Policy News: June 15, 2020

In This Issue:

President Trump Signs Executive Order Directing Agencies to Use Emergency Provisions of Environmental Laws to Speed COVID-19 Economic Recovery
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Tom Cotton (R-AR) and James Lankford (R-OK) introduce bills to reform NEPA permitting.

COVID-19 Delays Competition for NEON Management
Battelle Memorial Institute will continue to manage NEON in the interim.

Bipartisan Senate Committee advances the nomination of Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan to lead the National Science Foundation.

Executive Branch
President Trump signed an order opening up the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument to fishing.

IPBES is looking for reviewers of a new draft scoping report.

Scientific Community
NSF’s Biological Sciences Directorate reports that the number of proposals submitted to the directorate decreased after it switched to no-deadlines

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

Opportunities to Get Involved
Federal Register opportunities.

President Trump Signs Executive Order Directing Agencies to Use Emergency Provisions of Environmental Laws to Speed COVID-19 Economic Recovery

President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to use the emergency authorities of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws to accelerate the country’s economic recovery from the coronavirus. The order also directs the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture and Defense to use all relevant emergency authorities to expedite work on infrastructure, energy, environmental, and natural resources projects on federal lands. Project developers will likely be hesitant to start work under this order, as environmental groups will likely challenge actions in the courts.

David Hayes, a top Interior lawyer during the Clinton administration and director of New York University’s State Energy & Environmental Impact Center, noted that emergency waivers in NEPA were designed for “fast-moving emergencies.” Courts will likely see the difference between these emergencies and economic slowdowns. The Center for Biological Diversity vowed to challenge the order in the courts in a letter to President Trump.

Environmental justice advocates noted that the order will harm communities of color, who have used NEPA to challenge increased pollution in their communities.

Separately, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Tom Cotton (R-AR) and James Lankford (R-OK) introduced two bills to reform NEPA permitting. The Federal Permitting Modernization Act (S. 3926) sets timelines for project review under NEPA. For example, permitting agencies would be limited to a 60-day public scoping period. Agencies use scoping periods to solicit feedback from the public regarding issues that should be addressed in environmental impact statements and other NEPA documents. The Republican senators’ second bill (S.3927) shortens the timeline from 150 days to 90 days to file a petition for judicial review of a permit, license or approval of an infrastructure project under NEPA.

The Trump administration has been pursuing a major overhaul of the NEPA regulations since 2018 and released a notice of proposed rulemaking narrowing the interpretation of the rule in January 2020 (see ESA Policy News, January 13, 2020). ESA and nine other scientific societies submitted comments to the Council on Environmental Quality criticizing the proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act regulations in March.

Mirroring proposals from the White House, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sent a memo to the Forest Service directing the agency to limit the number of pages and time spent to complete NEPA documents. Perdue said that these actions will provide relief from “burdensome regulations” and boost the productivity of national forests.

COVID-19 Delays Competition for NEON Management

The National Science Foundation announced that it is further extending the deadline for the submission of full proposals for the competition for management and operations of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) until September 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. In a note to the scientific community, Assistant Director of the Biological Science Directorate Joanne Tornow said that in-person visits to NEON sites are necessary for proposing organizations to understand the full extent and intensity of operations on each site. These site visits are currently not feasible due to the pandemic. Battelle Memorial Institute will continue to manage NEON in the interim and NSF anticipates no adverse impact to NEON operations as a result of the deadline extension. NSF changed NEON’s management from NEON, Inc. to Battelle in 2016.

NSF Chief Officer for Research Facilities James Ulvestead alluded to this delay during the May 2020 National Science Board meeting (see ESA blog: National Science Board Unveils Visions 2030 Report, Charts Impacts of COVID-19 on the National Science Foundation).


Nominations: The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee voted to advance the Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan nomination to lead the National Science Foundation to the full Senate without holding a confirmation hearing for Panchanathan. President Donald Trump nominated Panchanathan in December 2019. Former NSF Director France Cordova’s six-year term leading the agency ended in March 2020. Panchanathan is an Arizona State University computer scientist and a former member of the National Science Board.

Separately, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee also advanced the nomination of Mark Menezes to be deputy secretary of the Department of Energy to the full Senate. If confirmed, Menezes would fill the position vacated by Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette when he was promoted to his current role from deputy secretary in December 2019.

Senate: The full body passed a series of procedual measures leading to the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act (S. 3422). This bill would permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at $900 million a year. The LWCF provides funds to federal agencies and state and local governments to purchase lands for conservation and recreation opportunities. Funding for the LWCF comes for oil and gas leasing revenue. The full Senate is expected is approve the final bill this week.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee: Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and other committee leaders introduced an omnibus surface transportation bill, titled Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America (INVEST in America) Act (H.R. 7095). This nearly $500 billion bill creates new programs to incentivize states to reduce carbon emissions from transportation and helps states adapt infrastructure for extreme weather events before disasters occur. Under the legislation, states and cities must consider climate change in their transportation planning. The bill also allows states to receive federal transportation funds for wildlife crossings and natural infrastructure projects and authorizes a study on wildlife-vehicle collisions and habitat connectivity to update existing Federal Highway Administration research. Unlike previous transportation bills, this legislation is not bipartisan.

Last summer, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced a bipartisan surface transportation bill (S. 2302). The full Senate has not yet considered that bill.

Climate: Sens. Mike Braun (R-IN), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced the Growing Climate Solutions Act (S.3894). This bill would create a U.S. Department of Agriculture program charged with helping farmers and forest owners access carbon offset markets and certifying third-party greenhouse gas storage and reduction verification and technical assistance programs. An advisory council composed of agriculture experts, scientists, producers and others would advise this program and the Department of Agriculture. Sen. Stabenow is the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

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

Executive Branch

White House: President Trump signed an order opening up the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument off the coast of New England to fishing. Under the order, the New England Fishery Management Council will regulate fishing in the area. Former President Barack Obama designated the national monument in 2016. The Conservation Law Foundation has promised to challenge the order in courts, arguing the Antiquities Act allows presidents to designate national monuments, but it does not allow the president to modify existing monuments.

BLM: The agency announced its intention to open up about 115,000 acres of land in Utah to oil and gas leasing in September. Many of the parcels included in this auction are near the Bears Ear National Monument and Canyonslands, Arches and Capitol Reef national parks. The accompanying environmental assessment is open for public comment through July 9. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance noted that these lease sales could be hampered by legal challenges and there may be few interested bidders because of the current low price of oil.

Last month, the Trump Department of Justice argued that the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Zuni Tribe and the Utah Diné Bikéyah lack the legal standing to challenge Trump’s decision to shrink the Bears Ears National Monument.

NOAA: The agency’s Education Council is seeking public comments and feedback on its draft Education Strategic Plan, intended for release later in 2020. The draft plan’s purpose is to provide a framework to guide collaboration across NOAA and a structure in which to track and report progress. Comments must be received on or before July 2, 2020. NOAA intends to release a final strategic plan later in 2020.

EPA: Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Environmental Protection Agency released the 2019 State of the Great Lakes report. The document provides an overview of the status and trends of the Great Lakes ecosystem and concludes that the Great Lakes are “fair and unchanging.” Despite on-going restoration and protection efforts, the report finds that there are still significant challenges to the ecosystem’s health, including the impacts of nutrients and invasive species.

A proposed change to the Clean Air Act regulations prohibits the agency from relying on health “co-benefits” while drafting new air quality rules. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler argued that the agency relied on this co-benefit approach too much in previous administrations. The EPA’s scientific advisory board condemned this approach, writing in a report that the agency should include “explicit, consistent text throughout the report on the importance of accounting for all benefits associated with a regulation or policy, regardless of whether any given benefit was the intended target of the regulation.”

Interior: The Alaska Region of the National Park Service repealed a ban on certain hunting practices such as hunting caribou from motorboats and baiting bears during hibernation on national preserves in Alaska. State officials argued that the prohibition, finalized by the Obama administration in 2015, was inconsistent with state wildlife regulations. The final rule is effective July 9, 2020.

Similarly, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge proposed amending its refuge-specific regulations to allow bear-baiting and state-regulated trapping without a federal permit, citing concerns raised by the state.

USFWS: A draft environmental impact statement examining the agency’s proposal to apply the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to only intentional killing of birds finds that finalizing the rule would likely increase bird mortalities and negatively impact bird populations. In 2017, the Interior Department’s top lawyer issued a memo ‘clarifying’ that the law only applies to the intentional killing of birds. In February 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a proposed rule formalizing this policy (see ESA Policy News, February 11, 2020). The draft environmental impact statement claims that finalizing this rule is necessary to provide ‘regulatory certainty’ to industry.

The House Natural Resources Committee advanced Rep. Alan Lowenthal’s (D-CA) Migratory Bird Protection Act (H.R. 5552) which requires USFWS to create a permitting program for the incidental take of migratory birds during commercial activities. The draft environmental impact statement considers a permitting program, but determines that further analyzing that option “goes beyond the current purpose and need of simply providing regulatory certainty.”


IPBES: The draft scoping report for the international body’s thematic assessment of the interlinkages among biodiversity, water, food and health in the context of climate change is now open for external review through July 31. This review aims to increase the policy relevance of this scoping report by engaging governments and stakeholders early in the process of defining the policy questions that this assessment will address. Interested reviewers can register to access the document here.

IPBES also issued a call for indigenous and local communities to contribute to three on-going assessments about the sustainable use of wild species, diverse conceptualizations of multiple values of nature and invasive alien species.

The Republic of Serbia formally joined the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) June 4. Serbia is the 137th IPBES member.

Scientific Community

NSF: The Biological Sciences Directorate (BIO) will hold two online informational sessions for investigators at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) to share information about NSF programs supporting HBCU researchers, including the HBCU Excellence in Research program. NSF established the HBCU Excellence in Research program in response to a 2018 request from the Senate Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee. The program aims to establish stronger connections between researchers at HBCUs and NSF’s research programs. Register for the July 1 or July 14 sessions here.

BIO reports that the number of proposals submitted to the directorate decreased after it switched to no-deadlines for most programs in fiscal year (FY) 2019. This corresponded with an increase in BIO’s funding rate from 21% in FY 2018 to 28.1% in FY 2019. ESA previously reported that the funding rate for the Division of Environmental Biology increased from 23.4% in 2018 to 25.2% in 2019. BIO and the BIO Advisory Committee found that the demographics of P.I.s submitting proposals has not changed significantly since the switch to no-deadlines. There was a slight shift to shorter periods between submission and funding decisions in FY 2019 as compared to FY2018. BIO notes that the 2019 government shutdown may have impacted the timing of funding decisions. They will continue to track these metrics into the future.

Wetlands: The Society of Wetland Scientists, the World Wetland Network, the Cobra Collective, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature are crowdsourcing information for a global assessment of the state of the world’s wetlands. The English version of the survey is available here.

USGS: The Ecosystems Mission Area launched a new quarterly newsletter EcoNews and a monthly webinar series Friday’s Findings.

NASEM: The Committee on Seismology and Geodynamics will hold a webinar with scientists who are documenting global changes to the environment due to the COVID-19 pandemic through remote sensing July 17. Register 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

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Opportunities to get involved

Virtual public meetings and conference calls:

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’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.

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