February 4, 2019

The Shutdown: Consequences for Science and Ecology

In what many called a “temper tantrum,” on Dec. 22, 2018, President Trump vetoed a previously agreed bi-partisan budget agreement because it did not contain funds for his long-promised border wall. That initiated the longest-ever shutdown of federal agencies and the second of his two-year old administration. The partial shutdown ended 35 days later, Jan. 25, with President Trump signing a bi-partisan, three-week continuing resolution, ending Feb. 15, that does not include border wall funding. A team of seasoned House and Senate lawmakers are now attempting to craft a compromise agreement that will close the divide over border security though success remains in doubt while President Trump threatens another shutdown or unilateral executive action.

Nine federal departments and related agencies, including Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency, were shuttered for regular business during the partial shutdown, continuing only “essential operations.”

Impacts on science

The shutdown quickly took a toll, even in its first days, on science as across the country laboratories closed, field scientists were recalled, conferences were unattended and time-sensitive grant programs disrupted. “Ninety-five percent of the workers at NASA . . . are locked out of their offices and laboratories,” said Paul Shearson, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, a union representing thousands of highly-skilled federal employees. Shearson later observed, “Reports to our union suggest that even if the shutdown ends this week, the damage to federal agencies and their work on behalf of the American people will not be quickly repaired.”

Impacts on public lands

The administration, however, chose to keep many national parks and other federal lands open to the public during the shutdown. “We’ve got the worst of all worlds right now,” said former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in comments to The New York Times. “You’ve got a dangerous situation, and a situation where our nation’s treasures are put at risk. There is now a very small number of law enforcement who can patrol and stop poaching, looting and vandalism, as well as people not realizing the risk and potentially hurting themselves.” Indeed, Yosemite National Park was described as a “free-for-all” by Dakota Snider (@dakotasnider), a nearby resident and photographer. Joshua Tree National Park reported illegal off-road driving, damaging natural areas, and overflowing trashcans and toilets. Even some Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), which can sometimes survive thousands of years, were damaged or destroyed and may take centuries to regrow.

Agency actions on oil and gas

Meanwhile, Interior updated its contingency plans in early January, expanding its definitions of essential personnel, allowing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to continue work on oil and gas leasing and permitting on federal lands and off-shore areas.

On Jan. 8, following Interior’s updated contingency plans, BLM-Alaska’s Facebook page promptly announced public hearings in Alaska for early January, in the midst of the shutdown, on plans to update the Integrated Activity Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (IAP/EIS) for BLM-managed lands within the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A). Initial notice of intent to prepare the IAP/EIS was announced Nov. 21, in Federal Register Document (FR Doc.) 2018-25336. The comment period deadline is Feb. 15.

Plans for a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) were announced by Interior just before the shutdown Dec. 20. Notice inviting public comment was published in the Federal Register Dec. 28 (FR Doc. 2018-28049). Notice of scheduled public meetings in Washington, DC and various Alaska locations was also announced during the shutdown on BLM-Alaska’s Facebook page Jan. 9.

Congressional and public response

Congressional response was swift. On Dec. 20, the same day the ANWR draft EIS was announced, 7 House Republicans immediately sent a letter to then Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke expressing concerns about allowing oil and gas activities in the “pristine landscape” originally set aside by President Eisenhower in 1960. Jan. 9, following the BLM-Alaska Facebook ANWR announcement, 5 Democratic senators sent a letter to acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt urging the public comment be extended to 120 days, “due to the extreme sensitivity of the resources affected by leasing, the great complexity of the analysis, the overlapping public comment periods for other actions taking place in the Refuge and the continued government shutdown.” Hours after the senatorial letter was sent, BLM announced it was postponing the public meetings.

BOEM announced resumption of work on the outer continental shelf five-year leasing plan immediately upon Interior’s Jan. 8 updated contingency plan. Notably, that same day Interior replied to an E&E News email inquiry that BOEM was not currently working on the 5-year plan. Jan. 16, three leading House Democrats sent a letter to Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt calling it “farcical and [making] it clear that the administration cares only about the impacts on its favorite industry.” Fourteen Senate Democrats sent a similar letter to Bernhardt Jan. 22 saying, “to continue these efforts even during [the shutdown] is unacceptable.”


An alliance of 86 national and international conservation and environmental public interest groups also blasted Interior in a January 25 letter objecting to oil and gas and logging activities on public lands during the shutdown. The groups asked that agencies postpone, stop, cease and stay all activities which legally require environmental review and public comment. The letter detailed specific complaints about actions by BLM, BOEM and the Forest Service.

The groups, in their Jan. 25 letter, also objected to Interior’s proposed revisions to the department’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations “which would curtail public access to agency information of the management of federal public lands and waters,” announced Dec. 28 (FR Doc. 2018-27561) with a now closed 30-day public comment period. Interior, noting an “exponential increase in [FOIA] requests and litigation” from 2016 to 2018, justified the proposed changes, in part, to avoid “unreasonably burdensome” requests. Although the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice provides government-wide guidance on FOIA, individual agencies set their own policies.

Of particular concern is a section of ANWR, known as the “1002 Area,” totaling some 1.5-million acres of coastal plain, was identified by Congress for oil and gas exploration. The 1002 Area, however, also comprises critical habitat of particular ecological importance for many wildlife species, some threatened or endangered and some essential for Alaska Native’s subsistence.

Exploration for oil and gas in the 1002 Area with sample drilling and seismic testing, as has been proposed, could irreparably damage the land and harm wildlife. Even driving in 1002 seems to durably scar the fragile lands, as documented by Dr. Matt Nolan in his 2018 aerial surveys of the area to develop 3-D interactive “fodar” topographical maps. It is likely that oil in the 1002 Area is spread out into many small accumulations, requiring a wide footprint to extract oil in the region.

The public comment period for the ANWR Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program draft EIS has now been extended to March 13, though it initially would have ended Feb. 11. BLM provides the draft EIS, supporting documents and comment forms online (DOI-BLM-AK-0000-2018-0002-EIS). Public meetings are scheduled for early February in Washington, DC and various locations in Alaska. BLM is expected to announce its record of decision this summer and immediately begin accepting lease bids. BLM anticipates offering “not fewer than 400,000 acres area-wide of high-potential lands for bid” within the 1.6-million acre ANWR coastal plain. A legacy 2002 ESA’s position statement on ANWR is available online.

Scientists are spearheading a “scientists letter” over plans to drill in ANWR that will be submitted into the federal record. The organizers of the letter write, “This letter expresses opposition from scientists and resource managers to oil and gas activity in the Arctic Refuge and identifies flaws in the DEIS, including gaps in the scientific baseline, conflicts with other Refuge purposes, inadequate analysis of the impacts (including global climate change), and failure to offer a reasonable range of alternatives.” Scientists and resource managers holding advanced degrees (e.g., M.S. or Ph.D.) in biology, ecology, environmental and earth sciences and related fields are invited to sign this letter. The deadline to sign the letter is Feb. 15.

Federal Government Reopens, Funded through Feb. 15

Federal employees returned to work Jan. 28 after a shutdown closed most federal science agencies for 35 days. Federal scientists and their collaborators are resuming work, although the threat of another shutdown remains.

National Science Foundation (NSF) Director France Cordova warns that, given that the agency only has funding through Feb. 15, NSF will not be able to conduct “business as usual.” During NSF’s three weeks of funding, NSF is prioritizing processing its back-log of grants. The 100-plus panel reviews that were canceled during the shutdown will be rescheduled. The responsible program officers will contact reviewers. The shutdown also delayed review of applications for NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship. NSF will have to work to ensure that the 13,000 applications are reviewed and decisions about awards can made before students must make commitments to graduate schools in April.

NSF has pushed back several grant deadlines. For example, proposals for Navigating the New Arctic were originally due Feb. 14 – the new deadline is to be determined. The deadline for Frontier Research in the Earth Sciences is also postponed. The BIO Directorate does not have grant deadlines, so the shutdown did not affect BIO proposal deadlines.

The impact on long-term data sets remains to be seen. At Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, ecologists will likely be able to collect key data for their iconic long-term study on predator-prey dynamics between wolves and moose. Other experiments may not be salvageable. An EPA experiment testing the impacts of changing ocean chemistry on invertebrates will likely be shelved because researchers were unable to collect data about the invertebrates’ behaviors during the shutdown.

Former ESA President Jill Baron told Nature that she has noticed decreased interest in funding from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Powell Center. Scientists have told Baron, who is the co-director of the Powell Center, that the uncertainty associated with the federal government shutdown dissuaded them from applying.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowery (D-NY) relayed that she is “cautiously optimistic” after a meeting between top House and Senate appropriators Jan. 30. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) said that most of the remaining spending bills – which include funding for NSF, the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture and the EPA are “pretty much settled on.” Spending bills for these agencies will closely resemble House and Senate appropriations bills passed in 2018.


House Science Committee: Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) announced the Democratic members and the leadership of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in the 116th Congress. Freshman Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX) will chair the Subcommittee on the Environment, which oversees EPA research, NOAA and earth science at NASA. Another freshman, Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI) will lead the Subcommittee on Research and Technology which – among other responsibilities – oversees the National Science Foundation and university research policy.

Other freshmen Democrats on the science committee include Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL), Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA), Rep. Ben McAdams (D-UT), Rep Kendra Horn (D-OK), and Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA). Casten has a master’s degree in biochemical engineering and touted his background as a clean energy entrepreneur during his campaign. Wexton unseated former Research and Technology Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Comstock (R-VA).

Freshman Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL) will also serve on the committee. Waltz’s district is adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center.

House Natural Resources Committee:  Chairman Grijalva (D-AZ) announced that the committee will hold a hearing titled “Climate Change: Impacts and the Need to Act” Feb. 6. This hearing will be the first of series of hearings focused on how climate change is impacting Americans. The first panel of the hearing will feature Governor Roy Cooper (D-NC) and Governor Charlie Baker (R-MA). The second panel will include activists from the Zero Hour Movement, the Hip Hop Caucus, UPROSE and Carbon Disclosure Projects and Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Grijalva also announced the committee’s leadership:

  • Freshman Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) will serve as the committee’s vice-chair and the chair of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee. Rep. Don Young (R-AK) will be that subcommittee’s ranking member.
  • Another freshman, Rep. T.J. Cox (D-CA) will chair the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. His Republican counterpart on the subcommittee will be Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX).
  • Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) will chair the Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) is the ranking member.

Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-SC), a freshman Member of Congress who strongly opposes offshore oil and gas drilling, will be a member of the committee.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee: Freshman Rep. Harley Rouda (D-CA) will chair the committee’s Subcommittee on the Environment. Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA) will serve as the subcommittee’s vice-chair. In a statement, Rouda said that he is looking “conducting robust oversight of any attempts to undermine our environment and deny climate change.” The committee may investigate the tenures of former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Rouda unseated Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who was a prominent climate skeptic.

House Energy and Commerce Committee: The Environment and Climate Change Committee will hold its first of a planned series of hearings focused on climate change Feb. 5. The hearing is titled “Time for Action: Addressing the Environmental and Economic Effects of Climate Change.” This hearing will be the committee’s first hearing focused on climate change since 2013.

Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee: Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) will serve as the ranking member of the Science, Oceans, Fisheries and Weather Subcommittee, which oversees NOAA and the National Science Foundation. Committee Chair Roger Wicker (R-MS) previously announced that Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) will serve the Science, Oceans, Fisheries, and Weather subcommittee chair.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee: Freshman Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-SD) will chair the Fisheries, Water and Wildlife Subcommittee. This committee has oversight over the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, among other responsibilities. As a North Dakota’s representative in the House of Representatives, Cramer co-sponsored a set of nine bills to amend the Endangered Species Act in 2018. Another freshman senator, Mike Braun (R-IN), will chair the subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) will continue as the chair of the Superfund, Waste Management and Regulatory Oversight Subcommittee. In October 2018, this subcommittee held a hearing on the EPA’s ‘transparency in science’ regulation and Rounds strongly supported the proposed regulation. (See ESA Policy News, Oct. 10, 2018)

Shark Fin Bills: Lawmakers reintroduced three bills addressing the trade of shark fins and parts. All of these bills were introduced during the 115th Congress. The Shark Fin Trade Elimination Act (H.R. 737), introduced by Del. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (I-Northern Mariana Islands) and co-sponsored by 50 other members of Congress, would outlaw the possession, sale and distribution of shark fins. Shark finning – which refers to cutting a shark’s fins and then leaving the rest of the carcass in the ocean – is already illegal in the U.S. However, the trade of shark fins, including the fins of sharks where the entire animal was harvested is legal. The U.S. accounts for one to 3 percent of the global shark fin trade.

Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) and 13 members of Congress reintroduced the Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act (H.R. 788) which requires NOAA to certify that countries have similar standards for sustainable fisheries as the U.S. before they can export shark products to the U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, who is also a co-sponsor on Sustainable Shark Fisheries and Trade Act, introduced another bill, the Shark Sales Elimination Act (H.R. 614) which would prohibit the sale of all shark parts in the U.S.

Carbon Fee Bill: Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) and five Democratic members of the Climate Solutions Caucus reintroduced the “Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act” (H.R. 763). This bill would impose a $15 per ton carbon fee on the oil, gas and coal industries. The bill would then redistribute the revenue from this fee to households. The fee would increase $10 a year until the country reduces its emissions by 90 percent of 2015 levels. Deutch, Rooney and former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) introduced similar legislation late in the 115th Congress. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) and former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced companion legislation in the Senate soon after.

Legislative updates:

  • Rep.  Rob Bishop (R-UT) introduced a resolution (H.Res 32) supporting a constitutional amendment that would allow states to repeal a federal regulation if two-thirds of state legislatures approve. Bishop is the former chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
  • Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) reintroduced the Opportunities for the Nation and States to Harness Onshore Resources for Energy (ONSHORE) Act (S. 218) which would allow states to assume responsibility for regulating and permitting oil and gas production on federal lands – with the approval of the Secretary of the Interior. Barrasso introduced similar legislation in January 2018. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee did not act on this legislation.

Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) and Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-DE) introduced the Wildlife Innovation and Longevity Driver (WILD) Act (S. 268) which would reauthorize the Partners for Wildlife Program through 2023 and create a prize competition for innovation in wildlife conservation. The WILD Act unanimously passed the Senate in 2017, but the House did not pass this bill.

Executive Branch

EPA Science Advisory Board: Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler appointed eight new members to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB). New members include the University of Alabama, Huntsville atmospheric scientist John Christy, a prominent climate skeptic who has criticized NOAA and NASA climate model and the conclusions of International Panel on Climate Change reports.Wheeler also renewed the terms of eight current SAB members appointed during the Obama administration. The appointments are a departure from former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s tenure – Pruitt did not renew the terms of any SAB members.

EPA: An analysis of EPA records by a former agency official concludes that the dollar amount of civil penalties paid by polluters reached their lowest level since 1994 in fiscal year 2018, during which polluters paid $72 million in fines. On average, polluters have paid $500 million in fines each year for the past 20 years.

EIA: New projections from the Energy Information Administration show that the U.S. will become a net energy exporter by 2020 as a result of increases in oil and natural gas production.  The report credits increasing energy efficiency for slower growth in domestic energy consumption.

USDA: Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the appointment of Scott Hutchins to serve as deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics (REE). Hutchins is Trump’s nominee to serve as undersecretary for research, education and economics. He is an entomologist who most recently worked at Corteva Agriscience, the agricultural division of DowDuPont. This position oversees the USDA’s research agencies, including the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The deputy undersecretary role does not require Senate confirmation. In the announcement, Perdue clarified that Hutchins will not be an acting undersecretary and will not assume the responsibilities expressly delegated to the Senate-confirmed undersecretary. Chavonda Jacobs-Young, who served as the acting undersecretary for REE until this announcement, will serve as the USDA’s acting chief scientist and will report to Hutchins.


Fisheries: A federal judge in California ordered NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to revise its catch limit for northern anchovies. The ruling sided with environmental groups who said that that NMFS used outdated science to these set catch limits.

Forests: A U.S. District Court stopped a planned post-wildfire salvage logging project in Northern California, stating that the Klamath National Forest did not adequately analyze the environmental impacts of the project, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The judge agreed with environmental groups that the project would likely damage habitat for the federally threatened northern spotted owl.


Illinois:  Gov. J.B. Pritzer (D) signed an executive order directing the state of Illinois to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of states that have committed to meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Illinois is the 18th state to join the pact.

New Mexico:  Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) committed her state to join the U.S. Climate Alliance. Lujan Grisham has also asked the state’s environment secretary and energy, minerals and natural resources secretary to head a state climate change task force that will evaluate potential policies to reduce emissions.

Virginia:  State officials reached an agreement with Dominion Energy to clean up four leaking coal ash ponds. Some of the coal ash ponds date back to the 1930s and all of the ponds are unlined. Under the agreement, at least 25 percent of the coal ash will be recycled for use in building materials and the remaining percent will be sent to lined landfills.

Western States: The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies approved a Western Monarch Conservation Plan covering seven states. The plan outlines population and habitat goals for restoring monarch populations – including a goal to double the butterfly’s population by 2029 and protecting 90 percent of the species’ “most important overwintering areas.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will announce whether it will list the monarch under the Endangered Species Act in June 2019.


China: A study completed by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences warns that China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive project intended to link Asia with Africa and Europe through new land and maritime infrastructure, could accelerate the spread of invasive species. The analysis determines that countries included in the Belt and Road Initiative contain 27 out of 35 global biodiversity hotspots as well as 14 invasion hotspots.

Scientific Community

UCS: The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report, “The State of Science in the Trump Era,” which documents the Trump administration’s attacks on science over the past two years and the administration’s “patterns of undermining science.” Some of the elements of this pattern include leaving key scientific positions vacant and requiring political review of scientific grants.

Title IX:  Over 70 scientific societies, including ESA, sent a letter to the Department of Education urging the agency not to finalize the changes and stating that the proposed amendments “do not reflect the extant research and data” and will likely harm the safety and security of individuals. These changes would change the definition of sexual harassment from “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” to “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the [institution’s] education program or activity.”

NAS: The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) has convened a committee to examine strategies to understand and protect the bioeconomy. NAS defines the bioeconomy as research and innovation in the life sciences.

NAS will hold a meeting on the contributions of biological collections and options for sustaining these collections Feb. 7-8.

Federal Register Opportunities

Public Meetings, many of which are live-streamed: 

Opportunities for Public Comment and Nominations:

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