government business. They contended that the use of such emails skirts Freedom of Information Act requirements and procedures that ensure tracking and storage of official correspondence.

The IG report concludes that the use of a separate email account has been commonplace among EPA officials in the past to manage high volumes of email and the practice is not limited to senior officials, noting “it is not practical to completely eliminate the use of private email accounts.” The report did, however, outline of series of recommendations to improve employee training of record management practices and establish a consistent system for creating records for the secondary emails. The IG notes that EPA has “either completed recommended actions or plans to take corrective actions to address our findings.”

The full report is available here.


In describing an editorial policy related to some letters to the editor on the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), Los Angeles Times letters editor Paul Thornton asserted that his newspaper will not print letters to the editor from individuals who deny the human role in climate change, stating that letters that have an untrue basis do not get printed.

Thornton’s original editorial references letters to the editor that claimed the healthcare law should allow exemptions for citizens in the same fashion it does for the president and Congress. The piece received outrage from the conservative blogosphere. However, the outrage largely did not focus on the LA Times’ explanation for why the president and Congress were not receiving special treatment under the law. Instead, according to Thorton, the brunt of the disdain was directed toward his brief single sentence reference to climate change.

“Before going into some detail about why these letters don’t make it into our pages, I’ll concede that, aside from my easily passing the Advanced Placement biology exam in high school, my science credentials are lacking,” Thornton retorts. “I’m no expert when it comes to our planet’s complex climate processes or any scientific field. Consequently, when deciding which letters should run among hundreds on such weighty matters as climate change, I must rely on the experts — in other words, those scientists with advanced degrees who undertake tedious research and rigorous peer review.”

View the full climate change editorial here. The original piece is available here.


Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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