March 12, 2018
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Trump Infrastructure Outline Trudges Slowly
President Trump released his Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America (53 pages) Feb. 12. The outline offers $200 billion in federal spending over 10 years and aims to spur an additional $1.3 trillion in state and private infrastructure spending. It seeks to limit environmental oversight while shortening regulatory review to two years. It includes a directive to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to revise its guidance on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to streamline the process. Under the banner, “one agency, one decision,” another directive would designate a lead agency responsible for developing a single, unified review document and decision.
The administration outline is predicated on state and local governments matching federal contributions at a level of at least four-to-one. Apparently, funding from existing sources such as sales taxes levied for transportation projects meets the requirement. “There will be a lookback provision so that states and local governments who have already recently raised revenues aren’t penalized for being forward-thinking and implementing the types of policies that we’re encouraging through this program,” said a senior administration official.
Spending under the Trump proposal of $200 billion would see $100 billion targeted to local governments, and $20 billion would fund “projects of national significance” that can “lift the American spirit.” Another $50 billion is targeted for rural block grants, mostly for roads. The remaining $30 billion is to support infrastructure-related programs such as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) loans under the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which White House officials suggest could leverage up to $40 in local and private money for every federal dollar. The administration infrastructure outline omits any mention of climate change or resilience.
A bipartisan group of congressional leaders met with the president Feb. 14 to discuss the outline.The group included Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) and Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-DE), Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) and Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL), and House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT). Rep. Bishop characterized the discussion as “preliminary.” Sen. Carper called it “refreshing,” and seemed to point to a proposal to raise the fuel tax to help pay for the plan. “He said we should raise the gas, diesel tax by 25 cents a gallon,” said Carper. “He kept coming back to that and saying that these things are worth having, they’re worth paying for.” The president, however, has not yet publicly endorsed it and Barrasso calls it “a non-starter.”
The president’s infrastructure outline is receiving decidedly mixed reviews in Congress. Fiscal conservatives raise concerns about the $200 billion cost in the shadow of the recently enacted $1.5 trillion tax cut and $300 billion two-year federal budget deal.
Revenue suggestions, such as increasing the fuels tax by $0.25 per gallon, violate long-held Republican anti-tax dogma, though endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, shippers endorsed suggestions of an annual per-vessel fee for commercial users of inland waterways to pay for capital investments, operations, and maintenance. Some questioned a proposal that would allow some revenue derived from energy development on public lands to pay for capital, operating, and maintenance costs of federal lands, funds that may already be otherwise committed. Others questioned shifting primary funding burdens to state and private entities. Additionally, the outline would allow sale of federal assets that “would be better managed by state, local, or private entities,” and mentions as examples: Ronald Reagan and Dulles International Airports, the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bonneville Power Authority’s transmission assets, and the Washington Aqueduct, which supplies Washington, DC’s drinking water.
At the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in January, D.J. Gribbin, special assistant to the president for infrastructure, noted that the plan would not include proposals for specific funding mechanisms, leaving that to a conversation with Congress. He also committed to leaving funds such as the Highway Trust Fund intact, though other existing spending may be repurposed.
Environmental leaders decried the envisioned “regulatory streamlining” with the one agency-one decision permitting model that would be foreshortened to about two years and limit U.S. EPA authority to review other agencies’ environmental impact statements under the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The White House has directed the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to recommend revisions to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to facilitate the two-year timeline and allow states greater authority for NEPA enforcement. Regulatory experts noted that two years would be less than the time required to complete some environmental impact studies. The plan would additionally limit the window for NEPA-based lawsuits to only 150 days, rather than the current six years. Ted Boling, associate director for NEPA at CEQ, called the two-year window for approvals an “ambitious goal.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) called the outline a “fantasy” in comments following its release.
Initial hearings on the administration’s infrastructure outline were held March 1 with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao appearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works chaired by John Barrasso (R-WY). In her Senate testimony, Sec. Chao defended the infrastructure outline, defending its leverage and funding projections, shifting infrastructure costs to state and local levels, and pointing strongly to permitting reform as incentivizing private infrastructure investments. Chao also said that the administration has not officially endorsed raising the fuel tax, contradicting comments by Sen. Carper (D-DE) following a Feb. 14 White House meeting.
In response to Chao’s comments on permitting reform, Sen. Carper observed that the recently enacted Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015 and Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) in 2012 provide opportunities for regulatory streamlining that have not yet been acted on. He noted that the FAST Act includes a provision for a two-year limit for filing lawsuits.
Carper also argued that “One of the best ways to speed up projects is provide long-term funding and program certainty,” wondering why the administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget would cut funding for Transportation Department permitting.
The federal leverage of $200 billion into $1.5 trillion was questioned by a Penn Wharton Budget Model (The White House FY 2019 Infrastructure Plan) introduced by Carper that estimates that “total new infrastructure investment would increase between $20 billion to $230 billion, including the $200 billion federal investment. There will be little to no impact on the economy.”
EPW Chair Barrasso supported proposals to streamline environmental review and permitting, saying “Only in Washington is two years considered a quick turnaround. We need regulatory streamlining so we can build these projects faster, smarter, better and cheaper.”
Chao next appeared before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chaired by Bill Shuster (R-PA) Wed., March 6. That hearing, however, quickly devolved into disagreement over the status of the Gateway Program, the expansion and renovation of the Northeast Corridor rail line between Newark, NJ and New York City. A report in The Washington Post over the weekend stated that President Trump personally asked House Speaker Ryan to kill a proposed appropriation for funding Gateway. Responding to pointed questioning by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), Chao said, “Yes, the president is concerned about the viability of this project and the fact that New York and New Jersey have no skin in the game. They need to step up and bear their fair share.”
Chao’s House testimony, however, gave little new information on the administration’s infrastructure outline. Responding to questioning by Chairman Shuster about “pay-fors,” Chao again avoided specifics saying, “We want all funding and financing options to be on the table.”
Senate Democrats released a counterproposal, “Jobs & Infrastructure Plan for America’s Workers” Wed., March 7. Ticketed at just more than $1 trillion, the plan would roll back recently passed Republican tax cuts to help pay for it. Targeted spending includes these projects: $140 billion for road and bridge repair; another $140 billion to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund over 10 years; $115 billion for water and sewer infrastructure; $62 billion for neighborhood revitalization and housing; $50 billion for schools; $40 billion to improve airports and airspace; and $40 billion for universal high-speed internet. It also designates $25 billion for three climate resilience programs, an area completely unaddressed in the administration outline.
At a news conference announcing the Democratic plan last Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), contrasted it with the Trump outline: “Our plan would do three things compared to the president. First, create many more jobs than the Trump plan. Second, build many more projects than the Trump plan. And third, build the infrastructure America actually needs, not just what Republican donors and private investors can profit from.”
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) rejected the Democratic plan broadly, “The Democrats’ plan is clearly about raising taxes on American families, not upgrading our roads, bridges, and water systems. We need a robust and fiscally responsible infrastructure plan that will help, not hurt, America’s economic growth.”
The Democratic plan is likely going nowhere, with Democrats in the minority and the growing popularity of the Republican tax cuts.
Regarding passage of a Trump infrastructure plan this year, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said, “I think it will be challenging. I certainly would be happy if we could, but we’ve got a lot of things to do, that being one of them, and I don’t know if we will have time to get to that.”
Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the EPW Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, however, said in a statement provided to Land Line Magazine, “Any time you work on a big, bipartisan bill it will be challenging, but you can’t write it off because of that. When we did the FAST Act, they predicted we had no chance of success but we were able to pass the largest highway bill in a decade. No one thought we’d get a WRDA bill [Water Resources Development Act] done in 2016 either, but it was the last bill of the 114th Congress. There is a bipartisan desire to get infrastructure done, and we’ve started the work to do it.”
Polling results indicate broad support for infrastructure investment. Seventy-two percent of Americans believe more infrastructure investment is needed according to a poll by Long Island University Hornstein Center for Policy, Polling and Analysis. This poll also found that 40 percent believe the federal government is responsible for funding infrastructure projects while 32 percent believe it is the states. And 81 percent of State of the Union viewers said it was important that an infrastructure bill pass this year, in a poll sponsored by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.
Rep. Schuster (R-PA), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, thinks a lame-duck session, after the November midterm elections, will be necessary to pass the plan.
NSF Budget Details Released for FY 2019
The National Science Foundation (NSF) released additional details on its budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2019. Following the release of President Trump’s FY 2019 budget request on Feb. 12, NSF provided a summary account table with topline numbers for the agency’s next fiscal year. With the release of additional budget documents, considerably more detailed funding information is available.
Compared to cuts in other science agencies and program budgets, the president’s proposed FY2019 budget for NSF is not nearly as severe. While the original budget would have reduced NSF funding by 29 percent, cutting it $2.2 billion to $5.3 billion, the addendum accounting for increased budget caps restored this reduction. As a result, the topline budget request for NSF proposed $7.472 billion for FY 2019, a number that represents flat funding compared to the FY 2017 budget. Research and Related Activities would receive a 2 percent increase compared to FY 2017, for a total of $6.15 billion. Most of the directorates, however, would be cut under proposed FY 2019 funding. Biological Sciences would be cut 0.5 percent, with $738 million in funding. Other reductions range from 1 percent for Engineering to 9 percent for Social, Behavioral, & Economic Sciences. Geosciences is the only directorate that would receive an increase, with $853 million in funding, a 3.3 increase compared to FY 2017.
Funding for Education and Human Resources would be kept flat in FY 2019, at $873.4 million. The budget for Major Research Equipment & Facilities Construction would be cut 57 percent to $95 million. However, this decrease for this account is largely due to the support for two new Regional Class Research Vessels.
Within the Biological Sciences directorate, FY 2019 prioritizes three programs in FY 2019: Understanding the Rules of Life (URoL), the National Ecological Observation Network (NEON), and Understanding the Brain (UtB). With the construction of NEON scheduled to be completed in fall 2018, BIO will assume responsibility for full operations and maintenance and oversight funding in FY 2019. NEON would receive $65 million in the proposed budget, an increase of almost 18 percent.
The budget for Agency Operations and Award Management would be reduced nearly 13 percent to $334 million. The number of competitive award proposals that NSF expects to receive in FY 2019 will increase from 49,300 in FY 2017 to an estimated 50,600 in FY 2019. At the same time, the total number of competitive awards is estimated to decline slightly in FY 2019, for a total of 11,100 down from 11,400 in FY 2017. The number of research grant proposals is also expected to increase, from 40,600 to 42,100, and research grant awards are estimated to decrease from 8,600 to 8,400.
The FY 2019 budget for NSF would accelerate the progress of its “10 Big Ideas for Future Investments.” Funding would be directed to high-priority areas that integrate multiple fields of science and engineering and create opportunities for partnerships with other stakeholders and sectors. $30 million is designated for each of the six research-focused Big Ideas: Harnessing the Data Revolution (HDR); The Future of Work at the Human Technology Frontier (FW-HTF); Windows on the Universe (WoU): The Era of Multi-messenger Astrophysics; The Quantum Leap (QL): Leading the Next Quantum Revolution; Understanding the Rules of Life (URoL): Predicting Phenotype; and Navigating the New Arctic (NNA). The other four Big Ideas also received emphasis in the budget and would receive $102.5 million. This year is the first time that the administration is requesting dedicated funding for the Big Ideas.
It is important to keep in mind that the president’s budget proposal is largely an aspirational document. It reflects the administration’s priorities across the federal government for the next fiscal year and serves as a starting point for Congress as it proceeds with appropriations; however, it is Congress that ultimately passes the twelve appropriations bills that fund the government. Congress is still in the process of working on appropriations for FY 2018, with the government operating under short-term continuing resolutions since FY 2018 began in October. Congress has signaled that it is unwilling to consider the steep cuts to science that the president proposed in his FY 2018 budget, and is likely that Congress will again reject the severe cuts that the president has proposed for FY 2019.
ESA’s Federal Budget Tracker is updated with top-line spending numbers and details from the president’s FY 2019 budget. It will continue to be updated with additional information on relevant agency budgets and appropriations updates.
NSF Sexual Harassment Reporting Requirements and Hearing
The National Science Foundation (NSF) released new reporting requirements for sexual harassment March 5. The requirements assert that principal investigators (PIs) identified on any NSF grant award are in positions of trust and must conduct themselves in a responsible and accountable manner. To guarantee that PIs act responsibly, NSF now requires awardee institutions to notify the agency of any findings that demonstrate a violation of awardee codes of conduct. If any PI is placed on administrative leave, this must also be reported to the NSF’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and NSF may remove or replace that person as the grant’s PI. NSF is accepting comments on the proposed requirements until May 4. NSF is encouraging the electronic submission of comments.
Rhonda Davis, head of NSF’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion; Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union (AGU); Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and attorney Kristina Larsen testified before the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology during a Feb. 27 hearing entitled, “A Review of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct in Science.”
Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments requires that agencies such as NSF protect individuals from gender-based discrimination, which also includes protection from sexual harassment at institutions or universities that receive federal grant funds. NSF has the authority under Title IX to terminate funding if an institution has not remedied discrimination. Universities that receive federal grant funding were advised by Davis that inaction on investigating reports of misconduct would be at “their own peril.” While many universities consider principal investigators as the lead on any grant funding they apply for and receive, Davis surmised that the funds were granted to the university, and not directly to the PIs.
During the hearing, the committee members displayed bipartisan support for strengthening federal efforts to end sexual harassment in research. Davis testified that NSF has activated a special task force to identify best practices in preventing a culture of sexual harassment that will be made available to the public, and has changed its process for handling allegations of misconduct to swiftly address any claim of misconduct, whether it is reported at the NSF program level or directly to the NSF Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Additionally, NSF will be launching a new web portal as a resource to the research community that will also allow any person to report misconduct. Those who observe, or are the victim of, harassment will be able to report a violation directly to NSF without waiting for the university to act.
McEntee told the subcommittee members that AGU, and other societies, have updated ethics policies while noting that more efforts are needed. She recommends clear reporting guidelines, more training and education around the issue, recognition of institutions that promote a safe working environment, and legislation to ensure harassment-free workplaces.
Climate Report from Military and National Security Leaders
The Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG), a group of military, national security, and foreign policy experts, released a roadmap and recommendations, “A Responsibility to Prepare: Strengthening National and Homeland Security in the Face of a Changing Climate.” CSAG is composed of over 50 retired military experts who recommend the U.S. government take immediate action. The report echoes Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has said that a “whole-of-government response” to climate change is needed, and that it is “impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today.”
Administration Will Review Big Game Trophies “Case-by-Case”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced the first week of March that it will now consider all permits for importing elephant trophies from African countries on a case-by-case basis. This announcement is a deviation from Trump’s earlier assertion that he would maintain an Obama-era ban on the practice. However, in a memorandum, the FWS claimed that the 2017 Endangered Species Act findings for trophies of African elephants from Zimbabwe and Zambia are “no longer effective for making individual permit determinations for imports of sport-hunted African elephant trophies.” Instead they will consider cases using the information included in the ESA findings as well as science-based risk assessments of the species’ vulnerability.
State Lawmakers Ask for Exemptions from Offshore Drilling
A group of 227 legislators from 17 coastal states sent a letter to Interior Secretary Zinke opposing the proposed expansion of offshore drilling and asking him to exclude their shores from the proposed five-year plan. The bipartisan group was led by state Sens. Keven Ranker of Washington and Kevin de León of California. The group cited Zinke’s removal of Florida’s waters from the draft proposal and requested similar considerations for their own states. Their request echoes opposition expressed by bipartisan governors along the East and West coasts. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has scheduled 23 meetings, largely in the capitals of coastal states, to solicit public input and accepted comments through March 9. Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Maria Cantwell (WA), are asking Zinke to extend this comment period.
Forest Service Chief Resigns
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke resigned on March 7 amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue appointed Tooke, a career Forest Service employee, in August 2017. Current and former Forest Service employees, particularly in the agency’s wildfire fighting division, have accused the agency of fostering a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination for decades. A reporter on PBS NewsHour interviewed 34 current and former employees who told their stories of harassment. Vicki Christensen, the agency’s deputy chief for state and private forestry and a wildland firefighter, is now serving as the agency’s interim chief. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources, vowed to hold a committee hearing about sexual harassment in the agency.
Nomination Hearing for USGS Director
James Reilly II, a former astronaut and nominee to head the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) appeared before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on March 6 for his nomination hearing. Reilly pledged to “insulate” the USGS’s scientific research from any undue political intervention and affirmed his commitment to scientific integrity. In answering questions about the core mission of the USGS, Reilly emphasized the importance of understanding ecosystems, a topic that he said should be a national priority. He said he could not address, however, whether climate change and climate research fit into the core mission. Overall, Reilly’s statements appeared to garner bipartisan support, and his nomination is anticipated to be confirmed by the full Senate.
Head of EPA Advisory Board Unsure if Greenhouse Gas Emissions are Causing Climate Change
The head of the EPA Scientific Advisory Board, Michael Honeycutt, stated he is not certain that human-caused greenhouse gases were causing climate change. When asked by E&E News about climate change, Honeycutt stated “I haven’t studied that. I try to stay in my lane. I have too much really in my field to keep up with to jump over here and study that.” Pressed about his lack of knowledge regarding climate change, Honeycutt stated, “We have people on the board who that’s their field of study, and I would rely heavily on them.” However, the advisory board has not met a single time in the last six months. In the past, the board would have met in person at least once and held multiple teleconferences in this period. In other EPA news, the New York Times is reporting that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly killed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s plan to debate climate science.
EPA Restores Funding to Chesapeake Bay Newspaper
The EPA agreed to restore funding to the Chesapeake Bay Journal, a Maryland-based publication that focuses on environmental issues in the Chesapeake Bay area. The EPA cut all funding to the publication in August, a move that jeopardized the paper’s survival, as the EPA provides over one-third of the journal’s budget. Given the EPA’s decision to restore funding, a formal appeal from the journal and pressure from Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) appear to have been effective.
EPA Faces Record Number of FOIA Lawsuits
A record number of anti-secrecy lawsuits have been filed against the EPA under the leadership of Administrator Scott Pruitt. The lawsuits have come from a variety of sources, including government transparency groups, environmentalists, and even conservative organizations. In total, 46 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits were filed against the EPA in 2017 alone, far outdoing its record of 22 lawsuits in 2015. Though the EPA cites the Obama administration as the cause for many of these lawsuits, a study found that many of these complaints center around emails Pruitt exchanged with his staff and potential appointees, as well as requests to see Pruitt’s daily schedule.
Interior Advisory Panel Votes to Give Companies a Break on Drilling Royalty Fees
A federal advisory panel voted to advise the Trump administration to cut royalty rates charged to companies for offshore drilling from 18.75 percent down to 12.5 percent through 2024, the lowest legal amount the government can set for an offshore lease. The panel presented this suggestion to Interior Secretary Zinke as a way to incentivize oil and gas production. Mineral production royalties are the second largest source of revenue for the federal treasury, second only to taxes. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), the ranking members of their respective Senate and House natural resources committees, sent a joint letter to Zinke requesting an explanation of the department’s decision-making process in advising the Trump administration to slash royalty fees.
OMB Report Found Benefits of Obama-Era Regulations Outweighed Costs
The nonpartisan Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a report showing that federal regulations in place between 2006 and 2016 brought between $287 billion and $911 billion in benefits. These benefits vastly outweighed regulation costs between $78 billion and $115 billion. After the release of the report, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt claimed that the repeal of 22 different environmental and public health regulations would hypothetically save the nation $1 billion, but could not point to the costs or damages repealing such regulations would cause, nor what the net benefit of such deregulation would be.
Climate Caucus Adds Two More Members, Introduces Legislation
The Climate Solutions Caucus, which adds members in bipartisan pairs, added two more members, Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon (R-PR). The group’s membership now totals 72. The congresswomen, both nonvoting members of Congress, expressed their passion for climate issues with Norton identifying them as one of her top priorities and Gonzalez-Colon citing the challenges that have already been posed by climate change in Puerto Rico. The caucus has been steadily growing since it was founded in 2016; however, some critics maintain that it acts as political cover for Republicans without requiring any real action on climate change.
Members of the Climate Solutions Caucus introduced the first piece of legislation affiliated with the group on Feb. 15. H.R. 5031, the “Challenges and Prizes for Climate Act,” aims to tackle climate change by offering prize competitions to encourage innovation related to climate and energy. While the bill received criticism for being only a partial solution, supporters argue that it is the most viable option at the moment and that it could pave the way to more comprehensive legislation.
OSTP Releases Report on Science and Technology Progress
On March 7, the Trump administration released a report on its science and technology progress. The report, produced by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, analyzed highlights of Trump’s first year in office from “energy dominance” to cybersecurity. Critics of the report focused on the claim that Trump’s FY 2018 budget request increased funding for federal research and development, an assertion that ignores the rollbacks of climate programs and the aggressive cuts to research at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. In fact, the White House last year called for a nearly $1 billion cut to the DOE’s Office of Science. Furthermore, the report makes no mention of climate change.
Department of the Interior Moves Toward Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The Department of the Interior is taking steps to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling after Congress approved energy development in the ANWR in December. Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt told industry officials that the Bureau of Land Management will start the initial scoping and public comment process for leasing in the ANWR soon. Bernhardt hopes that the agency will complete an Environmental Impact Statement for the lease sales within a year after it completes the scoping process. Companies hoping to drill in the ANWR will likely choose to complete seismic surveys to get a better estimate of how much oil is available in the area. These surveys would require reviews for compliance with the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
GAO to Review Political Appointees’ Role in Filling Advisory Committees
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is expanding its inquiry into the EPA’s filling of advisory committee slots to look even more closely at the role of political appointees in the selection process. This inquiry is a continuation of an investigation that begun after Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) asked the GAO to examine whether it was typical for the EPA administrator to ignore the advice of career employees in making appointments. Documents sent in February show that EPA political appointees disregarded the recommendations of EPA career staff regarding the most qualified scientists and ignored concerns related to potential conflict of interests and lack of qualifications of two nominees to the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. Carper and Whitehouse also requested a review of EPA’s selection process last July.
Zinke Order Made Acting Directors Official
On Jan. 12, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed an order giving ten of his acting directors more permanence and most of the authority of a Senate-confirmed director. The order was signed quietly, and news of the order broke on March 5. The order gives the acting directors of Interior agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service “temporary re-delegation of authority,” according to the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Zinke’s order claims that it is intended to ensure uninterrupted management of vacant non-career positions, but watchdog groups have questioned the legitimacy of acting directors to remain in roles meant to be temporary during the transition period.
House Subcommittee Hearing Held on NASA Budget
On March 7, the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing on the NASA budget for FY 2019, featuring Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot as a witness. The agency’s budget request for FY19 is $19.9 billion. It focuses on space exploration as NASA’s core objective and supports the long-term goal of sending humans to Mars. Many subcommittee members expressed concerns that the proposed shift in priorities could harm the agency’s science missions, and Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) warned that allowing priorities to change every four years makes it difficult for NASA to focus on long-term projects. Other subcommittee members argued that although human exploration should continue to be a priority, it should not hamper NASA’s science activities.
Officials Scheduled to Testify on Agency Budgets
Leaders of several agencies are scheduled to appear on Capitol Hill this week to testify on their respective agencies’ budgets for fiscal year 2019. All of these hearings will be webcast via the committees’ websites. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will testify before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee March 13 and at the House Natural Resources Oversight Subcommittee March 15. The House Appropriations Committee will hold a subcommittee hearing with leaders of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers March 14 and separate subcommittee hearings with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Agriculture Inspector General Phyllis Fong March 15. National Science Foundation Director France Córdova will testify before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee March 15. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee March 15.
Briefing on Environmental and Societal Impacts of Administration’s Proposed Research Cuts
The Novim Group, in partnership with the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, is holding a briefing on March 16 in Washington, D.C. discussing a new report outlining the impacts of the administration’s proposed budget cuts to climate and environmental research for FY 2018. Given that the Administration’s FY 2019 proposed climate and environmental cuts are quite similar to those in the FY2018 budget, the briefing will also highlight the similarities and differences between these two budgets. The briefing’s speakers, who helped author the Novim report, will give an overview of its findings and conclusions. RSVP here. The event will also be webcast live here.
Provide Input to Inform Utah National Monument Management Plans
In January, the Bureau of Land Management announced its intent to prepare management plans and environmental impact for units of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument. These notices initiated the public scoping process to solicit public comments and identify issues and planning criteria relevant to the planning process. Comments can be submitted online, and the deadlines for comments are April 11 for Bears Ears and April 13 for Grand Staircase-Escalante. The agency will also hold a series of public hearings across Utah. Areas of the two sites that the president removed from monument designation with the president’s Dec. 4 proclamation are not covered in the notice.
EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee Nominations
The EPA is requesting nominations to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC). There are two vacancies for academia representation, one for business and industry, and one for state and local government. NEJAC is a federal advisory committee that provides independent consensus advice to the EPA about a range of environmental issues related to environmental justice. Nominations should be submitted by April 13, via mail or email.
Attend NSF Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education Meeting
The National Science Foundation’s Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education (AC-ERE) will hold an open meeting in Alexandria, VA on April 18-19. The purpose of AC-ERE is to provide advice, recommendations, and oversight concerning support for NSF’s environmental research and education portfolio, be a base of contact with the scientific community, serve as a forum for consideration of environmental topics, provide input into plans and partnerships, and perform oversight of program management and performance. The meeting agenda will include updates on agency support for environmental research and education activities, discussions with the NSF director and assistant directors, and planning for future advisory committee activities. The agenda can be found here once available.
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 in San Francisco, CA, Kansas City, MO, and Gillette, WY. The EPA is accepting public comments on CPP repeal until April 26.
Provide Public Input for Meeting of Conference of the Parties to CITES
The Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking information and recommendations on items that the United States might consider submitting for discussion at the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) Conference of Parties meeting in Sri Lanka in May and June 2019. The public comment period is open until May 11, 2018. Furthermore, the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to amend Appendices I and II of CITES at the upcoming meeting of the Conference of the Parties. The agency is seeking recommendations for animal and plant species to be considered as candidates for removal, addition or transfer to another appendix. Recommendations must be submitted by March 26 via online portal or mail.
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.
Senate Panel Advances 24 Bills
On March 8, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee advanced two dozen bills, most by voice vote. The two bills below were among the legislation approved.
- The Department of Energy Research and Innovation Act (H.R.589), introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), would establish Department of Energy policy for science and energy research and development programs and reform National Laboratory management and technology transfer programs. It passed the House in January.
- The Energy Technology Maturation Act of 2017 (S.1799), introduced by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), would amend the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to facilitate the commercialization of energy and related technologies developed at Department of Energy facilities with promising commercial potential.
- Partnerships for Progress and Prosperity Act (H.R.5119). Introduced Feb. 27 by Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), this bill would direct the Secretary of Education to carry out a STEM grant program.
- Water Recycling Investment and Improvement Act (H.R.5127). Introduced Feb. 27 by Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA), this bill would establish a grant program for the funding of water recycling and reuse projects.
- Coastal Coordination Act of 2018 (S.2472). Introduced Feb. 28 by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), this bill is meant to reauthorize the Coastal Management Act of 1972.
- AG RESEARCH Act (S.2479). Introduced March 5 by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), this bill would amend the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act of 1998 to address deferred maintenance at agricultural research facilities.
- GIRLS STEM Act (H.R.5136). Introduced March 1 by Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), this bill would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to provide grants to eligible local educational agencies to encourage female students to pursue studies and careers in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.
- S.2503. Introduced March 6 by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), this bill would establish Department of Energy policy for science and energy research and development programs, and reform National Laboratory management and technology transfer programs.
- S.2511 and H.R.5196. Introduced March 7 by Sen. Roger F. Wicker (R-MS) in the Senate and Rep. Steven M. Palazzo in the House, this bill would require the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere to carry out a program on coordinating the assessment and acquisition by NOAA of unmanned maritime systems and to make available to the public data collected by the Administration using such systems.
- H.R.5234. Introduced March 8 by Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL), this bill would amend the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 to expand opportunities for algae-based research.
Opportunities from the Federal Register
- NASA – Earth Science Advisory Committee Meeting (March 14-15)
- USACE – Board on Coastal Engineering Research (March 14-15)
- FWS – International Wildlife Conservation Council Meeting (March 16)
- NASA – Ad Hoc Task Force on STEM Education Meeting (March 20)
- NASA – Advisory Council Science Committee Meeting (March 20-21)
- DOE – Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee Meeting (March 22-23)
- NSF- Biological Sciences Advisory Committee Meeting (April 2-3)
- NOAA – Hydrographic Services Review Panel Meeting (April 4-5)
- NSF – Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education Meeting (April 18-19)
- EPA – National and Governmental Advisory Committees (April 26-27)
- NSF – National Science Board Meeting (May 2-3)
Opportunities for Public Comment:
- 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.
- FWS – Initiation of 5-Year Status Reviews for 18 Endangered and Threatened Species
The Fish and Wildlife Service is initiating 5-year status reviews for 18 species in Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Canada under the Endangered Species Act. To inform this review, the agency is requesting submission of new scientific and commercial data that has become available on these species. Submit information via mail or email (addresses in Federal Register notice) by March 23.
- NMFS – Initiation of 5-Year Reviews for the Endangered Fin Whale, Endangered Gray Whale Western North Pacific Distinct Population Segment, and Endangered Sei Whale
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is requesting information on the fin whale, gray whale Western North Pacific DPS, and the sei whale, particularly, information on the status, threats, and recovery of the species. This information will be used for a 5-year review required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to ensure that listing classifications of the species are accurate. Information submissions are due by March 30 via online portal or mail.
- BLM – Revisions to Obama-Era Restrictions on Gas Venting and Leakage from Energy Operations on Public Lands
The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to revise a rule passed by the Obama administration that required energy companies to capture methane burned off at drilling sites due to its environmental impact. This action aims to reduce unnecessary compliance burdens Comments on the proposed revisions and on ways that the BLM can reduce the waste of gas by incentivizing the capture, reinjection, or beneficial use of the gas are requested on or before April 23, via mail or online.
Visit this page on ESA’s blog for updates on opportunities from the Federal Register, including upcoming meetings and regulations open for public comment.