November 19, 2014

In This Issue


On Nov. 12, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an agreement that aims to set the US and China on a path to dramatically reducing their carbon emissions.

The United States will cut its emissions 26–28 percent below 2005 emission levels by 2025. China agreed to “peak” its emissions by 2030 and will work to meet that goal earlier. China has also set a target to expand use of non-carbon emitting energy sources to 20 percent of its total energy consumption by 2030. The breakthrough is pivotal as China previously resisted calls to cap its emissions.

The Obama administration declared the reduction goals can be met “under existing law,” without approval from Congress. However, Congress could block funding for the effort using the appropriations process. It appears likely that the Republican-controlled Congress will try. This could pose problems for the president’s subsequent pledge of $3 billion (USD) for the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund to address the ramifications of climate change in developing nations.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who is seeking to the chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee next year, released a statement referring to the US-China agreement as a “non-binding charade” that exempts China of any real commitments.

“In the president’s climate change deal, the United States will be required to more steeply reduce our carbon emissions while China won’t have to reduce anything,” stated Inhofe. “It’s hollow and not believable for China to claim it will shift 20 percent of its energy to non-fossil fuels by 2030, and a promise to peak its carbon emissions only allows the world’s largest economy to buy time.”

Click here for additional information on the agreement.


On Nov. 10, House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) sent a letter to National Science Foundation (NSF) Director France Cordova requesting information on the agency’s decision to fund research into the spread through social media of ideas and memes, including political commentary and campaign messaging.

The study in question, entitled “Truthy,” is a multi-year research project by the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing. The name is derived from the term “truthiness,” coined by political comedian, Stephen Colbert for information that feels like truth. The authors apply the term to social media messages from bots [programs] that seem to come from real people and sponsored messages that seem to come from grassroots movements.

According to the University of Indiana project website, one of the goals of the study is to “develop machine learning and visual analytics tools that could aid people in recognizing misinformation such as harmful rumors, smear campaigns, astroturfing, and other social media abuse.”

Chairman Smith contends that the project singles out conservative messaging tactics and threatens free speech.

“The committee and taxpayers deserve to know how NSF decided to award a large grant for a project that proposed to develop standards for online political speech and to apply those standards through development of a website that targeted conservative political comments,” states the Smith letter.

In its “Frequently Asked Questions” page, the study maintains that “Truthy may happen to track some political memes as they co-occur with keywords related to themes on which we focus. However, we are a non-partisan research group and there is no attempt to represent or support any political views.”

In response to criticism, the project’s authors penned a blog clarifying that “the Truthy project is not designed and has not been used to create a database of political misinformation to be used by the federal government to monitor the activities of those who oppose its policies.”

“The assumption behind the Truthy effort is that an understanding of the spreading patterns may facilitate the identification of abuse, independent from the nature or political color of the communication,” the authors write.

The day Chairman Smith issued the letter; the Association of American Universities (AAU) released a statement on his committee’s continued inquires into NSF grants:

“If the Committee wishes to override the merit review process or if it wants NSF to stop funding research related to certain issues, its members owe it to the American public to say clearly what they are doing: substituting their judgment for the expertise of scientists on the vital question of what research the United States should support. The long history of success at NSF in making US science the best in the world would be undermined by such a change.”

Click here to view the AAU statement. Click here to view Chairman Smith’s letter. Click here to view the author’s response. Click here to link to the ‘Truthy’ study website.


This week, the House Republican Conference announced its committee chairs for the upcoming 114th Congress, which convenes in January 2015. House Democrats have yet to select their top spots for committee ranking members. Also pending are selections for subcommittee chairs.

Below is a list of new and returning chairs for House committees with jurisdiction over legislation that may be of interest to the ecological community:


House Appropriations Committee: Rep. Hal Rodgers (R-KY)

House Energy and Commerce Committee: Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI)

House Education and Workforce Committee: Rep. John Kline (R-MN)

House, Science, Space and Technology Committee: Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX)

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee: Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA)


House Agriculture Committee: Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX)

House Natural Resources Committee: Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT)

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee: Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT)

House Ways and Means Committee: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)


As lawmakers finalize work on an appropriations agreement to potentially fund the government through the remainder of Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, scientific societies are requesting adequate federal investment in scientific research and innovation.

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) is among 133 research, education, business and health organizations that signed a letter address to all Members of Congress urging passage of a FY 2015 omnibus appropriations bill that increases spending for federal agencies and programs that advance scientific research and higher education. The letter discourages lawmakers from enacting another continuing resolution (CR) that would flat-fund federal agencies at existing spending levels and calls for a commitment that helps close our nation’s “innovation deficit.”

“The fact that other nations are building up their research and innovation capabilities is not a bad thing. The world benefits from stronger research and education in other countries as well as our own,” states the letter. “What should concern us is that those other nations are doing this while the United States is essentially standing still. This poses a serious challenge to our position as the world’s innovation leader, and the economic and national security benefits that flow from it.”

ESA also joined the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) in signing a letter to appropriators supporting $7.4 billion for the National Science Foundation in FY 2015, which was the dollar amount included in the House bill. This would be a three percent increase over FY 2015.

The Senate’s FY 2015 funding bill included $7.255 billion for NSF, a 1.2 percent increase over FY 2014. This amount, while equal to the president’s FY 2015 budget request, is an uncharacteristically low increase for the agency and barely keeps pace with inflation.

“To close the innovation deficit and maintain our position of leadership, we must continue to make strong and sustainable investments in our research enterprise,” the CNSF letter states. “We can start by passing an FY2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill which provides increased funding for NSF.”

Agreement on a final appropriations bill is expected in December, though the administration’s plan to take action on immigration reform in the near future could complicate matters. The existing CR currently funding the government expires Dec. 11.

Click here to view the innovation deficit letter. Click here to view the CNSF letter.


On Nov. 10, the Ecological Society of America joined 19 other scientific research organizations and institutions in sending a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) requesting that they pass a final Fiscal Year 2015 omnibus appropriations bill that supports funding for climate research and is free of any legislatively mandated constraints on such research.

Several appropriations bills taken up by the House included “climate research riders,” legislative language in either the base bill or added through the amendment process that would cut or prohibit funding for programs that advance scientific understanding of issues related to global climate change. Among them are severe cuts to the Department of Energy’s Biological and Ecological Research program and prohibitions on spending to implement the US Global Change Research Program or the fifth assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“No matter where in the nation we live or what we do for a living, as a nation we all benefit from climate research,” the letter notes. “Farmers and business owners depend on climate science to make decisions on matters of profit and loss, including what to make, grow and sell, how to manage supply chains, and other resource allocation decisions. State leaders and managers depend on the best available climate science for energy infrastructure planning, transportation infrastructure and maintenance planning, and water resources management.”

Click here to view the full letter.


On Nov. 12, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it will list the Gunnison sage grouse (Centrocercus minimus) as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

According to FWS, there are only about 4,700 Gunnison sage grouse left, occupying only seven to 12 percent of the species’ historical range in Colorado and Utah. Concurrent with the publication of the final rule, FWS is designating 1.4 million acres in Colorado and southeastern Utah as critical habitat for the species. The listing was first proposed by the service in Jan. 2013, citing habitat loss and fragmentation caused by human development. The decision has no direct bearing on FWS’s still pending decision to list the related greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) as endangered under the ESA, which the agency is evaluating independently.

“While many people hoped that the extraordinary conservation efforts by our partners in Colorado and Utah would resolve all the threats faced by the Gunnison sage-grouse, the best available science indicates that the species still requires the Act’s protection,” said FWS Director Dan Ashe in a press statement.

Many agricultural landowners will not be affected by the bird’s new status. Those who have committed to Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances will be in full compliance with the ESA. Participating landowners took steps to improve sage grouse habitat and survival by, for example, removing invasive cheatgrass and putting ramps into stock tanks to help trapped birds escape drowning. Participants in the US Department of Agriculture’s Sage Grouse Initiative, Working Lands for Wildlife and Conservation Reserve Program will also be in compliance.

Nonetheless, the decision has ignited a political fervor between the administration, environmentalists and Colorado and Utah policymakers in both major political parties. Senators and Members of Congress representing the affected areas claim the listing threatens to undermine the conservation work done at the state and local government level to preserve the species.

“States, local governments, and public land users are working collaboratively to restore the Gunnison sage grouse populations and progress continues to be made,” stated Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT). “Restoration of the species is not something that can fully be measured overnight and it’s premature to supersede state and local actions with an ESA listing.

Congressman Bishop was recently elected by the Republican conference to chair the House Natural Resources Committee next year. The committee has primary jurisdiction over legislation that would reauthorize and reform the Endangered Species Act.

In contrast, environmental groups argue the threatened listing did not go far enough. WildEarth Guardians and several other environmental organizations plan to file suit against FWS in favor of a full “endangered” listing for the species, arguing the birds are at imminent risk of extinction and warrant full protection. The Nov. 12 deadline for FWS to make a decision was mandated by a settlement agreement from a WildEarth Guardians lawsuit over a backlog of species listing decisions.

Click here for additional information.


Passed House

H.R. 5266, to reauthorize the National Estuary Programs – Introduced by Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), the bill would reauthorize the National Estuary Program through Fiscal Year 2018 to address issues that include seagrass habitat loss, harmful algae blooms, unusual marine mammal mortalities, invasive species and flooding. The bill passed the House Nov. 12 by voice vote.

H.R. 5682, to approve the Keystone pipeline – Introduced by Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), the bill would authorize TransCanada to construct the Keystone XL pipeline across the US-Canada border. The bill passed the House Nov. 14 by a vote of 252-161 with 31 Democrats joining Republicans in supporting the bill.

The Senate began debating the bill this week, it failed to garner the 60 votes necessary to advance in the Senate by a vote of 59-41. While President Obama has criticized efforts to move legislation to fast-track approval of the Keystone pipeline, the White House did not issue a formal veto threat of the bill.

H.R. 1422, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act – Introduced by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), the bills adds new peer-review requirements to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB). It requires SAB to select members that represent a “balanced” view of scientific issues, opening the board up to the prospect of perspectives far outside scientific consensus as well as beliefs not based in science. The bill also requires the advisory board to make publicly available all scientific information used in determining its advisories to EPA.

The bill passed the US House of Representatives on Nov. 18 by a vote of 229-191 with four Democrats joining all but one Republican, Rep. Chris Gibson (NY), in support of the bill. It is not expected to be considered in the Senate before Congress adjourns for the year.

In a Statement of Administration Policy, the White House recommended vetoing the bill, stating it would “negatively affect the appointment of experts and would weaken the scientific independence and integrity of the SAB.

Click here to view the administration’s full statement.

H.R. 4012, the Secret Science Reform Act – Introduced by Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ), the bill would prohibit EPA from finalizing regulations based on science that is not “transparent or reproducible.”

In a Statement of Administration Policy, the White House recommended vetoing the bill, stating “some scientifically-important data is not made broadly available in order to protect the privacy of test subjects or confidential business information, and H.R. 4012 could prevent EPA from taking actions based on protected data.” This bill passed Nov. 19 by a vote of 237-190 with eight Democrats joining all but one Republican (Rep. Chris Gibson (NY)) in support of the measure. It is not expected to be considered in the Senate before Congress adjourns for the year.

Click here to view the administration’s full statement.

Sources: Department of Interior, US Environmental Protection Agency, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the White House, House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Energy and Environment Daily, E&E News PM, Greenwire, the Hill, the Washington Post