Policy News: June 29, 2020

In This Issue:

President Trump Suspends Entry Under H1-B Visas Through the End of 2020
Senators Introduce Bill Restricting Visas to Researchers with Ties to “Hostile Foreign Actors.”

House Democrats Infrastructure Bill Reauthorizes Watershed Restoration Programs, Creates Wildlife Corridor System
Full House will vote on bill this week.

Congress
Senate confirms Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan to lead NSF, House introduces relief bill for research.

Executive Branch
OMB and NSF issue new coronavirus guidance for science funding agencies

Courts
The EPA will not appeal a court decision overturning a 2017 policy barring agency grantees from serving on advisory committees.

States
Minnesota Attorney General files lawsuit against ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and the American Petroleum Institute for deceiving consumers.

Scientific Community
National Academies seeks experts for an ocean plastic study.

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

Opportunities to Get Involved
Federal Register opportunities.

President Trump Suspends Entry Under H1-B Visas Through the End of 2020


President Donald Trump issued a proclamation suspending the entry of workers under H-1B, H-2B, J and L visas through the end of 2020. High-skill workers, including researchers, widely use H1-B visas to work in the United States legally. The proclamation says that the order is necessary to speed economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and reduce unemployment.

The American Association of Universities (AAU) countered that the proclamation “will harm our nation’s economic and scientific competitiveness while failing to achieve any of the president’s stated goals in issuing it.” Major tech companies, including Amazon, Google and Twitter, also panned the proclamation.

Meanwhile, lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue work addressing the potential threat of foreign espionage in the U.S. scientific enterprise to national security. A bill from Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH), Tom Carper (D-DE) and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors introduced the American Innovation Act (S. 3997). 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. Portman and Carper lead the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which released a staff report criticizing research funding agencies and the FBI for failing to combat the threat of Chinese government talent recruitment programs to U.S.-funded research late last year.

AAU and other scientific organizations fear that an overly broad interpretation of Portman and Carper’s bill could block most Chinese graduate students and researchers from working at U.S. institutions.

Another bill, the National Security Innovation Pathway Act (H.R. 7256) from Reps. Jim Langevin (D-RI) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) has broader support among the scientific community. Langevin and Stefanik’s bill creates a pathway to permanent residency for students and professionals working in certain STEM fields such as artificial intelligence, quantum information sciences, biology, robotics, and hypersonics. According to the bill sponsors, scientists in this program may work in national security innovation, be involved in related government-funded research at universities or possess expertise that will advance the development of critical technologies.

ESA has joined other members of the scientific community in opposing restrictions COVID-19 related restrictions on immigration and urging agencies to find “the appropriate balance between our nation’s security and an open, collaborative scientific environment.”

House Democrats’ Infrastructure Bill Reauthorizes Watershed Restoration Programs, Creates Wildlife Corridors System


House Democrats introduced a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill covering energy and water infrastructure, public transportation, hospitals and more. Among other provisions, the Moving Forward Act (H.R. 2) reauthorizes the Chesapeake Bay Program and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and creates EPA program offices covering the Puget Sound and the San Francisco Bay, identical to legislation passed by the full House in February 2020 (see ESA Policy News, Feb. 11, 2020). Another section establishes a National Wildlife Corridor system and a wildlife movement grant program. This section largely mirrors Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA)’s Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act (H.R. 2795) and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ)’s Tribal Wildlife Corridors Act (H.R. 5179). The bill also requires the Department of Transportation to rank each state on its progress in reducing carbon emissions each year, with the top states receiving additional federal transportation funds and financial penalties for the bottom states.

The Moving Forward Act includes the full text of the INVEST in America Act (H.R. 7095). This nearly $500 billion surface transportation bill creates new programs to incentivize states to reduce carbon emissions from transportation and requires that states and cities consider climate change in their transportation planning. The bill includes $300 million in federal transportation funds to prevent vehicle-wildlife collisions. It authorizes a study of vehicle-wildlife collisions and habitat connectivity to update existing Federal Highway Administration research. The House Transportation and Infrastructure advanced the INVEST in America bill Jun. 18. Unlike previous surface transportation bills, this legislation is not bipartisan.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said that the full House will vote on the infrastructure package the week of Jun. 30.

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. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) called the INVEST in America Act a “road to nowhere” and urged House leaders to consider the Senate bill instead. The Senate committee also passed a water infrastructure bill (S. 3591) in May 2020.

Congress


Nominations: The full Senate voted to confirm Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan as director of the National Science Foundation Jun. 18. President Donald Trump nominated Panchanathan in December 2019. Panchanathan is an Arizona State University computer scientist and a former member of the National Science Board. NSF directors are appointed for six-year terms.

President Trump will formally nominate William Perry Pendley to lead the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Pendley has been the BLM acting director for the past year. 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 adminstration.

Senate: The full Senate approved 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 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. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said that the House plans to vote on the bill at the end of July.

Research Funding: Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) introduced the Research Investment to Secure the Economy Act (RISE Act, H.R. 7038), which authorizes around $26 billion in coronavirus relief funding to federal science agencies. In turn, agencies would award this funding to research organizations to continue work on federally funded research projects. House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) are original co-sponsors for this bill. ESA endorsed the bill along with over 200 other societies and universities.

Oceans: House Oceans Caucus Co-Chairs Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Don Young (R-AK) requested that Congressional leadership invest in the “blue economy” in future coronavirus economic recovery legislation. The lawmakers asked for at least $10 billion for coastal restoration projects, $100 million for the National Sea Grant College Program and $100 million for the Integrated Ocean Observing System.

Legislative updates

  • Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI) introduced the Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act (H.R. 7228). This bill directs several federal agencies to establish a plastic waste reduction and recycling research and development program. It directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategic plan for plastic waste reduction and the National Institute of Standards and Technologies to establish standards for plastics recycling technologies. House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) are co-sponsoring this bill.
  • Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO) introduced the House version of the 21st Century Conservation Corps for Our Health and Our Jobs Act (H.R. 7264). This bill creates a $9 billion fund for qualified land and conservation corps to provide job training and help to restore public lands and watersheds. It also provides $6 billion to the National Park Service to address its maintenance backlog and $10 billion to the U.S. Forest Service for maintenance needs and forest restoration projects. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced similar legislation (S. 3684) to the Senate in May.

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

Executive Branch


White House: The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a new memo for federal grantmaking agencies in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The guidance updates earlier guidance providing additional flexibilities to science funding agencies issued in March and April. The new memo directs agencies to “inform recipients to exhaust other available funding sources to sustain its workforce and implement necessary steps to save overall operational costs” to preserve federal funds for when activities may resume. Grantees are still authorized to use federal grants for salaries and benefits during the pandemic; OMB also notes that funding agencies “may also evaluate the grantee’s ability to resume the project activity in the future.”

The National Science Foundation released its implementation of the OMB memo, largely echoing the original guidance. Additional flexibilities for paying salaries using NSF grants are extended through the end of September 2020. NSF is also allowing an extension of deadlines for submitting audits to the Federal Audit Clearinghouse through the end of 2020.

BLM: A final environmental impact statement (EIS) for developing the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A) opens around 19 million acres, or about 80% of the area, to additional oil and gas development. The previous management plan for the area, finalized in 2013, protected 11.2 million acres of the NPR-A, citing the importance of the area to migratory birds and caribou.

A new draft EIS would allow a new section of highway to bisect Utah’s Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and a desert tortoise conservation area. The agency’s “preferred alternative” for the route closely matches the plan proposed by the Utah Department of Transportation in 2018. The EIS is open for public comment through Sept. 10.

EPA: The Trump administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule became effective Jun. 22. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers first released their final rewrite of the Waters of the U.S. rule in early 2020 (see ESA Policy News, Jan. 27, 2020). Immediately before the rule became effective, a federal judge in California rejected a request from Democratic Attorneys General to issue a nationwide injunction of the rule. Separately, another federal judge in Colorado issued an injunction on the rule in the state of Colorado, keeping the rule from taking effect there until litigation challenging the rule concludes.

An EPA Office of Inspector General report found that the agency has failed to implement an agency-wide data quality system. The mandatory data quality system would cover activities such as determining hazardous or toxic wastes in the environment, supporting enforcement monitoring efforts and mapping human health risk data.

NOAA: An agency investigation found that acting Director Neil Jacobs and former communications director Julie Kay Roberts violated NOAA’s scientific integrity policy when they issued a press release supporting President Trump’s assertation that Hurricane Dorian posed a threat to Alabama. This statement contradicted forecasts issued by the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office.

NASA: Three major space agencies, NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, released a new dashboard allowing users to see the impacts of COVID-19 shutdowns, as viewed from satellites.

DoD: The department’s two top scientific officials – Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, and Deputy Under Secretary for Research and Engineering Lisa Porter – resigned their positions effective Jul. 10. An email from both Griffin and Porter to staff said that they were leaving to jointly pursue a private sector opportunity.

Courts


EPA: The agency’s lawyers announced that they will not appeal a federal court decision that overturned the EPA’s 2017 policy barring EPA grantees from serving on advisory committees. This policy forced academic researchers off the EPA’s top scientific advisory committees, clearing the way for the agency to replace academic scientists with industry representatives. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York overturned the EPA policy in February. Other legal challenges to the agency’s policy were unsuccessful.

States


New Jersey: Governor Phil Murphy (D) announced his support for a bill that would allow the Department of Environmental Protection to deny permits for projects like incinerators, sewage treatment plants and power plants that would increase pollution in “overburdened” minority communities. The bill defines overburdened communities as census tracts where 35 percent of the households qualify as low-income, 40 percent of households are minority or 40 percent of households have limited English proficiency. The Department of Environmental Protection would also be required to evaluate the environmental and public health impacts of permitting these projects.

Nevada: State Engineer Tim Wilson issued an order restricting groundwater withdrawals in an area northeast of Las Vegas. The order potentially stops a massive proposed planned community in the area. The Center for Biological Diversity said the decision “throws a lifeline” to the federally endangered Moapa dace, which depends on groundwater-fed springs in the area.

Minnesota: Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and the American Petroleum Institute, claiming that the entities violated state laws against fraud and deceptive advertising. The lawsuit asks that the organizations pay restitutions for damages and fund a climate education campaign. This case mirrors similar cases filed against Exxon by the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and cities and counties in recent years. In December 2019, a state judge in New York ruled in favor of Exxon after the State Attorney General claimed that the company intentionally misled investors about the risk of climate change regulations to its operations and profits. Ellison said that his case is different because it focuses on damages to consumers, rather than shareholders.

Scientific Community


NASEM: The Ocean Studies Board is looking for experts and reviewers to contribute to a study of the United States’ contributions to global ocean plastic. The study began this month and will last for 18 months with a final report scheduled for publication in October 2021. Relevant areas of expertise include environmental and marine policy, marine conservation and coastal management.

Defense: A report from the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, “The Conservation of Defense,” examines how conservationists can work with the U.S. Department of Defense to maintain and expand the lands under the Department’s management to benefit wildlife, water resources, and ecosystems.

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@esa.org or Nicole Zimmerman, public affairs manager, Nicole@esa.org

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