Policy News: July 29, 2020

In This Issue:

White House Finalizes Revisions to NEPA Regulations
New rules direct agencies to focus on “reasonably foreseeable” effects and set pages limits for environmental impact statements.

Federal Government Begins Work on Fifth National Climate Assessment
A notice identifies the proposed overarching themes and framework of the next assessment.

Full House passes spending bills funding the Departments of Agriculture and Interior and more.

Executive Branch
Army Corps of Engineers releases final environmental impact statement for the Pebble Mine in Alaska.

State attorneys general challenge new Clean Water Act regulations in court.

Scientific Community
FY 2021 solicitation for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program indicates that the agency will prioritize applications related to certain research areas.

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

Opportunities to Get Involved
Federal Register opportunities.

Register to Vote & Request an Absentee Ballot
The general election is happening in November. Register to vote and learn more about voting policies and rights in your state at Rock the Vote.

White House Finalizes Revisions to NEPA Regulations

President Donald Trump and the White House Council on Environmental Quality released a final rule updating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations. The new rule is intended to ‘streamline’ and ‘modernize’ NEPA and speed approval of infrastructure projects like pipelines and highways.

Among other changes, the new rules eliminate references to indirect, direct and cumulative impacts of projects on the environment and directs agencies to focus their efforts on “consideration of effects that are reasonably foreseeable and have a reasonably close causal relationship to the proposed action.” The rules direct agencies to not generally consider effects significant if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the result of a lengthy causal chain. Environmental groups say that the “remote in time” phrase could limit agencies from considering climate change in their reviews.

The Council on Environmental Quality limits Environmental Assessments to 75 pages and Environmental Impact Assessments to 300 pages, unless a senior agency official approves a longer page limit in writing.

ESA and other scientific societies have opposed the changes to the NEPA regulations. A multi-society comment from earlier this year stated that the proposed rule would reduce the range of alternatives evaluated, exclude the consideration of critical types of impacts, place arbitrary time and page limits on NEPA documents and reduce public opportunities to review and comment on proposed projects.

Environmental justice groups denounced the regulations, arguing that the changes will mute the voices of communities who use the NEPA process to draw attention to the impacts of new industrial projects on their air and water.

Congressional Democrats are considering using the Congressional Review Act to overturn the new NEPA regulation if the take control of the Senate and White House in the 2020 elections. After the 2016 election, Congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump used the Congressional Review Act to override regulations intended to modernize the Bureau of Land Management’s planning process. House Democrats approved a provision blocking agencies from using funds to implement these NEPA regulations in their fiscal year 2021 spending bill.

A coalition of environmental groups, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed a lawsuit challenging the new rule. The group claim that the Council on Environmental Quality violated the Administrative Procedures Act during the rulemaking.

Federal Government Begins Work on Fifth National Climate Assessment

The U.S. Global Change Research Program is seeking public comment on the proposed themes and framework of the Fifth National Climate Assessment as presented in a Federal Register notice.

The Global Change Research Act, passed in 1990, requires the US Global Change Research Program to complete a National Climate Assessment every four years. The most recent assessment was released in November 2018.

The notice identifies five overarching themes for the assessment:

  • Identification of advancements or improvements, relative to NCA4, in scientific understanding of human-induced and natural processes of global change and the resulting implications for the United States.
  • Identification of vulnerable populations for climate-related risks and potential impacts, a theme highlighted in previous assessments.
  • Characterization of scientific uncertainties associated with key findings.
  • Characterization of current and future risks associated with global change with quantifiable metrics, such as indicators, where possible, and with the needs of multiple audiences in mind.
  • Emphasis on (1) near-term trends and projections that can inform adaptation needs; (2) long-term projections that are more scenario dependent; and (3) in some cases, timeframes past 2100, to be consistent with the Global Change Research Act and to indicate anticipated legacy effects of the human influence on the climate and oceans.

In May 2019, the New York Times reported that the White House was considering only including 20-year projection in the next climate assessment, excluding long-term, worst-case scenarios from the report. In response, the House Committee on the Climate Crisis recommended codifying the US Global Change Research Program’s authority to include the full range of scientifically derived climate scenarios in assessments in a recent climate action report (see ESA Policy News, July 13, 2020).

Comments can be submitted on GlobalChange.gov through Aug. 10, 2020.


Appropriations: The full House passed several ‘minibus’ bills funding the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and more for fiscal year (FY) 2021, which starts Oct. 1. These bills largely keep spending flat for key ecological science agencies, in line with an agreement that capped spending for non-discretionary, non-defense spending at a one percent increase for FY 2021 (see ESA Policy News, July 13, 2020 and ESA Federal Budget Tracker). It is not clear when the Senate will release its spending bills. Lawmakers are likely to resort to a short-term stopgap spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, to avoid a government shutdown.

Amendments to the spending bills approved by the full House would increase funding for the EPA’s environmental justice programs, require the EPA to regulate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and slow various Trump administration initiatives. An amendment from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) bars drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and a similar amendment from Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) limits drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska.

Another amendment bars the EPA from using funds to “finalize, implement or enforce” a proposed rule that would leave the agency’s air quality standards for particulate matter unchanged. House Democrats, citing an EPA staff report that found that strengthening particulate matter regulations would help prevent thousands of premature deaths a year, are pushing for stronger particulate matter regulations.

House: The full House voted to approve the Great American Outdoors Act (H.R. 1957). 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 from oil and gas leasing revenue. The bill also creates a five-year trust fund to address deferred maintenance needs in national parks and public lands. The full Senate passed similar legislation in June and President Trump plans to sign the bill.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee: The full committee released and advanced, the 2020 Water Resources Development Act (H.R. 7575) setting water infrastructure policy for the next two years. Unlike earlier House infrastructure bills (see ESA Policy News, June 29, 2020), this legislation is bipartisan – Committee Ranking Member Sam Graves (R-MO) is co-sponsoring the bill.

The bill includes provisions requiring the Army Corps of Engineers to study natural infrastructure features and consider nature-based features in flood reduction and hurricane and storm damage reduction feasibility projects. It also directs the Army Corps to give projects for anadromous fish habitat and passage equal priority for implementation as other aquatic ecosystem restoration projects. Lawmakers direct the Army Corps to update its Invasive Species Policy Guidance, based on plans from the National Invasive Species Council and to carry out a harmful algal bloom demonstration program that detects, treats, prevents and eliminates harmful algal blooms. The Corps would also conduct a study of coastal resilience in the Great Lakes region and provide updates to Congress about restoration projects in coastal Louisiana, the Mississippi River Basin and other waterways across the country.

The full House plans vote on the Water Resources Development Act this week. The Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee introduced and passed its own water infrastructure bill in May (S. 3591, see ESA Policy News, May 18, 2020).

GAO: A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report criticizes the federal government for underestimating the social cost of carbon in regulations. The report notes that changes in the government’s methodology led the government to focus on the domestic rather than global cost of carbon. Consequently, estimates to dropped from a cost of $50 per ton of carbon to $7 per ton. The GAO also notes that the government has no plans to address the recommendations of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for updating the methodologies used to develop federal estimates of the social cost of carbon. White House Office of Management and Budget staff told the GAO that it does not have specific plans for implementing the National Academies recommendations and that no federal agency has responsibility for addressing these recommendations.

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee: The full committee voted to advance the Living Shorelines Act (S. 1730), Bolstering Long-Term Understanding and Exploration of the Great Lakes, Oceans, Bays, and Estuaries (BLUE GLOBE) Act (S. 933) and Sport Fish Restoration and Recreational Boating Safety Act (S. 4144) July 22. The Living Shorelines Act, sponsored by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), creates a NOAA grant program to assist states, localities and nongovernmental organizations in constructing living shorelines. The BLUE GLOBE Act, from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), establishes an Interagency Ocean Exploration Committee, based at the White House, to promote exploration and monitoring of the oceans. It also tasks the National Academies of Sciences to study the potential of an Advanced Research Projects Agency – Oceans (ARPA-O). Committee Chairman Roger Wicker’s Sport Fish Restoration and Recreational Boating Safety Act reauthorizes the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund through 20205. This fund supports fishery restoration and conservation programs and fish stocking programs.

Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee: The committee advanced the Safeguarding American Innovation Act (S. 3997) to the full Senate. Among other changes, the bill would allow the State Department to deny visas to researchers with ties to foreign governments determined to be “hostile foreign actors” and impose criminal penalties on researchers who fail to disclose foreign ties. The American Association of Universities and other higher education associations oppose this legislation.

Legislative updates:

  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced the Water for Tomorrow Act (S. 4188), which would create a financing program for water infrastructure and a grant program for watershed health and climate change mitigation projects, among other provisions.

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

Executive Branch

Army Corps of Engineers: A final environmental impact statement for the proposed Pebble gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska concludes that the mine would not have a significant impact on the region’s salmon fishery. The Bristol Bay watershed is home to the world’s most productive sockeye salmon fishery. In 2014, the EPA vetoed the mine, citing the impacts of the mine on fisheries. Environmental groups and Alaska native communities remain strongly opposed to the mine. Now, the Army Corps of Engineers will likely issue a ‘record of decision’ granting a permit to Pebble Limited Partnership and next the company will have to obtain required state permits.

The full House will consider an amendment to the Energy-Water FY 2021 spending bill that would block the Army Corps of Engineers from using funding to continue permitting the Pebble Mine this week. House Democrats are expected to support this amendment.

USFWS: The agency determined that the dunes sagebrush lizard may merit protection under the Endangered Species Act, in response to a petition and lawsuit from environmental groups. The Center for Biological Diversity says that the lizard has lost habitat in Texas and New Mexico to oil and gas development and the use of herbicides in ranching. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will complete and one-year status review of the species and is seeking any commercial and scientific information about the lizard. Oil, gas and sand mining companies have submitted a voluntary conservation agreement to USFWS, showing industry’s efforts to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing for the dune sagebrush lizard in Texas. That agreement is open for public comments through Aug. 17, 2020.

EPA: A new proposed rule keeps ozone pollution standards the same as a 2015 rule, concluding the current standards are sufficient to meet “public welfare standards.” The rule follows an Integrated Science Assessment for Ozone and a Policy Assessment for Ozone by EPA staff scientists. The EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee wrote in February that the Integrated Science Assessment and the Policy Assessment do “not provide a comprehensive, systematic assessment of the available science relevant to understanding the health impacts of changes in exposure to ozone.”

The EPA rejected calls to re-open nomination for several agency advisory committees in light of a February 2020 ruling that struck down an EPA policy barring grantees from serving on agency advisory boards.


Clean Water Act: Attorneys general representing 20 states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit challenging an EPA final rule that makes it harder for states to block pipelines and fossil fuel export facilities, using water quality regulations. The lawsuit alleges that the new regulation violates the Clean Water Act and laws governing federal rulemaking. ESA and other aquatic science societies submitted comments opposing this rule when the administration first released a proposed rule in fall 2019.

BLM: Montana Governor Steve Bullock (D) filed a lawsuit challenging William Perry Pendley’s position as acting Bureau of Land Management (BLM) director. Pendley has served as the BLM’s deputy director for programs for around a year. Without a Senate-confirmed BLM director, Pendley has fulfilled the responsibilities of the director. Bullock alleges that this arrangement violates the Federal Vacancies Act, which prohibits acting directors from serving while their nomination is pending in the Senate. Trump nominated Pendley to lead the BLM in June 2020. Before joining the Trump administration, Pendley led the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which advocates for selling federal lands. The BLM has not had a Senate-confirmed director since the end of the Obama administration.

Scientific Community

NSF: The fiscal year 2021 solicitation for the Graduate Research Fellowship program (GRFP) indicates that the agency will prioritizes applications related to agency ‘high priority research’ areas — artificial intelligence, quantum information science, and computationally intensive research. Historically, the GRFP has supported all areas of basic science, with applications selected through a merit review. This is the first time that the GRFP solicitation has identified priority areas. A Change.org petition with nearly 3,000 signatures urges NSF to remove these priority areas from the solicitation, writing that these priorities limit efforts to diversify science and will hamper scientific discovery and student development. NSF responded to criticism on Twitter, stating that “GRFP applicants will be and always have been selected based on their individual merit.”

The National Science Board will meet today and tomorrow. The agenda includes a panel discussion titled “Framing Black Experiences in Science & Engineering” and a discussion of the impacts of COVID-19 on science.

The Biological Sciences Directorate posted a recap and slides from its question and answer sessions about the Historically Black Colleges and Universities – Excellence in Research program on its blog. Program Officers from each BIO division attended these sessions and are available to answer questions about this program.

NAS: The Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology is seeking nominations for experts to serve on two new committees, sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency. One committee will organize a workshop to review federal agency human health research on perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and to identify research and data gaps. Nominations for this committee are due by Aug. 7, 2020. The other committee will identify emerging scientific and technological advances from across a broad range of disciplines that EPA’s Office of Research and Development should consider in its research planning to support EPA’s mission for protecting human health and the environment. Nominations are due Aug. 5, 2020.

The Board on Atmospheric Science and Climate published the proceedings of a June 2020 workshop held to solicit feedback on the direction that the federal government should take to advance understanding and application of Earth system predictability.

Register to Vote

The 2020 elections are happening this November. On a national level, the presidency, all seats in the House of Representatives and a third of the seats in the Senate will be contested. Several state governorships and many other state and local elections will also be contested. Be sure you are registered to vote in time to participate!  Learn more about voting policies and rights in your state and register to vote at Rock the Vote, a nonprofit dedicated to engaging young people in politics.

Voting procedures and requirements for requirements for requesting an absentee ballot during the coronavirus pandemic vary by state. Visit your state board of elections website or Vote.org for deadlines and to request a ballot.

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

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.

Send questions or comments to  Alison Mize, director of public affairs, Alison@nullesa.org or Nicole Zimmerman, public affairs manager, Nicole@nullesa.org

Visit the ESA website to learn more about our activities and membership.