Special Policy News 4: The Transition

In this issue


Senate Confirms Agriculture, Energy and Commerce Secretaries, Advances Interior Nomination
Tom Vilsack, Jennifer Granholm and Gina Raimondo join Biden’s cabinet. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM)’s confirmation appears likely.

House Democrats Introduce Bill to Reach Net-Zero Emissions by 2050
The legislation is similar to a bill introduced in 2020.

Congress passed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package including $600 million for NSF and gives funds to the USFWS for invasive species.

Executive Branch
Interior Department rescinds ‘Secret Science’ Secretarial Order.

Biden administration drops defense of Trump administration’s legal interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Scientific Community
NEON is seeking members for the Science, Technology and Education Advisory Council.

Upcoming Events
ESA webinar: Connecting with the 117th Congress on March 11 at 12:00pm.

What We’re Reading

Opportunities to Get Involved
Federal Register Opportunities.


Senate Confirms Agriculture, Energy and Commerce Secretaries, Advances Interior Nomination

The full Senate confirmed Tom Vilsack as the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the Biden administration. Vilsack previously led the USDA for the entire Obama administration and he formerly was Iowa’s governor. Vilsack quickly announced the creation of an equity commission to address racism in USDA programs. Dewayne Goldmon was appointed to the newly created position of racial equity advisor. Most recently, Goldmon was the executive director of the National Black Growers Council and he formerly worked for Monsanto as the director of stakeholder relations.

The Senate also confirmed former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm as Secretary of Energy and former Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo to be Secretary of Commerce. Granholm is expected to prioritize clean energy research, development, and deployment in this position. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a confirmation hearing for Biden’s pick to be Granholm’s deputy, David Turk, on March 4. Raimondo’s portfolio as Commerce secretary includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 11-9 to advance Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM)’s nomination to be Secretary of the Interior to the full Senate. Haaland’s nomination is expected to pass the full Senate with Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) all supporting Haaland’s confirmation. If confirmed, Haaland would be the first Native American Cabinet secretary.

The full Senate is expected to take up Haaland’s nomination and Michael Regan’s nomination to be EPA administrator this week.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a confirmation hearing for Brenda Mallory, Biden’s pick to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Janet McCabe who is Biden’s pick to be EPA deputy administrator. Republican Senators, including Committee Ranking Member Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), questioned McCabe about her role in drafting the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. McCabe served as the assistant administrator for the EPA Office of Air and Radiation from 2013 to 2017. Both the Clean Power Plan and the Trump administration’s replacement, the Affordable Clean Energy rule, have been held up in the courts. Lawmakers also questioned Mallory’s plans to revisit the Trump administration’s changes to the National Environmental Policy Act regulations. Biden has directed the White House to examine these policies.

Biden Names New Agency Hires

Jaime Pinkham, the former executive director of the Columbia River Basin Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, was appointed to be the Army’s principal deputy assistant secretary for civil works – one of two political positions at the Army Corps of Engineers. Pinkham is a member of the Nez Pearce Tribe and is a well-regarded expert in tribal water and fishing treaties. The Army Corps, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, is responsible for wetland permitting and Clean Water Act implementation.

The Biden administration picked Nada Culver to be the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) deputy director of policy and programs. She will be the second-in-charge at the BLM and her position does not require Senate confirmation. The Trump administration never filled the Senate-confirmed BLM director position. Trump’s acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley officially served as the agency’s deputy director for policy and programs. Culver is an attorney who most recently worked for The National Audubon Society and previously worked for The Wilderness Society.

House Democrats Introduce Bill to Reach Net-Zero Emissions by 2050

House Democrats, led by House Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and committee leaders Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Bobby Rush (D-IL), introduced the Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s (CLEAN) Future Act (H.R. 1512). The bill establishes a goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The bill’s interim goal is to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by no less than 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Among other measures, the over 600-page bill calls on federal agencies and states to draft climate plans to reach this goal and establishes a national climate bank to fund climate mitigation efforts.

Environmental justice provisions in the bill establish a climate justice grant program and create an Office of Energy Equity in the Department of Energy that would reduce or stabilize energy costs in underserved or disadvantaged communities. The bill would also aim to stop air pollution permitting in areas that are already disproportionately impacted by pollution.

This bill is similar to legislation introduced by Reps. Pallone, Tonko and Rush in 2020. One notable difference between this bill and the 2020 version of the bill is that the new bill commits to a goal of a carbon-free power sector by 2035—the 2020 previous bill aimed for a carbon-free power sector by 2050. The 2035 commitment matches campaign promises from President Biden.


Coronavirus Relief: Congress approved a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill. The package includes $600 million for the National Science Foundation to “fund or extend new and existing research grants, cooperative agreements, scholarships, fellowships, and apprenticeships” and to respond to coronavirus. This amount falls short of the $3 billion for the National Science Foundation included in the RISE Act (H.R. 869), a major priority for the research community that was not passed by Congress or added to the $1.9 trillion bill.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) receives $90 million. This funding includes $45 million for research to strengthen the early detection, rapid response and management of wildlife disease outbreaks before they become pandemics and support wildlife health monitoring to enhance early detection of diseases that can jump the species barrier. The bill calls for the USFWS to create a wildlife disease database. Lawmakers also included $10 million for the USFWS to identify and designate wildlife species as injurious under the Lacey Act if they transmit a pathogen that could pose a risk to human health and for the USFWS to develop regulations to develop a process to make emergency listings for injurious species. These U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bill provisions are similar to language previously included in the Heroes Act passed by the House in May 2020, but it never advanced in the Senate. ESA and the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species have supported the Heroes Act provisions.

Higher education institutions receive $40 billion. At least half of the funds given to colleges and universities must be spent on emergency grants to students. President Biden is expected to sign the bill into law.

Science Agencies: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced that he is directing Senate Democrats to draft technology legislation and set a goal for the Senate to pass the new legislation this spring. This legislative package will include Schumer’s Endless Frontiers Act.  Schumer, Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) and Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI) first introduced the Endless Frontiers Act in May 2020. These sponsors have not re-introduced this bill in the current 117th Congress.

The version of the Endless Frontiers Act introduced in the 116th Congress changed the name of the National Science Foundation to the National Science and Technology Foundation and created a new Directorate of Technology. The new directorate would address ten “key technology focus areas:”

  • artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • high-performance computing, semiconductors and advanced computer hardware
  • quantum computing and information systems
  • robotics, automation and advanced manufacturing
  • natural or anthropogenic disaster prevention
  • advanced communications technology
  • biotechnology, genomics and synthetic biology
  • cybersecurity, data storage and data management technologies
  • advanced energy
  • materials science, engineering, and exploration relevant to the other key technology focus areas

The list of key technology areas would be updated periodically by a panel of outside experts appointed by Congress. This panel would also oversee the Technology Directorate’s activities. The legislation recommends that the directorate’s budget increase from $2 billion in FY2021 to $35 billion by 2024. The bill prohibits lawmakers from funding the new directorate if funding other directorates is decreased. The bill sponsors hope that this provision will prevent the legislation from taking funding from other directorates. NSF’s fiscal year 2020 budget is $8.3 billion.

Other legislation (H.R. 5685) that would have reauthorized NSF, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other science agencies did not advance in the 116th Congress.

Public Lands: The full House approved the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act (H.R. 803). This is a package of eight public lands bills, many of which passed the House during the 116th Congress. The bill designates 1.49 million acres of federal lands as wilderness and add more than 1,000 river miles into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. This bill would also withdraw more than 1.2 million acres of public land from new oil and gas and mining claims.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee: Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) and Ranking Member Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) announced their committee leadership rosters for the 117th Congress. The Environment and Public Works Committee oversees the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and surface transportation infrastructure policy. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) chairs the Fisheries, Wildlife and Water subcommittee. Freshman Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) is the top Republican on the Fisheries, Wildlife and Water subcommittee. Senate Green New Deal resolution sponsor Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) leads the Clean, Climate and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee with climate skeptic Sen. Jim Inofe as the subcommittee’s top Republican.

See graphic: Senate Environment and Public Works Committee

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee: Committee Chairman Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Ranking Member John Barrasso (R-WY) named their subcommittee leaders for the 117th Congress. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) chairs the Public Lands, Forests and Mining Subcommittee and Sen. Mike Lee (R-ID) is the ranking member. Sen. Angus King (I-ME) is the chair of the National Parks Subcommittee chair while Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) is the subcommittee’s top Republican. This committee oversees the Department of Energy and public lands issues.

See graphic: Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Legislative Updates:

  • Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) reintroduced the National Ocean Exploration Act (S. 381). This bill authorizes the National Ocean Mapping, Exploration, and Characterization Council and reauthorizes National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Exploration, Ocean and Coastal Mapping, and Hydrographic Services programs through 2030. It also improves public access to National Environmental Policy Act documents related to oceans. Committee members Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) are also co-sponsors.
  • The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved Rep. Steve Cabot (R-OH) ‘s bill (R. 241) to reauthorize the Tropical Forest and Coral Reef Conservation Act through 2026. This law provides loan forgiveness for developing countries that meet specific benchmarks and agree to contribute to tropical forest and coral reef conservation. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced a companion bill (S. 335) in the Senate.
  • Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) reintroduced the Invasive Species Prevention and Forest Restoration Act (H.R. 1389). This bill expands the USDA’s access to emergency funding to combat invasive species, establishes a research program about restoring native trees and mandates a study to identify actions needed to centralize and prioritize non-native insect and pathogen research and response.
  • Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Vern Buchnan (R-FL) reintroduced the Critically Endangered Animals Conservation Act (H.R. 1569). This bill creates a Critically Endangered Animals Conservation Fund and authorizes $5 million a year for the conservation of International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List species. This proposal mirrors the existing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Multinational Species Conservation Funds.

Executive Branch

White House: President Joe Biden increased the social cost of carbon to $51 per ton. The Trump administration had lowered the social cost of carbon to as low as $1 per ton. This cost is similar to estimates issued during the Obama administration. Federal agencies use this metric in procurement decisions and in crafting regulations.

In 2020, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the federal government for underestimating the social cost of carbon. The GAO noted that the government had 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.

USFWS: The Biden administration moved to delay implementing a rule that shrank critical habitat for the threatened northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act. The Trump administration finalized this rule at the very end of Trump’s presidency. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife reopened the rule for public comment and is accepting comments through March 31.

Forest Service: The USDA withdrew a final environmental impact statement that would have given 2,200 acres of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest to a mining company to allow the construction of a copper mine. In exchange, the U.S. Forest Service would have received 5,376 acres of private lands. The Trump administration approved this land swap in Jan. 2021. The San Carlos Apache Tribe has opposed this land swap because of the land’s cultural and spiritual importance. The agency said in a statement that it will reopen consultation with the San Carlos Apache Tribe and other concerned federally recognized tribes in the area, following a recent presidential memorandum on tribal consultation. However, the Forest Service also notes that the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act directed this land exchange.

Interior: Acting Secretary Scott de la Vega signed an order overturning a 2018 Secretarial Order that restricted the use of science in agency decision-making. Similar to the EPA’s “transparency in science” rule, this order limited agencies from using scientific studies where the underlying data was not publicly available.


Migratory Birds: The Biden administration officially dropped the federal government’s defense of a Trump administration legal opinion that determined that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) only applies to the intentional killing of birds. In August 2020, a federal judge in New York struck down the 2017 legal opinion, finding the Interior Department’s interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is “contrary to law.” This development leaves the judge’s decision in place.

The Trump administration also finalized a regulation determining that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act does not apply to the “incidental take” or accidental killing of birds in January 2021. The Biden administration moved to delay the implementation of this rule in February.

Endangered Species: The Supreme Court ruled that federal agencies do not have to release draft endangered species documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In this case, the Sierra Club requested communications and documents under FOIA about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service’s analysis of the impact of the 2011 EPA proposed power plant rule on fish and aquatic species. The agencies declined to release their draft biological opinions; and, the Sierra Club sued by arguing that an FOIA exemption that allows agencies to withhold information about the agency’s “deliberative process” does not apply because, in this case, the draft opinions functioned as final documents. 

Scientific Community

USGS: The agency published its first Wildland Fire Science Strategic Plan. The new strategy guides USGS research in the 21st century. It prioritizes the production of innovative science, tools and resources that inform land management and provide an understanding of fire’s role in ecosystems and in human communities, before, during and after wildfires. 

The USGS wildland fire strategy emphasizes working with stakeholders to identify, develop and share essential information that supports critical decision-making by fire, resource and emergency managers. These include threat characterization and management planning before a fire and providing real-time satellite and field data to incident commanders and others during a fire.

NSF: The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is seeking nominations for three scientists to advise Battelle as part of the Science, Technology & Education Advisory Committee (STEAC). Battelle, which operates NEON, is seeking nominees that represent a diversity of institution types, expertise, backgrounds, perspectives, identities, and career stages. In particular, NEON is seeking scientists with specialization in organismal biology, remote sensing, and cyberinfrastructure. Nominations are due April 1.

Artificial Intelligence: The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence released its 750-page report March 1. It contains a blueprint for the US to implement detailed plans. Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO, chaired the Commission. Congress created the independent federal entity created to review U.S. competitiveness in AI and associated fields.

Conservation: A report from the World Wildlife Fund and 15 other major conservation organizations finds that one-third of freshwater fish species are at risk of extinction. Migratory fish species populations have declined 75% since the 1970s. The report urges governments to adopt ambitious targets for freshwater conservation during the 2021 Convention on Biodiversity Conference.

Upcoming Events


  • Connecting with the 117th Congress ESA Public Affairs Office, March 11, 12:00pm eastern timeLearn about opportunities to share your science with policymakers. The new 117th Congress shifted the Senate to a Democratic majority and a new president brings new priorities for Congress to consider for legislation. Attend this webinar to identify opportunities to engage with Congress.
  • The Center for International and Strategic Studies will hold a conversation with FBI Director Christopher Wray and national security lawyers to get their perspectives on why civic education is a national security issue March 12 at 2:00 pm. Register here.
  • Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for Sustainability and Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering will hold a series of seminars this spring about climate change with topics ranging from implications for agriculture, ecosystems and food systems and economic, ethical, and policy insights on the issue.
  • The American Geophysical Union, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF) and this Government Accountability Project (GAP) will hold a webinar discussing how principles of scientific freedom and academic integrity can help scientists further the goals of the new administration March 18. Augusta Wilson, Staff Attorney at CSLDF and Dana Gold, Senior Counsel and Director of Education at GAP, will discuss what constitutes a scientific integrity violation at federal agencies, universities, and other research institutions, how those entities handle scientific integrity complaints and more. Register here.
  • The Advisory Committee for the Directorate for Biological Sciences will meet virtually April 15 and 16. The meeting will be live-streamed via YouTube. More details, including a meeting agenda, will be released soon.
  • The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the French government have agreed to hold the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2020 September 3-11 2021 in Marseille, France. The event, originally scheduled for June 2020, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This event IUCN brings together the global nature conservation community, including top international experts in conservation science, policy and practice. Held every four years, the Congress allows IUCN’s 1,400 Member organizations, including states, civil society and indigenous peoples, to democratically determine the most pressing issues in nature conservation and actions to address them.

What We’re Reading


Opportunities to Get Involved

Upcoming Public Meetings:

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

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