Policy News: February 24, 2020

In This Issue:

Full House of Representatives passes wilderness bills.

Executive Branch
White House Office of Science and Technology Policy requests information about oceans sciences partnerships, public access to peer-reviewed publications.

Groups challenge WOTUS rule, NEPA regulations in the courts.

Scientific Community
Council of Graduate Schools finds that the number of international graduate students enrolled in institutions in the U.S. increased by 4% in 2019.

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

Opportunities to Get Involved
Federal Register opportunities.


House: The full House passed a package of bills (H.R. 2546) extending federal wilderness protections to nearly 1.4 million acres of public lands in Colorado, California and Washington state and designating 1,000 river miles as wild and scenic rivers. The final legislation includes measures creating a California Public Lands Remediation Partnership to clean up public lands damaged by illegal marijuana farming and allowing the Interior and Agriculture Departments to manage fire, insects and diseases in the wilderness areas included in the bill.

House Republicans, led by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), introduced a package of bills that they are branding as the Republican response to climate change. The package includes Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR)’s Trillion Trees Act (H.R. 5859). Rep. Westerman’s bill requires the USDA to set a target for total domestic wood growth and modifies existing U.S. Forest Service state and private forestry programs to encourage carbon sequestration. It also requires the EPA, the USDA and the Interior Department to establish policies reflecting “carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy.” This bill follows a commitment from President Trump at the World Economic Forum and during his State of the Union to join the International Trillion Trees Initiative. The package also includes three bills to encourage and support carbon sequestration through tax incentives and a carbon sequestration research program at the Department of Energy. The House Natural Resources Committee plans a hearing to consider Rep. Westerman’s bill Feb. 26. Fellow House Republicans criticized the bills and the bills most likely will stagnant.

Science Committee: Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) sent a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler criticizing a draft memorandum from Wheeler that would limit the ability of the Science Advisory Board (SAB) to review proposed EPA regulations. Under the process outlined in the draft proposal, the SAB chair would have to determine within three business days “whether there are scientific aspects of the proposed rule that may merit SAB review.” Individual SAB members would not be able to request a review of proposed EPA regulations. Chairwoman Johnson states that Wheeler’s guidance “runs counter to the provision in the Environmental Research, Development and Demonstration Act, which established the SAB.”

Legislative updates:

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

Executive Branch

Nominations: President Trump nominated Mark Menezes to serve as the deputy secretary of the Department of Energy and Douglas Benevento to serve as deputy EPA administrator. Both of these positions are the second most senior positions in their respective agencies. Before joining the Energy Department in 2017, Menezes was a lobbyist for Berkshire Hathaway Energy and a staffer for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Benevento has worked for the EPA since 2017. Before that, he was an executive at the utility Xcel Energy.

White House: The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a request for information asking for “recommendations on approaches for ensuring broad public access to the peer-reviewed scholarly publications, data, and code that result from federally funded scientific research.”

Another request for information from OSTP and the National Science Foundation asks for “input from all interested parties on opportunities for and constraints on building and sustaining partnerships in ocean science and technology” to inform OSTP recommendations. This RFI follows a 2018 OSTP report “Science and Technology for America’s Oceans: A Decadal Vision” and a 2019 White House Summit on Partnerships in Ocean Science and Technology. Information and comments are due March 19, 2020.

Interior: President Trump signed a presidential memorandum, finalizing a water management plan permitting farmers in California’s Central Valley to use 600,000 additional acre-feet of water, potentially allowing farming on 240,000 additional acres of land. California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) and Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) said that they intend to challenge the plan in court to protect the threatened and endangered fish species it would harm.

EPA: A draft inventory of greenhouse gases finds that greenhouse gases in the U.S. increased 3.1% between 2017 and 2018. Transportation accounts for the most substantial percentage of greenhouse gas emissions (29%), followed by electricity (28%) and industry (22%). The EPA is seeking recommendations for improving the draft inventory before the agency submits the report to the U.N. as part of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Comments on the draft inventory are due March 13, 2020.

USDA: Secretary Sonny Perdue announced new department goals to reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture by 50% and reduce farm runoff by 30% by 2050, while still increasing agricultural productivity. Perdue also told stakeholders that the department will aim to reduce food waste by 50% and encourage farming practices that limit carbon emissions. The agency has not set a specific, numeric goal for carbon emissions. During a question and answer session after the announcement, Perdue said that “legitimate, measurable carbon trading” could motivate farmers to sequester carbon.

This announcement follows the release of the USDA’s Science Blueprint earlier this month. The Science Blueprint determines research priorities for 2020 through 2025. Research themes identified include sustainable agricultural intensification (i.e., meeting growing consumer demands for food and forest products in a sustainable matter) and climate adaptation. Cross-cutting “macro movements in science” highlighted as relevant to agriculture are open data, big data, gene editing, the science of the microbiome, artificial intelligence, technology, automation and remote sensing and the public’s perception of science.


WOTUS: The Center for Biological Diversity, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Center for Food Safety announced that they plan to challenge the administration’s “Navigable Waters Protection Rule” in the courts. The groups challenge that the new Waters of the U.S. rule will harm federally protected species and therefore, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers should have consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before finalizing the rule. The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers released a final rule in January 2020 (see ESA Policy News, Jan. 27, 2020). The final rule has not yet been published in the Federal Register, a requirement of the federal rulemaking process.

EPA: A federal judge in New York overturned an EPA policy that prohibited agency grantees from serving on its advisory boards. In 2017, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt used this policy to remove several scientists from advisory committees. The Natural Resources Defense Council and others, including former advisory committee members, have challenged the policy in the courts. This lawsuit is one of many cases challenging this EPA policy.

NEPA: The Southern Environmental Law Center asked a federal court to stop the White House Council on Environmental Quality from further advancing its proposal to change the rules implementing the National Environmental Policy Act. Attorneys from the Southern Environmental Law Center say that the agency never provided documents related to the proposal requested under the Freedom of Information Act in 2018. The organization is asking the courts to keep the public comment period open until the public can review the requested documents. The current public comment period for the proposed rule is open through March 10. ESA and 13 other scientific societies asked the Council on Environmental Quality to extend the public comment period to allow for at least a 120-day comment period.

A new podcast episode from the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) explains the Council on Environmental Quality’s proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act regulations. ELI has also published a Practitioners Guide to the Proposed NEPA Regulations to help potential commentators understand the proposal.

Scientific Community

IPBES: A new article, “The IPBES Global Assessment: Pathways to Action” discusses how to disseminate and apply the findings of the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment.

Education: The Council of Graduate School’s International Graduate Admission Survey found that the number of international graduate students enrolled in institutions in the U.S. increased 4% in 2019, after experiencing declines in 2017 and 2018. International student enrollments in the biological and agricultural sciences increased 10% between fall 2018 and fall 2019 and enrollments in the physical and earth sciences increased 6%.

Philanthropy: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced that he plans to start a $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund that will fund scientists, activists, non-governmental organizations and “any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.” It is not yet clear how the funds will be distributed, but Bezos said that the fund will begin issuing grants in summer 2020. In the meantime, The Verge asked scientists and activists how they would like to see the funds used.

NSF: The Biological Sciences Advisory Committee will hold its spring meeting April 29-30.

NASEM: The National Academy of Sciences, the Kavli Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation are sponsoring a symposium reflecting on the legacy of Vannevar Bush’s report Science – The Endless Frontier and exploring new approaches for addressing the challenges and opportunities of the next 75 years in science Feb 26. The event will be live-streamed for remote attendees, registration is available here.

What We’re Reading

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

Opportunities to get involved 

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.

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