January 9, 2018

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Department of the Interior Adopts Political Review of Grants, Reverses Rules, Proposes Drilling Expansion

Political Screening for Interior Grants

According to a Dec. 28 directive obtained by The Washington Post, the Department of the Interior has instituted a new screening process for science grants to outside groups. This new system requires political appointees to approve grants to nonprofits and universities in order to ensure that they “promote the priorities” of the administration. This is a developing story that ESA will be monitoring.

Interior Rescinds Rules on Climate Change and Mitigation

The Interior Department issued a secretarial order on Dec. 22 rescinding four policies involving climate change and environmental mitigation. Environmental and conservation groups, former officials, and others have decried this secretarial order as severely limiting Interior’s ability to adapt to a changing climate.

The order, signed by Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, aligns with March executive and secretarial orders on “energy independence.”

  • One of the directives it revokes is the chapter of the Interior Department manual outlining the agency’s science-based approach to climate change.
  • Another revoked policy encouraged land managers to consider how mitigation projects fit into larger conservation efforts for surrounding areas, looking beyond how specific projects affect small areas of land.
  • The other policies rescinded are a section from the Bureau of Land Management’s manual and a BLM handbook, both on mitigation. These documents described how to assess project impacts on natural resources and develop mitigation projects to offset them.

Rescinding the adaptation and mitigation policies means that there is no longer legal cover for land managers to prepare for climate change impacts. Opponents of the move warn that over 500 million acres of public land under Interior’s jurisdiction could suffer.

Interior Reverses Migratory Bird Policy

On Dec. 22, the Department of the Interior issued a legal memo declaring that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act does not apply to accidental killing of migratory birds and that Interior will no longer prosecute companies that kill birds incidentally. This interpretation reverses a policy from the final days of the Obama administration that interpreted the law as applying to both incidental and intentional killing of migratory birds. The reversal was well-received by energy companies and other businesses that worried about liability under the Obama interpretation of the Migratory Bird Act.

Administration Proposes Massive Expansion of Offshore Drilling

On Jan. 4, Interior announced a plan to open nearly all of the Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas leasing. The five-year plan, a response to President Trump’s April executive order promoting an “America-First” offshore energy strategy, proposes to auction drilling rights in vast new areas in the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic, and off the coast of Alaska. This proposal would open more than 90 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to leasing, the largest expansion ever proposed by the federal government. Currently, 94 percent of the OCS is off limits. The plan, however, met with bipartisan opposition, with several Republicans in coastal states that would see an expansion of offshore drilling urging Secretary Zinke to reconsider. Republican lawmakers from states including Florida, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Viginia issued statements opposing the plan. In response to the strong reactions, Secretary Zinke signaled that he is open to modifying the plan and that the five-year plan is just a starting point. Public meetings will be held around the country starting on Jan. 16 to receive comments on the proposed plan and to inform a draft Environmental Impact Statement. Specific dates, times, and venues will be posted on BOEM’s website. The plan and a notice of intent are available for public comment until March 9.

Quick Reads

Congress Averts December Shutdown, Next Spending Deadline Approaching

The government has been operating under short-term continuing resolutions (CRs) since Fiscal Year 2018 began on Oct. 1, with the last CR set to expire on Dec. 22. On Dec. 21, Congress passed another stopgap spending measure, keeping funding flat for all federal agencies and narrowly averting a government shutdown. This latest measure extends funding through Jan. 19, setting a new deadline for Congress to either come to an agreement on a spending package or enact another continuing resolution. These short-term measures keep postponing larger fights related to government spending, including immigration, health care, national security, and disaster funding.   

Controversial Nominees Re-nominated

Under Senate rules, nominees for administration positions who have not been confirmed by the end of the congressional session are returned to the president and must be re-nominated, unless they have enough bipartisan support for the Senate to pass a resolution to hold onto the nominations. When the new session of Congress began on Jan. 3, several of President Trump’s controversial pending nominees needed to be resubmitted in order to be considered. These nominees included Kathleen Hartnett White to lead CEQ, Andrew Wheeler for deputy EPA administrator, and Jim Bridenstine for NASA administrator. The White House announced that it was resubmitting these nominations and others on Jan. 8. Hartnett White in particular faces strong opposition from Democrats over her past comments on climate change and science and her lack of knowledge of environmental laws.

USGS Head Confirmed

On Dec. 21, as part of a block of nominees, the Senate confirmed Tim Petty to be assistant secretary of the Interior for water and science, the position that oversees the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Reclamation. Petty holds a Ph.D. from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, an M.S. from University of Maryland University College, and a B.S. from Purdue University. He previously worked as a geologist and a hydrogeologist, and in his Dec. 5 confirmation hearing stated that climate change is real. His nomination received broad bipartisan support.

House Hearing on Bears Ears Legislation

On Jan. 9, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands held a hearing on H.R.4532, a bill from Rep. John Curtis (R-UT) that would codify the president’s reduction of Bears Ears National Monument. President Trump’s December proclamation cut the acreage of Bears Ears and split it into two separate units, Indian Creek and Shash Jaa. H.R.4532, the “Shash Jaa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act,” makes the two units their own monuments. It would also establish tribal management councils for the two monuments. The coalition of five Native American tribes that formed to ask Obama for the establishment of the original Bears Ears monument opposes the bill.

Clean Power Plan Author Reassigned

E&E News reported on Jan. 8 that an EPA lawyer who played a leading role in drafting the agency’s Clean Power Plan has been reassigned. EPA associate general counsel Lorie Schmidt, a Clean Air Act lawyer, will now be working on “special projects,” while Deputy Associate General Counsel Gautam Srinivasan will serve as acting associate general counsel. The EPA has proposed to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, cutting them 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. See the “Get Involved” section below for opportunities to comment on the proposals.

Texas House Delegation Sea Change

Eight of the 36 members of the Texas House of Representatives delegation are either retiring or not seeking re-election. Of note is the retirement of House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, who has confounded the scientific community with his criticism of federal scientific research and skepticism of climate science. Many of those leaving hold other influential senior committee positions such Rep. Barton on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which will lose four Texas members. New committee members will hold less senior—and, therefore, less influential—committee positions. Certainly, the new Texas members who are elected will impact federal energy and environmental legislation.

Senate to Explore Water Resources Reauthorization

On Jan. 10, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on “America’s Water Infrastructure Needs and Challenges.” Featuring non-federal water stakeholders as witnesses, the hearing will focus on the importance of reauthorizing the Water Resources Development Act. Traditionally passed every two years, most recently in 2014 and 2016, the legislation authorizes Army Corps of Engineers projects.

Environmental Finance Downgraded at Treasury

E&E News is reporting that the Treasury Department is planning to reorganize its Office of Environment and Energy, which would be moved into its international development section and effectively downgrade the office. Former Secretary Hank Paulson for President George W. Bush had created the Office of Environment and Energy that oversaw international environment finance. One important responsibility was US participation in the U.N. Green Climate Fund. It also directed other aid and spending programs such as the Global Environment Facility on the environment and sustainable development.

Get Involved

Nominations for Invasive Species Advisory Council

On behalf of the interdepartmental National Invasive Species Council (NISC), the Department of the Interior is requesting nominations for new members to appoint to the Invasive Species Advisory Committee (ISAC). ISAC advises NISC, which provides the federal government with coordination, planning, and leadership on the prevention, eradication, and control of invasive species. ISAC is a multi-stakeholder advisory committee that is intended to play a role in recommending plans and actions to achieve the goals of the National Invasive Species Council Management Plan. Nominations must be postmarked no later than Feb. 26.

Forest Service Revising NEPA Procedures

The Forest Service is looking for ways to modify its environmental review process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in order to expedite approval of forest restoration and thinning projects. A Jan. 3 Federal Register document provides notice of the proposed rulemaking to revise NEPA procedures and asks for public comments on ways to increase efficiency of environmental analysis. Comments can be submitted until Feb. 2.

Comment on Clean Power Plan Repeal and Replacement

On Dec. 18, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed an advance notice of proposed rulemaking initiating the first step toward replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan (CPP). The document asks for public comment on what a replacement rule should look like. The Clean Power Plan sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, cutting them 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. In a separate but related action, the EPA had previously proposed to repeal the rule. The agency held one public hearing in November on CPP repeal and announced three additional public listening sessions that have not yet been scheduled. Three states—Delaware, New York, and Maryland—are hosting their own public meetings to provide residents with a chance to comment. The EPA is accepting public comments on CPP repeal until Jan. 16 and comments on a replacement rule through Feb. 26.

Provide Input on National Climate Assessment

On Nov. 3, the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) released volume one of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), as well as drafts of volume two and the State of the Carbon Cycle Report. The congressionally mandated climate science report assesses the science of climate change and its impacts. Volume two is a technical, scientific assessment of climate change impacts, risks, and adaptation across the US. The carbon cycle report assesses the state of the carbon cycle across North America. Comments on volume 2 of the NCA4 are due by Jan. 31. All comments must be submitted via the USGCRP Review and Comment System.

Review and Comment on Draft Habitat-Based Recovery Criteria for Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft Supplement to the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan that establishes habitat-based recovery criteria for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE). The draft recovery criteria were developed in part through comments received at a habitat-based recovery criteria workshop held in 2016, as well as the public comment period. On Jan. 3, the Service held a second habitat-based recovery criteria workshop in order to allow scientists and the public to submit comments. Comments can still be delivered by mail or online before Jan. 26.

National Academies Advisory Committee for the Climate Communications Initiative

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have appointed a new Advisory Committee for the Climate Communications Initiative (CCI), an effort to coordinate efforts across the institution and more effectively enable its work on climate science, impacts, and response options to inform the public and policymakers. The Advisory Committee will help develop a strategic plan and provide guidance in implementing it. It will hold its first meeting March 6-7 in Washington, DC. Public sessions will be webcast.

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.

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

House Committee to Mark Up Bill to Expedite Marine Mammal Protection Process

The House Natural Resources Committee is holding a full committee markup on Jan. 10 to examine several bills, including one that would expedite the process oil and gas exploration applicants must go through to protect marine mammals. H.R.3133, the “Streamlining Environmental Approvals (SEA) Act,” aims to streamline the authorization for “incidental take” of marine mammals that applicants for seismic exploration must go through under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It establishes deadlines for federal agencies to review applications, exempts animals from additional requirements under the Endangered Species Act, and prohibits mitigation if mammals are injured or killed, among other changes. The bill was introduced by Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA).

Incidental Discharge Bill Enacted

The president signed S.2273 into law on Jan. 3, enacting legislation to extend the moratorium on Clean Water Act permits for incidental discharges from certain vessels. The bill, introduced by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), extended the moratorium, set to expire on Dec. 18, by a month. It covers incidental discharges from fishing vessels and vessels that are less than 79 feet long.

Ocean Monitoring Bill Passes Senate

On Jan. 8, the Senate passed S.1425, the Coordinated Ocean Monitoring and Research Act. This legislation, introduced by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), reauthorizes the Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observation System Act of 2009, renewing federal support for its collection of navigation, commerce, energy development, defense, and other activities.

STEM Bills Pass House

After votes on Dec. 18, designated “Science Day” in Congress by House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), the House passed several STEM bills, which now go to the Senate. Among the legislation approved are the STEM Research and Education Effectiveness and Transparency Act (H.R. 4375), introduced by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) and cosponsored by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act (H.R.4323), and the Women in Aerospace Education Act (H.R.4254). These bills advance STEM education and careers in STEM fields.

Other Legislation Introduced

  • COASTAL Implementation Act of 2017 (S.2242). Introduced Dec. 18 by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), this bill would amend the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 to clarify the authority of the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with respect to post-storm assessments.
  • S.2277. Introduced Jan. 4 by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), this bill would require the delisting of Mexican gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 on a determination that the subspecies has been sufficiently recovered in the United States.

Opportunities from the Federal Register

Public Meetings:

Opportunities for Public Comment and Nominations:

  • NSF  – Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, Principles for Conduct of Research in Arctic
    The Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC) is seeking public comments on how to revise and strengthen the Principles for the Conduct of Research in the Arctic, originally adopted in 1990. The Principles address the need to promote mutual respect and communication between scientists and northern residents. The update will focus on community engagement, the contributions of Indigenous knowledge, and dissemination and implementation of the Principles. Comments are due by Jan. 16.
  • EPA – Availability of Draft Neonicotinoid Risk and Benefits Assessments
    The EPA announced the availability of a draft ecological non-pollinator risk assessment for the registration review of imidacloprid, along with draft health and non-pollinator ecological risk assessments for other neonicotinoids. The notice also announces the availability of benefits assessments for neonicotinoid insecticide use in cotton and citrus. The EPA is inviting public comments as it evaluates and considers the risks and benefits of these insecticides. Submit comments by Feb. 20.
  • NMFS – Draft 2017 Marine Mammal Stock Assessment Report
    The National Marine Fisheries Service reviewed the Alaska, Atlantic, and Pacific regional marine mammal stock assessment reports (SARs) and revised them according to new information. NMFS is soliciting public comments on the draft 2017 SARs, available here. Submit comments online or by mail by March 19.

Visit this page on ESA’s blog for updates on opportunities from the Federal Register, including upcoming meetings and regulations open for public comment.