Policy News: December 21, 2020

The Katherine S. McCarter

Graduate Student Policy Award

Applications are now being accepted.

ESA is now accepting applications for its 2021 Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award. Offered each year, this award gives graduate students science policy training and opportunities to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Visit the ESA website for more information and details on application requirements. The deadline to apply is Jan. 15, 2020.

In This Issue:

Biden Selects Top Environmental Officials in the Incoming Administration
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) is Biden’s pick to be Secretary of the Interior.

Administration Finalizes New Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act Regulations Before Inauguration
New rule defines habitat under the Endangered Species Act.

Bipartisan Senators introduce Senate Trillion Trees bill.

Executive Branch
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determines that further protections for the monarch butterfly and northern spotted owl are “warranted but precluded.”

Scientific Community
Nominations for the Golden Goose Awards are open through Jan. 6.

The U.N.’s annual emission gap report warns that the world is heading towards 3°C of warming.

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

ESA Correspondence to Policymakers

Opportunities to Get Involved
Federal Register opportunities.

Biden Selects Top Environmental Officials in the Incoming Administration

President-elect Joe Biden continued to announce nominees for his cabinet and top political appointments.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) is Biden’s pick to be Secretary of the Interior. If confirmed, Haaland would be the first Native American to lead the agency, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Haaland co-sponsored a bill (H.R. 5435), along with other Democratic members of the House Natural Resources Committee, that would require net-zero greenhouse gases from public lands and waters by 2040. She is also an original co-sponsor of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) ‘s Green New Deal resolution (H.Res 109).

Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, Michael Regan, is Biden’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper (D) appointed Regan to his current position in January 2017. Under Regan’s leadership, the state of North Carolina reached a settlement with Duke Energy to clean up coal ash ponds. He also created an Environmental Justice Advisory Board. Regan will be the second African American and first Black man to lead the EPA.

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will be the ‘White House Climate Czar’, coordinating climate policy across the federal agencies. McCarthy will be the domestic climate policy counterpart to former Secretary of State John Kerry, who will focus on international climate policy as the White House climate envoy. Ali Zaidi, who is currently New York’s deputy secretary for energy and the environment, will be McCarthy’s deputy in the White House. Zaidi previously worked for the Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration. None of these positions require Senate confirmation.

Biden will nominate Brenda Mallory to be the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. This White House office oversees the National Environmental Policy Act’s implementation and advises the President on other environmental review and environmental quality issues. Mallory worked in President Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality, and she is now the director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Biden nominated former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to serve in the same position in the new administration. Vilsack was the Secretary of Agriculture during the Obama presidency and served as governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007. Biden and Vilsack vowed to make U.S. agriculture carbon neutral during an event announcing Vilsack’s nomination.

Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm is Biden’s nominee for energy secretary. Granholm was the governor of Michigan during the 2009 auto-industry bailout and is expected to focus on green manufacturing in this position.
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Administration Finalizes New Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act Regulations Before Inauguration

Across the federal government, agencies are rushing to finalize deregulatory actions before the end of the Trump administration.

In recent weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service unveiled a finalized rule defining habitat under the Endangered Species Act. The new definition reads, “habitat is the abiotic and biotic setting that currently or periodically contains the resources and conditions necessary to support one or more life processes of a species.” This definition prohibits the agencies from designating areas that are not currently occupied by the species as habitat and would further ecosystem restoration improvements to become suitable habitat. It would also prohibit federal agencies from protecting areas that could become important habitat for rare species under climate change. The definition comes after the Supreme Court case Weyerhaeuser v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered the agency to provide a “baseline definition” of habitat.

Another finalized rule allows USFWS to exclude areas from critical habitat designations for endangered species if the critical habitat designation would cause negative economic impacts or harm national security or outdoor recreation opportunities.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a final rule modifying how the agency weighs costs and benefits while drafting air quality rules under the Clean Air Act. The final rule attempts to stop the agency from relying on “co-benefits” to justify regulations. These benefits could include reductions to pollutants not specifically targeted by a rule or international air quality improvements. It calls for the agency to differentiate between benefits specifically targeted to the rule and co-benefits for pollutants regulated under other parts of the Clean Air Act. 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 in June, 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.”

Another recently finalized rule from the EPA maintains current air quality standards for particulate matter. The EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) was split on maintaining air quality standards. A group of former CASAC Particulate Matter panel members, comprised mainly of academic scientists, recommended that the EPA tighten current air pollution standards.

Two 2019 EPA staff reports, the Policy Assessment for the Review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter and the Integrated Science Assessment for Particulate Matter, analyzed the science and the adequacy of air quality standards. The policy assessment found increased scientific evidence questioning the adequacy of the current standards for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), but it found that current standards for coarse particulate matter (PM 10) are mostly adequate.

The Bureau of Land Management finalized two National Environmental Policy Act categorical exclusions, allowing the agency to remove pinyon pine and western juniper trees on up to 10,000 acres and harvest up to 3,000 acres of dead or dying trees without further NEPA analysis.

It is not clear if the Trump administration will finalize other priority rules. Rules that may be finalized include the “Transparency in Science” rule, which would prohibit the use of peer-reviewed science in regulation if the underlying data is not publicly available, and another USFWS rule cementing a Trump administration policy that exempts the accidental killing of birds from Migratory Bird Treaty Act penalties.


Appropriations: House and Senate leaders announced Dec. 20 that they have reached an agreement about a $900 billion dollar coronavirus relief package and funding the federal government through September 2021. The details of these bills are not yet available. The relief package does not relief for research agencies and federally-funded researchers. ESA will update the Federal Budget Tracker as details become available.

Senate: Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Mike Braun (R-IN) introduced the Trillion Trees and Natural Carbon Storage Act (S. 4985). Similar to Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) ‘s Trillion Trees Act (H.R. 5859), the bill would commit the U.S. to joining the World Economic Form’s Trillion Trees initiative and seeks to boost tree planting efforts domestically and internationally through State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development initiatives. Unlike the House bill, Sens. Coons and Braun’s bill does not include exemptions from National Environmental Policy Act analysis for certain forestry projects. This bill is the first piece of legislation to come out of the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus. Sens. Todd Young (R-IN) and Angus King (I-ME) are also cosponsoring this bill.

GAO: A report finds that the nation’s air pollution monitoring system is deteriorating, and governments are unable to maintain equipment. Environmental Protection Agency funding for this program declined by 20% since 2004. Failures in the air monitoring system leave Americans unaware of air pollution and associated public health risks in their communities.

Legislative updates:

• The full Senate passed the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Act (H.R. 4031) which 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 House passed this bill in February 2020.
• The full House passed the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act (S. 906) which phases out large-mesh drift gillnets used in commercial fishing in the federal waters off the coast of California. The California State Legislature passed a plan to phase out these nets in state waters in 2018. This bill passed the Senate in July 2020 and it will now go to the President for his signature.
• Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) and committee member Jacky Rosen (D-NV) introduced the Rural STEM Education Act (S. 4972). This bill directs the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support rural STEM education and workforce development through grants for research about teaching STEM in rural schools, removing barriers rural students face in accessing STEM education, and providing solutions to improve rural STEM education. The bill mirrors House legislation introduced by House Science Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) (H.R. 4979). The House passed its version of this bill in September.
• Reps. Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Ed Case (D-HI), members of the House Natural Resource Committee, released draft legislation to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary law governing fisheries management in the U.S. One major change to the law would require fishery managers to incorporate the impacts of climate changes into their planning.

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

Executive Branch

White House: President Trump named four new members to the Arctic Research Commission – David Kennedy, Crawford Patkotak, Julia Nesheiwat and Thomas Emanuel Dans. All of these appointees will likely serve a four-year term on the commission, which oversees U.S. Arctic research policy and goals.

Kennedy is a long-time career National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employee, currently serving as an advisor for the Arctic region. Patkotak is the Chairman of the Board of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, an Alaska Native regional corporation, and the vice-chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Nesheiwat is currently the Homeland Security advisor to President Trump. She also worked as Florida’s Chief Resilience Officer. Dans is an advisor to the undersecretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department.

USFWS: In two separate announcements, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that listing the northern spotted owl as an endangered species and adding the monarch butterfly to the list of endangered species is “warranted but precluded.” This means that these species merit protections, but other species are higher priority for USFWS’ limited resources.
Eastern monarch populations have declined nearly 75% since the 1990s. USFWS reports that monarch populations have declined because of habitat loss and the widespread use of herbicides that kills caterpillar’s food source, milkweed.

The northern spotted owl was at the center of the Northwest Forest Plan, which was first adopted in the 1990s to protect millions of acres of old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. At the time, logging and wildfires were the primary threat to northern spotted owls. Today, USFWS says that competition with nonnative barred owls is driving the species’ further decline.

NOAA: The annual Arctic Report Card finds that the region experienced the second-highest air temperatures and second-lowest summer sea ice recorded between October 2019 and September 2020. High temperatures led to snow loss and extreme wildfires in northern Russia, among other cascading ecosystem impacts.

Scientific Community

Awards: The Golden Goose Award has extended the 2021 deadline for nominations until Jan. 6. This award honors examples of scientific studies or research that may have seemed obscure, sounded “funny,” or for which the results were totally unforeseen at the outset, but which ultimately led, often serendipitously, to major breakthroughs that have had significant societal impact. For 2021, the award steering committee is accepting nominations for research that had a significant impact to the response and treatment of COVID-19 as well as general nominations.

California: Applications are now open for the 2022 Class of California Council on Science and Technology Policy Fellows. This program places Ph.D. scientists in the California State Legislature or state agencies for a one-year term. Completed applications are due by 11:59 pm PST March 1st, 2021.

Oversight: A new report from the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund outlines how Congressional Committees have abused their oversight and subpoena powers to undermine scientific work and provides recommendations for how Congress can better oversee science.

Climate: The Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science and USDA Northern Forests Climate Hub are offering a free adaptation planning and practice online course for forest and natural resource managers. The course provides training in considering climate change information and identifying adaptation actions for natural resources management professionals working in forests and natural ecosystems. For more information, see Save the Date flyer.


U.N.: The annual emission gap report from the United Nations Environmental Program warns that the world is still heading towards 3°C of warming before the end of the century, far exceeding the Paris Climate Agreement’s goals. Emission reductions related to the pandemic are ultimately negligible in the long term. However, the U.N. also notes that governments can use recovery from the pandemic to build greener economies. A green recovery could reduce emissions by 25% from what the world would otherwise expect under a pre-COVID business as usual scenario.

What We’re Reading
• This is bigger than all of us: why Microsoft is signing The Climate Pledge

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:

Comments concerning the scope of the analysis must be received by Jan. 15, 2021.

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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