Policy News: September 23, 2019

In This Issue:

North American bird populations decrease an estimated 30% in 50 years
Common bird species severely impacted.

Senate Appropriations Bills Include Increases of Department of Energy and Agricultural Research Programs
The Department of Energy’s Office of Science receives a 9.6% increase.

Administration Finalizes EIS for drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The House of Representatives passes bill to stop drilling.

OSTP Letter Reviews Its Security Priorities for the U.S. Scientific Enterprise
Committee plans meetings with the academic community.

Senate holds confirmation hearing for USFWS nominee. New bill would increase funding for agricultural research by 5% annually.

Executive Branch
EPA and Army Corps of Engineers finalize repeal of the 2015 Waters of the U.S. rule.

Appeals court requires the EPA to redo 2016 air quality regulation.

U.N. holds “climate action summit.”

Scientific Community
NAS launches student mental health study.

Opportunities to Get Involved
White House seeks input on the bioeconomy and Federal Register opportunities.

ESA In the News
View an up-to-date list of ESA’s media coverage.

North American bird populations decreased an estimated 30% in 50 years

A new study published in Science estimates that since 1970 North American bird populations have declined around 30%, corresponding with a loss of 3 billion birds. Bird species across habitat types experienced population losses — grassland and coastal birds were severely impacted. Common bird species, including the invasive house sparrow, blackpoll warbler and the horned lark, experienced the most dramatic population declines. Yet, there is some good news: species that are the beneficiaries of concerted conservation efforts like raptors and waterfowls have recovered in the same period. Materials accompanying the study attribute the birds’ plummeting numbers to habitat loss and degradation, but it also points out practical actions individuals can take to help bird populations recover, like keeping cats indoors and planting native plants. For more information see 3billionbirds.org.

In response, the Audubon Society has declared a bird emergency and highlighted a set of policy actions focused on bird conservation.

Scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the U.S. Geological Survey, Environment and Climate Change Canada, the American Bird Conservancy and the Smithsonian contributed to the report.

Senate Appropriations bills include increases for Department of Energy and Agricultural Research Programs

Appropriators in the Senate released their first spending bills for fiscal year (FY) 2020, which begins Oct. 1. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) had declined to start the appropriations process until the White House and Congress agreed on overall spending levels. In late July, the administration and congressional leaders reached an agreement to raise defense spending by 3% and nondiscretionary defense spending, which includes funding for most science agencies, by 4.5%. The deal also raises the debt ceiling and permanently ends sequestration –the mandatory, across the board cuts required by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Senate appropriations bills released so far mostly include increases for ecological science. The Senate Energy and Water appropriations bill includes $7.22 billion for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, a 9.6% increase over FY 2019. Within the Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research receives $770 million, a 9.2% increase.

Report language accompanying the energy bill recommends $100 million for the Bioenergy Research Centers, $45 million for terrestrial ecosystem science and $97 million for earth and environmental modeling. Senate appropriators direct the Energy Department to further invest in machine learning to understand environmental and climate dynamics, improve watershed, ecosystem and climate models and project extreme events. The National Microbiome Data Collective receives $10 million, the full amount requested by ESA and other scientific organizations.

The Senate Agriculture spending bill includes $1.728 billion for the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), a 3% increase, and $1.484 billion for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), an increase of a little less than 1%. This includes $25 million to relocate NIFA to the Kansas City area. The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative receives $425 million, a 2.4% increase. The ARS budget includes a 9% increase for the agency’s main budget item — salaries and expenses. The Senate report prohibits ARS from terminating any research programs or labs. Senate appropriators direct the USDA to prioritize pollinator research, providing an additional $2 million for ARS’ Center for Pollinator Research and $1.5 million to the ARS to establish a Pollinator Recovery, Education and Research Center in Appalachia.

The House approved 10 of out of 12 required spending bills earlier in the summer before Congress finalized the budget agreement (see ESA Policy News, July 1, 2019). Senate spending bills for the National Science Foundation, the Interior Department, the Forest Service and other agencies are expected this week. ESA will continue to update the Federal Budget Tracker.

The full House approved a continuing resolution, a stop-gap measure, keeping the government funded at FY 2019 levels through Nov. 23 and averting a shutdown on Oct. 1. Shelby said that the Senate will likely approve the continuing resolution this week.

Administration finalizes EIS for drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Bureau of Land Management released a final environmental impact statement (EIS), opening around 1.2 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain to oil and gas drilling. In the document, the agency chooses the most aggressive of the three options outlined in the draft EIS. Only 359,000 acres of the coastal plain will be designated as off-limits to drilling and another 585,400 acres will be subject to time limitations for oil and gas activities.

A provision in the 2017 tax reform law lifted a prohibition on oil and gas drilling in the coastal plain and requires the BLM to hold at least two oil and gas lease sales by December 2024, with each sale offering at least 400,000 acres.

The EIS notes that 96% of the area is classified as wetlands or waters of the U.S. – the remaining 4% is unmapped and is likely also wetlands or waters. The document admits that the combination of climate change and energy development will possibly lead to the extinction of 69 of bird species found in the area within the next 85 years. Oil and gas development and related infrastructure will displace and fragment habitat for the area’s mammal species, including caribou, moose and muskox. Development in the area could also accelerate the spread of invasive species, and lead to the introduction species like the Canadian Waterweed (Elodea canandensis), which degrades aquatic habitat and alters water flow patterns.

A July article in Politico Magazine reports that career agency scientists were rushed to complete the EIS, to the detriment of the scientific quality of the analysis. Scientists said that sections warning of “potentially harmful” impacts to polar bears were edited, analysis on the effects of the project on native communities was removed and “fundamental inaccuracies” were added to sections on impacts to fish and water.

The full House approved a bill (H.R. 1146) blocking drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Sept. 12, mainly along party lines. It is unlikely that the Senate will approve the bill and President Trump said he will veto the bill if it reaches the White House. Nevertheless, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and four other Democratic senators introduced similar legislation (S. 2461) Sept. 11 that would designate the coastal plain as wilderness, blocking oil and gas development.

OSTP Letter Reviews Its Security Priorities for the U.S. Scientific Enterprise

The administration released a letter concerning foreign influence in the research enterprise in a September 16 letter to scientific community signed by Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director Kelvin Droegemeier. Established in May 2019, the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE), a committee of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) is working to develop a framework to address the exploitation of scientific research. Droegemeier chairs NSTC.

JCORE’s Research Security work will focus on four areas: (1) Coordinating outreach and engagement with federal agencies and other parties to increase the visibility of foreign interference in research; (2) Establishing and coordinating disclosure requirements for participation in federally-funded research enterprise (3) Developing best practices for academic research institutions; and (4) Developing methods for identification, assessment, and management of risk in the research enterprise.

JCORE will hold meetings with the academic community in the next few months.


Nominations: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a confirmation hearing to consider President Trump’s nominee Aurelia Skipwith to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Trump originally nominated Skipwith in Oct. 2018. USFWS has not had a Senate-confirmed director since the end of the Obama administration. Under questioning from Committee Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-DE) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Skipwith vowed to use career agency scientists’ expertise and the best available science in decision-making. Skipwith hesitated, but she ultimately agreed that her decisions and advice to administration officials would be based on science.  She also agreed to pushback to the administration if necessary. Carper also questioned Skipwith’s experience working for Monsanto and potential conflicts of interest. Skipwith defended the Interior Department’s reinterpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and its decision to allow neonicotinoid use in national wildlife refuges. The Committee will vote on Skipwith’s nomination Sept. 25.

Endangered Species Act: Congressional Democrats, led by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), introduced legislation (H.R. 4348 & S. 2491to repeal the administration’s changes to the Endangered Species Act regulations finalized in August (see ESA Policy News, Sept. 9, 2019). The House Natural Resource Committee’s Water, Ocean and Wildlife Subcommittee will consider Grijalva’s bill in a Sept. 23 hearing.

House Science Committee: EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told the committee that the agency does not plan to finalize its “transparency in regulatory science” proposed rule this December as planned – instead, it will release and ask for public comments on a “supplementary proposal” to accompany the rule. This proposed rule would prohibit the EPA from using studies in regulatory decisions where the underlying data are not publicly available. ESA and members of the scientific community strongly oppose the proposed rule and similar legislative efforts, such as former House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX)’s HONEST Act.

Offshore Drilling: The full House approved two bills stopping offshore drilling. The Protecting and Securing Florida’s Coastline Act of 2019 (H.R. 205), sponsored by Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL), extends a moratorium on drilling the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Almost all House Democrats and 22 House Republicans voted for the bill. The Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act (H.R. 1941), sponsored by Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-SC), permanently bans offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Cunningham’s bill passed by a slightly narrower margin – almost all House Democrats and 12 Republicans for the bill.

CRS: A new report by a Congressional Research Service attorney examines legal issues in how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service interpret climate change effects in their Endangered Species Act decisions.

House Transportation and Infrastructure CommitteeThe Committee approved a set of bills reauthorizing the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), the Chesapeake Bay Program and the National Estuary Program (H.R. 4044) and creating a San Francisco Bay Program office within the EPA (H.R. 1132). The Great Lakes bill (H.R. 4031), sponsored by Rep. David Joyce (R-OH), would increase authorized spending levels to $475 million by 2026. In FY 2019, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative received $300 million. The Chesapeake bill (H.R. 1620), sponsored by a bipartisan group of legislators from Maryland and Virginia, would increase funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program, which works to reduce nutrient pollution in the bay, by $17 million to $90 million in FY 2020. The Trump administration has repeatedly, unsuccessfully attempted cut funding for the GLRI and the Chesapeake Bay program by 90% in its presidential budget requests.

House Natural Resources Committee: The Committee advanced a set of bills, covering issues from trophy hunting to NOAA’s Sea Grant College program.

  • Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ)’s Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large Animal Trophies (CECIL) Act (H.R. 2245) would grant Endangered Species Act protections while species frequently imported by as trophies by Americans are being considered for listing.
  • Rep. Gregario Kilili Comacho Sablan’s (I-Northern Mariana Islands) Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act (H.R. 737), would outlaw the possession, sale and distribution of shark fins.
  • Rep. Mike Quiqley (D-IL)’s Great Lakes Fishery Research Authorization Act (H.R. 1023) reauthorizes the activities of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Great Lakes Science Center.
  • The Digital Coast Act (R. 2189), from Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), authorizes NOAA to begin a comprehensive mapping process of American shorelines and share related products online for use by coastal managers and communities.
  • A bill from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) (R. 2405) reauthorizes the National Sea Grant college program through 2024.

Other legislative updates:

  • The House Science Committee approved legislation (H.R. 4091) reauthorizing the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, allowing the agency to receive up to $1 billion by FY 2024. Both parties support increased funding for the agency, which received $366 million in FY2019. However, Republicans support another bill (H.R. 3915) increasing funding to $500 million by 2024.
  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) introduced the Senate version of the SAVE Right Whales Act (S. 2453), which provides grants for North Atlantic right whale conservation. The House version of this bill (H.R. 1568) passed the House Natural Resources Committee in May 2019.
  • In response to wildfires in the Amazon rainforest, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and 14 other House Democrats introduced the Act for the Amazon Act (H.R. 4263), which, would ban imports of particular products from Brazil that contribute to deforestation, freeze ‘targeted’ aid funding to Brazil and prohibit the administration from negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with Brazil.
  • Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) introduced legislation to revive and reauthorize the Office of Technology Assessment (H.R. 4426 & S. 2509). The Office of Technology Assessment provided expert advice and assessments of science and technology issues to Congress until it was defunded in the mid-1990s.

Executive Branch

White House: Emeritus Princeton physicist William Happer left his position at the National Security Council. Happer was the lead proponent of a plan to conduct an adversarial review of climate science, questioning the findings of the National Climate Assessment. This plan was put on ‘indefinite hold’ in July 2019. He is the founder of the CO2 Coalition, a group that argues that increased carbon dioxide levels are beneficial.

WOTUS: EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civic Works R.D. James signed an order finalizing the Trump administration’s repeal of the 2015 Waters of the U.S rule (WOTUS), which specifies what waters are covered under the Clean Water Act. Next, the administration will likely finalize its proposed Waters of the U.S. rule in Dec. 2019. The Trump administration’s proposed rule would eliminate protections for ephemeral and intermittent streams and leave an estimated 18% of streams and 51% of wetlands unprotected.

Democratic Attorneys Generals, including California’s Xavier Beccera and Maryland’s Brian Frosh, plan to challenge the WOTUS repeal and the upcoming new Clean Water Rule in the courts.

EPA: A memo, announced Sept. 10, tasks the agency with reducing its requests and funding for animal testing on mammals by 30% by 2025 and eliminating tests on mammals by 2035. The EPA uses animals testing to determine the impacts of potential pollutants and new chemicals, such as pesticides. Simultaneously, the EPA also announced that it would award $4.25 million to five universities to develop alternatives to animal models.

Texas Tech University environmental toxicologist Ron Kendall will join the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). Kendall’s research interests include wildlife toxicology and ecotoxicology. Last spring, the EPA sought a new CASAC member with expertise in ecology to replace replacing retired Army Corps of Engineers aquatic ecologist Timothy Lewis.

Simultaneously, the EPA appointed 12 new scientific consultants who will assist the CASAC in its review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter and ozone. Last fall, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler disbanded the 24-member particular matter review panels, which was tasked with similar work. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ), House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and other committee leaders sent a letter to the EPA, questioning the administrator’s decision to use a pool of consultants rather than an expert panel similar to the disbanded panel.

USFWS: The Foskett speckled dace, a small fish endemic to Foskett Spring in southeast Oregon, has been removed from the federal endangered species list. After the fish was listed in 1985, the Bureau of Land Management purchased the land surrounding Foskett Spring and protected the spring from the impacts of grazing. Federal and state agencies continue habitat management and monitoring efforts to protect the fish.


Air Pollution: A federal appeals court struck down a 2016 Clean Air Act regulation that allows requires states to reduce air pollution emissions that could hurt air quality in downwind states and required the EPA to redo the regulation. A coalition of environmental groups and the state of Delaware challenged the regulation, known as the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, claiming the rule is not strict enough.

NOAAAdvocacy group Democracy Forward sued NOAA for failing to release documents about former Acting NOAA Administrator Timothy Gallaudet’s ouster in February under the Freedom of Information Act. The group claims that Gallaudet’s removal is part of a larger Trump administration attack on scientific integrity, noting that Gallaudet told a group at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting that NOAA scientists have not briefed the president about climate science shortly before he left the acting administrator position.


U.N.: The United Nations General Assembly holds a climate summit, starting this Tuesday through Sept. 30. The leaders of 136 out of 196 U.N. member nations will attend. Ahead of the event, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on national leaders to make tangible commitments to reduce emissions greenhouse gas emissions, calling the event a “climate action summit,” not a “climate talk summit.”

Scientific Community

AAAS: A new report details how 18 communities across the country are adapting to climate change and reducing carbon emissions. The report, titled “How We Respond,” builds on to an earlier climate science report, “What We Know.”

NAS: The Academies held a kick-off event Sept. 16 for a new study looking at the mental health needs of undergraduate and graduate students, with a focus on students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The study will analyze how colleges and universities treat mental health and challenges that institutions face in addressing mental health issues. At the end of the project, the NAS committee will release a consensus report with recommendations and other supporting products to be distributed on campuses and at scientific society meetings.

Opportunities to get involved

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a request for information from stakeholders in the bioeconomy to “inform notable gaps, vulnerabilities, and areas to promote and protect in the U.S. bioeconomy that may benefit from federal government attention.”

The announcement defines the bioeconomy as “the infrastructure, innovation, products, technology and data derived from biologically-related processes and science that drive economic growth, promote health and increase public benefit.” Stakeholders should submit comments on or before Oct. 22, 2019.

The House Natural Resources Committee is looking for public comments and input on a draft set of policy principles which will guide upcoming environmental justice legislation. All comments received by Sept. 27 will be read and considered by the committee’s policy staff.

Public Meetings, many of which are live-streamed: 

Opportunities for Public Comment and Nominations:

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

ESA in the News

ESA regularly issues press releases to the media about journal articles and other Society news. Press coverage is kept up-to-date on our “In the News” page. Check out news stories here.

ESA Correspondence to Policymakers

View more letters and testimony from ESA here.

ESA’s policy activities work to infuse ecological knowledge into national policy decisions through activities such as policy statements, Capitol Hill briefings, Congressional Visits Days, and coalition involvement. Policy News Updates are bi-monthly summaries of major environmental and science policy news. They are produced by the Public Affairs Office of the Ecological Society of America.

Send questions or comments to  Alison Mize, director of public affairs, gro.asenull@nosilA or Nicole Zimmerman, public affairs manager, gro.asenull@elociN

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