Policy News: November 23, 2020

In This Issue:

President-elect Biden Announces Transition Team
Agency review teams include many Obama administration alumni.

Inform Science Policy Recommendation for President-elect Biden’s Administration
ESA asks for your assistance in creating a list of federal science-related priorities.

ESA Webinar — Science in President-elect Biden’s Administration
The webinar recording in now available.

Memos Outline Climate Policy for the New Administration
Biden and former Obama advisors lay out plans for how the incoming administration can address climate change quickly.

Senate Appropriators Release Spending Bills for Fiscal Year 2021
Bills include a 2.7% increase for the National Science Foundation.

Trump Administration Appoints Climate Skeptics to Lead the National Climate Assessment
Two recent political appointees will work to select authors for the fifth National Climate Assessment.

House and Senate pass coastal bills. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) takes top Republican spot on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Executive Branch
Administration works to offer oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in January.

Scientific Community
Golden Goose Awards will honor COVID-19 research.

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

Opportunities to Get Involved
Federal Register opportunities.

President-Elect Biden Announces Transition Team 

President-elect Joe Biden released a list of individuals who are serving on agency review teams. These transition teams are tasked with learning how the executive agencies operate and how they could implement Biden’s agenda after the inauguration. These teams mostly include former Obama political appointees. For example, former National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration Administrator, Kathryn Sullivan, is on the Department of Commerce team and former U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, Robert Bonnie, is leading the USDA team. Former White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Chief of Staff, Cristin Dorgelo, is leading the OSTP transition team.

The transition team for the National Science Foundation is grouped within the “Arts and Humanities” team. This team includes former Obama OSTP staffers Kei Koizumi and Mahlet Mesfin.

President-elect Biden is expected to start releasing his picks for cabinet agencies in the coming weeks. Already, Biden named Ron Klain as the White House Chief of Staff. Klain served as Biden’s chief of staff when Biden was vice president and led the Obama’s administration’s response to Ebola. NSF Director Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan started a six-year term earlier this year and is not expected to leave government. However, the other Senate-confirmed position at NSF, the deputy director position, has been vacant since 2014.

The Trump administration has refused to recognize Biden as the president-elect, blocking the transition team’s access to some funds, office space and government information.

Biden’s transition website includes climate change as of one the incoming administration’s priorities, along with COVID-19, economic recovery and racial equality. The transition team vows to put the country on a ‘irreversible’ path to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Inform Science Policy Recommendations for President-elect Biden’s Administration

ESA asks for your assistance in creating a list of federal science-related priorities that require attention to restore science to its proper place in President-elect Biden’s administration.

Over the past four years, many federal science reports, programs, regulations or data sets have been diminished, discounted, underfunded or discontinued. Complete the form below and tell us what needs to be restored under a Biden administration and what you envision as high priority policies. ESA will share the information with President-elect Biden’s Office of Science Technology and Policy Transition Team.

View and Complete the Science Policy Recommendation form.

Be as specific as possible.

Many thanks,

ESA Public Affairs Office

ESA Webinar – Science Policy in President-elect Biden’s Administration

ESA held a webinar Nov. 9 to discuss the 2020 election results and implications for scientific and environmental policy. See the webinar slides here and the webinar recording here.

The Public Affairs Office is also continuously updating the federal agency transition tracker as President-elect Biden announces his nominees for Senate confirmed positions of interest.

Memos Outline Climate Policy for the New Administration

Members of Biden’s agency review teams, Obama administration alumni and others released a set of memos outlining how the Biden administration can “hit the ground running” to address climate change. The memos are not official documents from the incoming Biden administration. The documents cover the office of the president, the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Environmental Protection Agency and six cabinet-level agencies. Another memo covers attracting and hiring climate change talent.

Recommendations in the climate memos include returning the Bureau of Land Management headquarters and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to the Washington, DC area. The Trump administration moved headquarters staff for these agencies to Kansas City, MO and Grand Junction, CO.

The USDA memo recommends expanding the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority, which was authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill, and increasing funding for the USDA Climate Hubs and research programs in the U.S. Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The Interior Department memo tasks the U.S. Geological Survey with tracking the Department’s carbon emissions and sinks, researching biological carbon sequestration and expanding its climate education efforts.

Senate Appropriators Release Funding Bills for Fiscal Year 2020

The Senate Appropriations Committee released 12 bills funding the federal government for fiscal year (FY) 2020 Nov. 10. These bills represent the Senate’s spending proposals, as Congress hopes to approve spending bills and avoid a government shutdown before current funding expires Dec. 11. As in previous years, these bills largely reject the Trump administration’s proposals for steep cuts for scientific and environmental programs.

The House released and passed most spending bills this past summer. Congress approved a stop-gap measure that keeps the government funded through Dec. 11 last September.

The Senate bill retains a long-standing policy rider prohibiting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the greater sage-grouse as an endangered species. Senators also indicate their support for the Bureau of Land Management’s plan to permanently remove 20,000 wild horses a year from federal lands permanently.

A report accompanying the Interior and Environmental spending bills concurs with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ August 2020 statement that the proposed Pebble gold and copper mine project in Alaska, as proposed, cannot be permitted under the Clean Water Act. The report encourages the relevant permitting agencies to deny a permit to the project. The mining company, the Pebble Partnership, and the Army Corps of Engineers announced that Pebble has submitted a new mitigation plan to address these concerns, but they have not released the plan to the public. Separately, leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee sent letters to Pebble executives and the Army Corps of Engineers requesting records and expressing concerns that Pebble has misled federal agencies, Congress and the public about the scope of the project.

The Senate bills largely keep funding flat for agencies of interest to the ecological community. See the full details of these bills on ESA’s federal budget tracker.

  • Senate Appropriators provide $8.5 billion to the National Science Foundation, a 2.7% increase from FY 2020, and $6.9 billion to NSF’s research and related activities account, which funds most NSF grants. The House bill provides $8.55 billion to NSF.
  • Funding for the Environmental Protection Agency remains almost the same as in FY 2020 at $9.085 billion.
  • Senators cut the U.S. Geological Survey’s budget by less than half a percent to $1.265 billion.
  • The U.S. Forest Service’s budget increases by a quart of a percent to $7.452 billion. Senators reject the agency’s proposal to eliminate the Pacific Southwest Research Station and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico. ESA requested that appropriators include this language in their report.
  • Senators provide $1.51 billion to the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), a 6% cut, and $1.485 billion for ARS’ salaries and expenses, a 5% increase. As in previous years, the Senate rejected the President’s Budget Request’s proposed cuts and terminations to research programs, and report language directs that those research programs should receive no less than FY 2020 levels.
  • The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, the USDA’s primary competitive grants program, receives $435 million, a 2.35% increase. The House bill proposed the same amount.
  • The Department of Energy Office of Science receives $7.026 billion, a less than half a percent increase. Biological and Environmental Research receives flat funding of $750 million. The Energy Science Coalition, which ESA participates in, is requesting at least $7.05 billion in the final funding bill.

Trump Administration Appoints Climate Skeptics to Lead the National Climate Assessment

The White House appointed David Legates to lead the National Climate Assessment. The administration appointed Legates to one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s top positions in September 2020. Legates is a professor of geographic and spatial sciences at the University of Delaware. In 2014, he told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the International Panel on Climate Change’s consensus on climate change is “contrived.”

Shortly after Legates’ appointment, the Trump administration also appointed Ryan Maue to another White House position working on the National Climate Assessment. Sources told the Washington Post that both Legates and Maue will work to select National Climate Assessment authors.

Maue is a meteorologist and a former adjunct scholar at the libertarian think-tank the Cato Institute. He frequently criticizes climate projections as alarmist. The Trump administration appointed Maue to be NOAA’s chief scientist in September 2020.

These appointments come after the White House removed Michael Kuperberg, a career federal employee and scientist, from his position at the U.S. Global Change Research Program leading the National Climate Assessment.

As political appointees, Legates and Maue are expected to leave this position after President-elect Joe Biden takes office. The administration also recently appointed Betsy Weatherhead to be the director of the next National Climate Assessment. Weatherhead is now a career employee of the U.S. Geological Survey and is not expected to resign after Biden’s inauguration. Weatherhead holds mainstream views about anthropogenic climate change.

The federal government issued the most recent National Climate Assessment in late 2018. The Global Change Research Act requires the government to issue an assessment every four years. The next assessment is due in 2022, although the U.S. Global Change Research Program expects that the assessment will not be released until 2023.

House Democrats, led by House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis Chairwoman Kathy Castor (D-FL), House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Don Beyer (D-VA), sent a letter to White House condemning these personnel changes. They also criticized the administration for delaying work on the assessment.


House: The full House passed the Digital Coast Act (S. 1069). This bill authorizes and expands NOAA digital geospatial data and mapping programs designed to help local, state and federal coastal managers. This measure passed the Senate in September. The full House also passed a bill from Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) to reauthorize the National Sea Grant College Program through fiscal year 2024. The Senate approved this bill in September 2020.

The House also passed two other bipartisan bills about international environmental issues. The Tropical Forest and Coral Reef Conservation Act (H.R. 7954) reauthorizes an existing program that provides loan forgiveness for developing countries that meet certain benchmarks and agree to contribute to tropical forest and coral reef conservation through 2025. The Partnering and Leveraging Assistance to Stop Trash for International Cleaner Seas (PLASTICS) Act (H.R. 4636) authorizes the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development to prioritize efforts to improve waste management systems and reduce plastic waste and marine debris by encouraging market-based solutions.

Senate: Senators passed the Great Lakes Environmental Sensitivity Index Act (S. 1342), which requires NOAA to update maps of the Great Lakes assessing coastal resources and ecological risks of oil spills and natural disasters. These Environmental Sensitivity Index maps have not been updated in 20 years. Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI) and Todd Young (R-IN) are the lead sponsors for this bill.

Similarly, the full Senate also approved another bill (S. 4462) from Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI and Roger Wicker (R-MS) creating a National Integrated Flood Information System to coordinate and integrate flood research at NOAA.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee: Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) will take the top Republican spot on the committee, replacing Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who is term-limited. Because of the run-off elections in Georgia, it is not clear if Barrasso will serve as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. This move opens up the top Republican position on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Barrasso has used his position as the Chairman of Environment and Public Works Committee to introduce legislation and hold hearings about reforming the Endangered Species Act. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) is the next in line to lead the Environment and Public Works Committee. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is expected to keep his role as the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee oversees the Department of Energy, including the National Laboratories, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The Environment and Public Works Committee oversees the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and drafts surface transportation legislation, among other responsibilities.

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

Executive Branch

Arctic: The Bureau of Land Management issued a “call for nominations,” starting the process to sell oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and allowing the agency to hold a lease auction right before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration Jan. 20. The call for nominations asks oil and gas companies to identify which parts of the Refuge they would be interested in leasing for oil and gas drilling. Industry interest in these leases is low due to the high cost of building infrastructure for drilling, the low price of oil and the potential that the Biden administration could block drilling. Major banks, including Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, have pledged to not finance development in the refuge.

In response to the banks’ pledge, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency released a proposed rule, which, if finalized, would prohibit financial institutions from refusing to finance entire business categories, assuming that those business activities are legal. The public comment period for this proposed rule is open through Jan. 4, 2021, giving the Trump administration only a few days to finalize this rule before the inauguration.

Simultaneously, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement proposed weakening rules governing offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

Forest Service: The agency finalized regulations modifying how it complies the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The final rules represent a scaled-back version of a proposed rule released in June 2019, as the Forest Service works to sync its regulations with new NEPA regulations finalized by the White House Council on Environmental Quality in September 2020. The new rule adds six new “categorical exclusions,” or exemptions from NEPA analysis. New categorical exclusions allow the agency to construct up to two miles of National Forest System roads and conduct “activities to improve ecosystem health, resilience, and other watershed and habitat conditions” on up to 2,800 acres.

The Southern Environmental Law Center and other organizations have vowed to challenge this rule in the courts.

Scientific Community

Awards: The 2020 Golden Goose Award Ceremony will celebrate three examples of the urgent work that is being undertaken across the globe to understand and respond to COVID-19. These awards honor federally funded research with silly-sounding or obscure beginnings that has gone on to have enormous societal impact. The virtual awards ceremony will begin at 4:00pm eastern time on Dec. 1. RSVPs are due Nov. 30.

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 

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.