Policy News: February 11, 2020

In This Issue:

White House Seeks Cuts to NSF, Other Science and Environmental Programs
NSF receives a seven percent cut.

Trump Administration Formally Proposes Weakening the Migratory Bird Treaty Act
Proposed rule would prevent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from fining companies that accidentally kill birds.

Graphic: Administration Narrows Definition of Protected Waters
A graphic from PoliticoPro summarizes what waters are protected under the ‘Navigable Waters Protection Rule.”

Democrats Target Plastic Makers in New Bill
The “Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act” aims to reduce plastic pollution flowing into the word’s oceans.

Full House of Representatives approves bills reauthorizing Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay programs and more.

Executive Branch
President Trump appoints two new members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Italy and Uzbekistan join IPBES.

Scientific Community
NSF BIO seeks program directors.

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

Opportunities to Get Involved
Federal Register opportunities.

White House Proposes Cuts to NSF, Other Science and Environmental Programs

The White House Office of Management and Budget released the president’s budget request for 2021 Feb. 10, titled “A Budget for America’s Future.” Similar to previous budget requests, the administration calls for sharp cuts to nondefense discretionary programs across the federal government. The president’s budget request marks the beginning of the fiscal year (FY) 2021 appropriations process. As in previous years, Members of Congress are expected to largely disregard the president’s budget request.

National Science Foundation: The budget includes $7.7 billion for NSF, a 7% cut. NSF’s research and related budget line item, which funds the majority of NSF grants, receives a 7.8% cut. The Biological Science Directorate is allocated $705 million, a 10 percent cut from FY 2019 levels. Congress does not set funding levels for NSF directorates.

USDA: The administration proposes a $1.9 billion – or 8% – overall cut to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This includes an increase of an additional $175 million for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the USDA’s largest competitive research grants program. Congress funded AFRI at $425 million in FY 2020. The Agricultural Research Service receives $1.3 billion, a 19% cut. The U.S. Forest Service’s research and development deputy area receives $255 million, an over 16% cut.

Interior: The administration proposes cutting the Interior Department’s budget by 16%, with cuts to discretionary funding for all of the Department’s major agencies. The U.S. Geological Survey receives $972 million, a 23.52% cut from FY20 levels, with a similar 25% cut for the agency’s Ecosystems mission area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service receives a 16% cut, the National Park Service’s budget is cut 17.3% and the Bureau of Land Management gets a 9.5% cut.

NASA: NASA receives a 12% increase, with $4.3 billion going toward the administration’s goal to return American astronauts to the moon by 2024 and building “sustainable presence on the lunar surface as the first step on a journey that will take America to Mars.” As in previous years, the administration proposes cutting the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder and the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) missions and the agency’s Office of STEM Engagement.

NOAA: Funding for the Department of Commerce includes $188 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to map the U.S. exclusive economic zone and shoreline and nearshore maps for Alaska. The administration again proposes cutting NOAA’s Sea Grant program.

Energy: The Department of Energy’s Office of Science receives $5.76 billion, a nearly 18% cut. The budget again proposes eliminating Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

EPA: The administration proposes a $6.7 billion for the Environmental Protection Agency, a 27% cut.

ESA will update the Federal Budget Tracker as more details are released.

Trump Administration Formally Seeks to Weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released a proposed rule determining that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) does not apply to the “incidental take” or accidental killing of birds. If finalized, this rule would formalize a 2017 Interior Department legal opinion, which ‘clarified’ that the law only applies to the intentional killing of birds. The rule is intended to provide “regulatory certainty” to industry, including the oil, gas and wind energy businesses. Future administrations would have to undergo the formal rulemaking process to reverse the rule.

Previous administrations have prosecuted and fined companies for violations of the MBTA that harm protected birds. Notably, BP paid a $100 million fine under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act after the Deepwater Horizon spill.

December 2019 New York Times article detailed the real-life impacts of the legal opinion. For example, the Virginia Department of Transportation canceled plans to construct an artificial island to offset the effect of expanding the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel on seabird habitat.

Shortly before the administration released the proposed rule, the House Natural Resources Committee advanced Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA)’s Migratory Bird Protection Act (H.R. 5552) that requires USFWS to create a permitting program for the incidental take of migratory birds during commercial activities. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) also criticized the proposed rule and promised to “look for ways for Congress to reverse this gift to big polluters.” Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-DE), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Van Hollen criticized the proposal during a USFWS oversight hearing with Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Rob Wallace.

Several state attorneys general and conservation groups, led by the National Audubon Society, have challenged the administration’s MBTA interpretation in the courts. Most recently, a federal judge in New York rejected a request from the federal government to dismiss the case.

States have also pushed back against the administration’s reinterpretation of the MBTA on a policy level. In September 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) signed legislation declaring that the state will continue to enforce incidental take. Lawmakers in Vermont are considering similar legislation.

The proposed rule is open for public comment through March 19, 2020.

Graphic: Trump Administration Narrows Definition of Protected Waters

Last month, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers released their “Navigable Waters Protection Rule,” removing protections for ephemeral streams and wetlands that do not have surface connections to intermittent or perennial streams.

Shortly after the announcement, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board approved a letter denouncing the new WOTUS definition, writing that the rule “decreases protection for our nation’s waters and does not provide a scientific basis in support of its consistency with the objective of restoring and maintaining ‘the chemical, physical and biological integrity’ of these waters.”

A graphic from PoliticoPro summarizes what waters are protected under the new rule and provides comments from the Science Advisory Board about the rule.

Sample of Politico Pro graphic from PDF

See the full graphic here.

Democrats Target Plastics Makers in New Bill

by Annie Snider, PoliticoPro, 2/11/2020

Congressional Democrats are introducing a bill today that would require plastics manufacturers to take more responsibility for the waste their products generate.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) are casting their bill, dubbed the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act as the most comprehensive piece of legislation to date aimed at reducing plastic pollution flowing into the world’s oceans. The bill would impose a “pause” the permitting of new production facilities for up to three years and impose a tax on plastic carry-out bags, among other provisions. It also would require large plastics companies to establish new organizations to oversee plastics recycling and cleanup programs.

“Plastic producers are flooding the market with wasteful, single-use products,” Udall said on a call with reporters Monday. “Our bill is a game changer, the first bill that comprehensively tackles the plastic crisis.”

The bill stands as a liberal alternative the other leading legislation in Congress to address the issue, the Save Our Seas Act 2.0 (S. 1982).

That bill, introduced by Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) in the Senate, passed the upper chamber unanimously in January with backing from the plastics industry. It would create a Marine Debris Response Trust Fund and direct EPA to develop a strategy to improve waste management, among other provisions, but has been criticized by activists as insufficient to deal with the problem.

Plastics represent a booming sector of the petrochemical industry, with dozens of new facilities in the works across the country. But while industry eyes plastics as a growing business line responsible for hundreds of thousands of jobs, the environmental community is increasingly viewing it as a climate change threat, since some production facilities are estimated to emit carbon dioxide at a scale comparable to a coal-fired power plant, according to the Center for International Environmental Law.

Until recently, much of the action has been at the local level, where environmentalists have won plastic bag bans in eight states – and industry lobbyists have won laws in nearly twice as many states protecting them.

The plastics industry and beverage companies are raising red flags about the new bill.

“[A] moratorium is the wrong approach and it’s the wrong approach from the environmental perspective,” said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council, arguing that plastics “make our cars lighter, more fuel efficient and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.”

He said his organization backs more “collaborative” approaches like those in the Save Our Seas Act and other measures that would provide modest federal grants for studying the pollution problem and improving public education around recycling programs.

The new Democratic legislation would take a different tack, placing responsibility for dealing with the waste, embracing the concept of “extended producer responsibility,” and requiring producers to design and fund programs to collect and process waste instead of the current system that relies on municipalities to manage and fund recycling programs.

The Udall-Lowenthal bill would also require certain single-use plastic products like plastic stirrers and utensils to be phased out beginning in 2022 and would create a nationwide bottle refund program like those that already exist in 10 states. And the bill would also block the U.S. from exporting plastic waste to developing countries, which studies have found to be responsible for the lion’s share of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.

The measure faces steep odds in the Republican-controlled Senate, but advocates argue it could offer a starting point for Democrats if they win control of the upper chamber in November.

Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator under the Obama administration and founder of the Beyond Plastics initiative, said the new Udall-Lowenthal measure stands out as “commensurate with the problem.”

“There’s lots of discussion about the science of plastic pollution, the sheer volume that’s getting into the ocean and the nexus to carbon emissions, and yet around the country you see important but modest bills coming up from the ground up that attempt to address a gargantuan problem,” Enck said.

In the meantime, there are some signals that individual provisions in the bill could see traction.

Speaking at a conference in Austin last week, the CEO of the American Beverage Association said her group was willing to talk about bottle refund programs, in part because of commitments made by major beverage companies like PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Company to increase their use of recycled plastic.

“Traditionally, the industry has been opposed to bottle bills,” CEO Katherine Lugar said, according to the trade publication Plastics News.

“You are not going to hear an outright ‘no’ from us right now. Part of that comes from the fact that each company has set really bold goals for the amount of recycled content they want to be using in their product. We know that a piece of that may evolve around policy. Everything needs to be on the table,” she said.


House: The full House of Representatives passed a suite of watershed restoration bills:

  • The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Act (H.R. 4031), sponsored by Rep. David Joyce (R-OH), reauthorizes the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for another five years and increases authorized funding for the program from $300 million annually to $475 million annually by fiscal year 2026.
  • The Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1620), from Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA), reauthorizes the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program and increases the authorized funding level by $500,000 a year through 2024.
  • The PUGET SOS Act (H.R. 2247), sponsored by Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA), establishes a Puget Sound Recovery National Program Office within the EPA, codifies the Puget Sound Federal Leadership Task Force and authorizes $50 million in funding to support Puget Sound protection and restoration.
  • The San Francisco Bay Restoration Act (H.R. 1132), from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), establishes a $25 million grant program to support the restoration of the San Francisco Bay and creates a San Francisco Bay Program Office within the EPA.
  • The Protect and Restore America’s Estuaries Act (H.R. 4044), sponsored by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), reauthorizes the National Estuary Program and nearly doubles authorized funding for the program.
  • The final bill (H.R. 4275), from Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), reauthorizes the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Restoration Program, another EPA regional clean-up program.

House Science Committee: Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) introduced the Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act (H.R. 5685). This bill would authorize doubling funding for basic research at the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration over the next 10 years. Lucas cited the need to maintain U.S. leadership in science and technology and to address climate change as motivators for the legislation. Eleven Republican members of the Science Committee are co-sponsoring the legislation.

The Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics advanced legislation reauthorizing NASA’s programs (H.R. 5666). The bill authorizes total NASA funding of $22.6 billion and $1.97 billion for the agency’s Earth Sciences Division that are to NASA FY2020 spending levels. The bill also supports the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder and the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) missions. The Trump administration has sought to cut these missions in its president’s budget request. Lawmakers encourage NASA to continue and expand the use of NASA earth science data by other federal agencies, states and civil society. Sections in the bill require NASA to survey states, tribes and territories about their applied use of NASA data and to commission the National Academies of Science to study “the opportunities and challenges related to the potential use of commercial Earth observation data collected for the purposes of conducting Earth science research.” The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved NASA authorization legislation (S. 2800) in November 2019.

House Natural Resources Committee: The full committee advanced Chairman Raul Grijalva’s (D-AZ)’s PAW and FIN Conservation Act (H.R. 4348), which would terminate rules finalized in August 2019 modifying the Endangered Species Act regulations (see Policy News, Sept. 9, 2019).

Committee members also approved two bills encouraging wildlife corridors. Rep. Don Beyer’s (D-VA) Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act (H.R. 2795) would authorize federal agencies to designate National Wildlife Corridors on federal lands and establish a wildlife movement grant program to fund conservation efforts on state, tribal and private lands. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ)’s Tribal Wildlife Corridors Act (H.R. 5179) would provide federal grants and technical assistance to tribes for native wildlife corridors.

House Energy and Commerce Committee: Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and committee leaders Reps. Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Bobby Rush (D-IL) released draft legislation for their plan to ensure that the U.S. reaches net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The draft bill is titled the Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s (CLEAN) Future Act. Among other measures, the over 600-page bill calls on federal agencies and states to draft climate plans to reach this goal and establishes a national climate bank to fund climate mitigation efforts. The Committee is looking for feedback and recommendations from stakeholders on the draft legislation. Feedback can be submitted to CleanFuture@nullmail.house.gov.

Legislative updates:

  • Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) introduced the America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act (H.R. 5775) that would designate 8.4 million acres as wilderness, the highest level of federal protection. The wilderness area would include parts of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and several other sites in Utah. Environmental groups have pushed for this designation since former Rep. Wayne Owens (D-UT) proposed similar legislation in 1989. The bill has 58 cosponsors, all Democrats.

See ESA’s Legislative Tracker for more updates on legislation relevant to the ecological community.

Executive Branch

White House: President Donald Trump appointed two new academic members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), Theresa Mayer and Hussein Tawbi. Mayer is the executive vice president for research and partnerships at Purdue University and Tawbi is an associate professor of medical oncology at the University of Texas, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. The PCAST now has 11 out of 16 expected members.

The PCAST held its first working meeting Feb. 3 and 4 of the current adminstration. The discussion focused around the White House’s “Industries of the Future” — quantum information science, artificial intelligence, wireless communications, biotechnology and advanced manufacturing with an emphasis on AI and quantum science.

Interior: The Bureau of Land Management published new land management plans opening up former parts of the Bear Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments in Utah to fossil fuel development and new grazing leases. Legal challenges to President Trump’s December 2017 decision to shrink these national monuments from conservation and scientific groups and Native American tribes are still on-going.


IPBES: Two new countries, Uzbekistan and Italy, have joined the International Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, bringing the international body to 136 member countries.

Scientific Community

Law: The U.S. Department of Justice arrested Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber, under charges that Lieber failed to disclose his ties to China’s Thousand Talents program while receiving U.S. federal funding for his research and tried to recruit others to give scientific research to the Chinese government. Lieber is the longtime chair of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology. He has been placed on administrative leave from Harvard. Top Justice Department officials said that Lieber’s arrest is part of a likely ‘spike’ in cases related to the Chinese government’s efforts to exploit the U.S. research system.

NSF: The Biological Science Directorate is currently seeking several program directors. The Division of Environmental Biology is recruiting program directors for the evolutionary processes, ecosystems science, and population and community ecology clusters. Applications for these positions close March 5, 2020.

The Division of Integrative Organismal Systems is seeking two permanent and two temporary program directors, all of which close Feb. 13, 2020. For the animal behavior program in the behavioral systems cluster, NSF seeks candidates with a broad background in integrative organismal biology focused on behavior across levels of organization and contexts (temporary job announcementpermanent job announcement). For the integrative ecological physiology (IEP) program of the physiological and structural systems cluster, NSF seeks applicants whose background and expertise bridges genetics, functional genomics and physiological ecology (temporary job announcementpermanent job announcement).

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