September 12, 2017

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Administration Joins with Democrats to Pass Continuing Budget Resolution

On Sept. 6, President Trump stunned Republicans by agreeing to a budget deal with Democrats to fund disaster aid and prevent a government shutdown. The package includes $15.25 billion for Harvey relief, funds the government with a continuing resolution until Dec. 8, and raises the debt ceiling, which would have met its legal limit at the end of Sept., also until Dec. 8. The Senate passed the measure on Sept. 7, the House passed it on Sept. 8, and the president signed it on the afternoon of Sept. 8.

This package is only a short-term measure to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling, so Congress will have to address government spending again before the end of the year, setting up a likely contentious fight over the debt limit and government spending.

Congress is also continuing to work on appropriations for Fiscal Year 2018. So far, the House has passed four of the twelve appropriations bills in a spending package that included funding for the Department of Defense, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, Energy and Water, and the Legislative Branch. The other eight spending bills have been approved by the Appropriations Committee but have yet to be voted on in the full House. The Senate has not yet passed any spending bills. The Appropriations Committee has approved several, and subcommittees are still considering the rest.

EPA Changes Require Political Aide’s Approval for Grants, Reshuffle Offices

The Environmental Protection Agency under Administrator Scott Pruitt is continuing to make changes to its priorities, staffing, and organization. The plans are giving its Policy and Public Affairs Offices control over many scientific award decisions.

The EPA is now requiring a political aide, John Konkus, to review and approve every award and grant solicitation from the EPA. Konkus, a former Trump campaign aide, is deputy associate administrator in the EPA’s public affairs office. The Washington Post is reporting that Konkus has canceled almost $2 million competitively awarded grants and is instructing staff to remove references to climate change in grant solicitations. It is highly unusual for a political aide to make grant-related decisions, and the EPA’s Office of Public Affairs is typically not involved in awarding grants.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, raised concern with this change in an Aug. 24 letter to Administrator Pruitt. Carper requested more information from Pruitt on the involvement of John Konkus in the agency’s grant solicitation process and expressed concern that the change “may be indicative of the politicization of the grant-awarding process.”

In another change for the agency, E&E News is reporting that, according to EPA employees, the agency has announced plans to move the environmental justice office and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) office from the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance to the Office of Policy. The Office of Policy is housed within Administrator Pruitt’s office, so this shift moves the environmental justice and environmental review work closer to him. Furthermore, EPA’s climate change adaptation staff will be dissolved into other agency offices under the reorganization.

Additionally, the agency will no longer host the Climate Leadership Awards program and is canceling its sponsorship of the associated Climate Leadership Conference. The Climate Leadership Awards program is a national program that recognizes and incentivizes leadership in response to climate change. EPA has co-sponsored the awards with NGO partners since 2012.

As a result of retirements and buyouts, the EPA’s workforce is expected to decline from 15,000 to 14,428 employees by the end of the month. This level has not been seen since the 1988 fiscal year.

Flood Infrastructure and Harvey

On Aug. 15, the president signed an executive order on “Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure,” designed to expedite federal approval of major infrastructure projects. One provision of the order rescinded a 2015 directive from the Obama administration requiring agencies to account for sea-level rise when funding infrastructure projects. Revoking the directive means that projects in floodplains do not have to accommodate sea-level rise in order to receive government funding.

Ten days later, Category 4 Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast, causing widespread destruction to Houston and the surrounding area and dumping 33 trillion gallons of water in total on the U.S. In addition to the devastating impacts for the people and communities affected, the storm caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage to infrastructure that will need to be rebuilt. On the heels of Harvey, Hurricane Irma, also a Category 4 hurricane, made landfall in the Florida Keys over the weekend and a second landfall on Florida’s southwest coast before weakening and pushing north into Georgia and South Carolina.

In the aftermath of Harvey, three Senate Democrats urged President Trump to reinstate the flood standards he revoked in the executive order days before. Sens. Cory Booker (NJ), Brian Schatz (HI), and Chris Van Hollen (MD) sent a letter to the president calling his decision to revoke the standard “fiscally irresponsible and potentially life-threatening.” They write in the letter that the rescinded standard would help provide agencies with options for “taking into account available climate science or building to withstand a 500-year storm—the same kind of destructive event that the residents of eastern Texas just endured.”

Zinke Makes Monument Recommendations and Receives Sage-Grouse Review Report

On Aug. 24, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted his report to the president with his recommendations for 27 national monuments under review. This report was required by the president’s April executive order initiating review of certain designations under the Antiquities Act. Zinke said he is recommending changes to a “handful” of national monuments, but is not suggesting any eliminations. Interior did not provide more specific details, and the report has not been released publicly. However, reports citing people briefed on Zinke’s recommendations state that at least the Bears Ears (UT), Grand Staircase-Escalante (UT), and Cascade-Siskiyou (OR) national monuments were targeted for reductions. Zinke had previously submitted an interim report on Bears Ears National Monument in June recommending the site be “right-sized.”

Prior to the Aug. 24 deadline, Zinke had announced six national monuments that were no longer under review and to which he would not recommend changes: Craters of the Moon (ID), Hanford Reach (WA), Upper Missouri River Breaks (MT), Grand Canyon-Parashant (AZ), Canyons of the Ancients (CO), and Sand to Snow (CA).

ESA submitted comments with AAAS on Interior’s review of national monuments.

Another recent report recommending changes to existing land protections came from the Department of the Interior’s Sage-Grouse Review Team. In June, Secretary Zinke signed a secretarial order related to sage-grouse conservation. This order established an internal review team to review greater sage-grouse plans finalized in 2015 that amended BLM and Forest Service land use plans in Western states over the sage-grouse’s 173-million acre range. The 2015 plan was designed to keep the bird off of the endangered species list.

The Sage-Grouse Review Team established by the order sent its report on the results of its review to Zinke on Aug. 7. Under the current administration, the review of the sage-grouse plans favors the mineral industry over sage-grouse habitat protection. The report recommends plan and policy changes, including “modify[ing] or issu[ing] new policy on fluid mineral leasing and development” and “investigat[ing] the removal or modification of Sage-grouse Focal Areas.” It continues the Trump administration’s tendency to put industry above environmental protections. Read the full report here.

WOTUS Comment Period Extended, Public Meetings Scheduled

The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers are accepting public comments on the proposal to repeal the Clean Water Rule. This Obama-era rule defines “waters of the U.S.,” (WOTUS) governing Clean Water Act protections for waterways. Following a February executive order initiating review of WOTUS, the administration is pursuing a two-step process of repealing and replacing the rule. The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers are accepting comments on the proposed first step undoing the rule and recodifying regulations that were in effect prior to the 2015 rule. The comment period is open until Sept. 27. In addition, public meetings have been scheduled to hear recommendations from stakeholders on revising the WOTUS definition. The meetings are teleconferences tailored to specific sectors. The webinar for scientific organizations and academia is Nov. 7, and a webinar open to the general public is Nov. 21. Find the entire schedule here.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) raised concerns about the EPA’s repeal and replacement of the Clean Water Rule in a letter to Pruitt on Sept. 6. Carper cited reports that political appointees at EPA instructed agency scientists to delete information on the economic benefits associated with WOTUS. According to EPA staff, a regulatory report that EPA submitted to the Office of Management and Budget removed reference to $500 million in economic benefits. Carper’s letter presses Pruitt for information, stating that “erasing the scientific and economic benefits of a rule […] will not erase the environmental and public health risk that the drinking water sources may pose if the rule is repealed.”

ESA joined six other organizations in sending a letter of support for the Clean Water Rule to the president, Congress, and Administrator Pruitt.

Additional Agency Nominees Announced

On Sept. 2, the administration announced several nominees for key agency positions remaining to be filled, including NASA administrator and NOAA deputy administrator.

NASA Administrator

The president’s pick for NASA administrator is Oklahoma Representative Jim Bridenstine. NASA plays an intricate role in designing and managing the equipment that provides climate science data. Bridenstine is a climate denier who dismisses the link between human activity and climate change. A veteran Navy combat pilot, Bridenstine was elected in 2012 and serves on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

Traditionally, the post of NASA administrator has been held by scientists, engineers, and astronauts. Bridenstine, who majored in economics, business, and psychology and holds an MBA from Cornell University, would be the first elected politician to serve as administrator.

NASA is one of several independent agencies, which means it is not a part of a federal executive department and the Executive Office of the President. However, the president still gets to pick its administrator. Florida Sens. Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D) have expressed deep concern about a politician leading the science agency. The Senate will need to confirm Bridenstine’s nomination. It is anyone’s bet whether he will be approved for the job, especially in light of the recent hurricanes and NASA’s important role in managing equipment that provides data to inform disaster preparedness and response.

NOAA Deputy Administrator

Timothy Gallaudet has been nominated to be assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, the second-in-command at NOAA. Gallaudet, a Rear Admiral in the Navy, served as a Navy oceanographer and commander of the Navy Meteorology and Oceanography Command. A scientist by training, he holds a bachelor’s degree in oceanography from the Naval Academy and master’s and doctoral degrees, also in oceanography, from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Gallaudet understands climate science and has experience tracking and considering the impacts of climate change.

Quick Reads

Army Corps Releases Asian Carp Plan

On Aug. 7, the Army Corps of Engineers released an overdue draft report on keeping invasive Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes. The draft report, a feasibility study examining ways to keep the carp in the Illinois River from getting to Lake Michigan, was originally due in February, but was delayed. Known as the Brandon Road Study, it focuses on structural and nonstructural options and technologies near the Brandon Road Lock and Dam and tentatively selects a plan involving nonstructural activities, complex noise, water jets, an engineered channel, electric barrier, flushing lock, boat launches, and a new mooring location.

New Forest Service Chief

Tony Tooke became the new chief of the U.S. Forest Service on Sept. 1, replacing former Chief Tom Tidwell who retired at the beginning of the month. Tooke, the agency’s 18th chief, has worked for the Forest Service for 37 years and was previously the regional forester for the Southern Region.

Interior Limits NEPA Studies

E&E News is reporting that the Department of the Interior is directing that environmental impact statements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) be no more than 150 pages or 300 pages for “unusually complex reports.” The internal memo from Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, who was confirmed at the end of July, also sets a target of completing NEPA studies within one year.

Several Agency Climate Panels Allowed to Expire

The charters of two scientific advisory committees devoted to climate change were allowed to expire over the summer. The Department of the Interior’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science was established in 2013 to offer advice to Interior about climate change. Its charter expired in June and was not renewed. The other panel was NOAA’s Sustained National Climate Assessment Advisory Committee, which provided advice on how to use the National Climate Assessment and engage stakeholders. Its charter expired in August.

DC Court Rules in Favor of NOAA Climate Scientists

On Aug. 21, the D.C. District Court upheld NOAA’s decision to protect climate scientists’ research materials. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from Judicial Watch had sought to obtain NOAA scientists’ documents related to a 2015 paper refuting the idea of a hiatus in global warming. NOAA provided some of the documents requested, but withheld others that the agency claimed were predecisional and deliberative and therefore protected from FOIA under what is known as the “deliberative process privilege.” The court sided with NOAA, denying Judicial Watch’s claim that the deliberative process privilege did not apply.

Climate Solutions Caucus Reaches 52 Members

The bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus has added four new members, bringing the total to 52. The newest members are Reps. Steve Knight (R-CA), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Ed Royce (R-CA), and Derek Kilmer (D-WA). The Caucus, which adds members in bipartisan pairs, is dedicated to exploring economically viable ways to address climate risks and to approach climate adaptation and mitigation.

NSF Issues First Convergence Awards

The National Science Foundation has issued its first Convergence awards, recognizing the integration of multiple disciplines in order to advance scientific discovery and innovation. The 23 awards support workshops, summer institutes, and Research Coordination Networks that highlight the value of Convergence.

NSF Headquarters Relocation

The National Science Foundation is now in process of relocating its headquarters from Arlington to Alexandria, VA. The move will continue through Sunday, Oct. 1, with the new mailing address effective Monday, Oct. 2. Email addresses and phone numbers for NSF employees and offices will not change, though response times might be delayed.

NSF Report on Merit Review Process

The Report to the National Science Board on the National Science Foundation’s Merit Review Process, Fiscal Year 2016 is available here.

Get Involved

NSF National Science Board Accepting Nominations for Members

The National Science Board is accepting submissions for Board members for the class of 2018-2024. The Board is an oversight and governance board that oversees the activities of and establishing policies for NSF and serves as an advisory board to the president and to Congress on policy matters related to science and engineering. Nominations are being accepted until Sept. 15.

National Invasive Species Council Call for Papers

The National Invasive Species Council (NISC) is undertaking a National Invasive Species Assessment for the United States. This assessment will evaluate the impact of invasive species on major U.S. assets from
ecological, social, and economic perspectives. The NISC Secretariat is seeking contributions from topic area experts for a special issue of Biological Invasions that will serve as the first version of the assessment. Paper/author team proposals are due by Oct. 20. Find more information here.

Recommend Members for NSF Directorate and Office Advisory Committees

The National Science Foundation is requesting recommendations for membership on its scientific and technical federal advisory committees, including the Advisory Committee for Biological Sciences. These external advisory committees provide advice on program management, discuss current issues, and review and provide advice on the impact of policies, programs, and activities of the directorate or office of NSF.

DOE Office of Science Graduate Student Research Program Accepting Applications

The Department of Energy Office of Science is accepting applications for the Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) program. The program prepares graduate students for STEM careers critically important to the DOE Office of Science mission by providing graduate thesis research opportunities at DOE laboratories. Applicants must be pursuing graduate research in an area that is aligned with one or more of the priority research areas of the Office of Science’s six research program offices (including Biological and Environmental Research). Applications are due Nov. 16.

NSF Accepting Nominations for Honorary Awards

The National Science Foundation is accepting nominations for its 2018 Vannevar Bush and Public Service awards recognizing remarkable contributions in public service in science and engineering. Nominations are being accepted through Oct. 1. Eligibility and selection criteria and nomination guidelines are available on the Vannevar Bush Award website.

Provide Input on DOI Regulations

The Department of the Interior is seeking public comments on regulations for repeal, replacement, or modification. The president’s February executive order on reducing regulatory burdens directed federal agencies to address outdated or unnecessary policies. DOI is seeking input from the public on policies of Interior agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Geological Survey. Submit comments online or by mail.

Apply for an OSTP Internship

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is accepting applications for the OSTP Internship Program. OSTP offers both policy internships and legal internships. Read more on the White House website.

Legislative Updates

Marine Debris Bill Passes Senate

A bill to reduce global marine debris passed the Senate on Aug. 3. This bipartisan bill, the Save Our Seas (SOS) Act (S.756), was introduced by Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). It would reauthorize NOAA’s Marine Debris Program for another five years, allowing NOAA to continue conducting research on and working to clean up marine debris. It would also promote international action to research biodegradable plastics, examine the causes of ocean debris, and work to develop prevention strategies. The bill currently has 19 cosponsors. It now goes to the House.

House Science Ranking Member Introduces ARPA-E Bill

On Sept. 6, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, introduced the ARPA-E Reauthorization Act of 2017 (H.R.3681), legislation to reauthorize the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). ARPA-E has been targeted for elimination in the president’s budget. The research program funds high-potential, high-impact energy technologies. The bipartisan bill is cosponsored by Reps. Ryan Costello (R-PA), Mia Love (R-UT), Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), Don Beyer (D-VA), and Marcy Kaptur (D-OH).

Other Legislation Introduced

  • Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act of 2017 (H.R.3427 and S.1701). Introduced July 26 in the House by Rep. Michael Doyle (D-PA) and Aug. 2 in the Senate by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), this bill would provide for federal agencies to develop public access policies relating to research conducted by employees of that agency or from funds administered by that agency.
  • Border Security and Accountability Act of 2017 (H.R.3474). Introduced July 27 by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), this bill would provide for the establishment of an accountable and humane border security strategy for the international land borders of the United States and address cultural, economic, ecological, environmental and humanitarian impacts of border security infrastructure, measures, and activities along the international land borders of the United States.
  • Sage-Grouse and Mule Deer Habitat Conservation and Restoration Act of 2017 (H.R.3543). Introduced July 28 by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), this bill would require the Secretary of the Interior to develop a categorical exclusion for covered vegetative management activities carried out to establish or improve habitat for greater sage-grouse and mule deer.
  • Recognizing the Environmental Gains in Overcoming Negligence (REGION) Act (H.R.3582). Introduced July 28 by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), this bill would prohibit the closure, consolidation, or elimination of offices of the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Endangered Species Transparency and Reasonableness Act (H.R.3608). Introduced July 28 by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), this bill would amend the Endangered Species Act of 1973 to require publication on the Internet of the basis for determinations that species are endangered species or threatened species.
  • Science Laureates of the United States Act of 2017 (S.1684). Introduced Aug. 1 by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), this bill would establish a position of Science Laureate of the United States.
  • Emergency Fuel Reduction Act of 2017 (S.1752). Introduced Aug. 4 by Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), this bill would amend the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 to expedite wildfire prevention projects to reduce the risk of wildfire on certain high-risk federal land.
  • Rebuild America Now Act (S.1756). Introduced Aug. 4 by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), this bill would improve the processes by which environmental documents are prepared and permits and applications are processed and regulated by federal departments and agencies.
  • Harmful Algal Blooms Solutions (HABS) Act of 2017 (H.R.3661). Introduced Aug. 18 by Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), this bill would establish a program to award prizes for the development of innovative, environmentally safe solutions for reducing, mitigating, and controlling harmful algal blooms.
  • Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act (H.R.3671). Introduced Sept. 1 by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), this bill would justly transition away from fossil fuel sources of energy to 100 percent clean energy by 2035.

From the Federal Register

Public Meetings:

Opportunities for Public Comment and Nominations: