New Congress Means New Legislation

2017-02-27T15:22:52+00:00 February 27, 2017|
A number of new bills introduced in this Congress were of relevance to the ocean science community. One relates to ocean acification research.(Credit: NOAA)

(Click to enlarge) A number of new bills introduced in this Congress were of relevance to the ocean science community. One relates to ocean acification research.(Credit: NOAA)

In a scene more appropriate for a college laboratory than the Capitol building (lab safety protocols aside), Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) measured pH on the Senate floor during an ocean acidification demonstration. The act highlighted an early focus on ocean issues from some lawmakers at the start of 115th Congress, as members raced to reintroduce their bills that didn’t become law last Congress and to introduce brand new ones. Over on the House side, Representative Salud Carbajal (CA-24) picked up where his predecessor, former Representative Lois Capps, left off and introduced the Ocean Acidification Research Partnerships Act (H.R.845). The bill would direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to provide a grant program for research collaboration between academia and the seafood industry on ocean acidification. Another bill relating to research is the American Fisheries Advisory Committee Act (H.R. 214), which would establish the American Fisheries Advisory Committee to assist in awarding fisheries research and development grants.

A new bill made headlines for ensuring federal agency science is free from political interference and that findings can be openly shared among agencies and the public. The Scientific Integrity Act (S. 338), introduced by Senator Bill Nelson (FL) and two dozen Democratic co-sponsors, would require federal agencies to develop and enforce a scientific integrity policy, which includes a number of provisions. These would ensure that, among others, “scientific conclusions and personnel actions regarding scientists are not made based on political considerations,” scientists adhere to high ethical standards, whistleblower protections are in place, and agencies provide the scientific information that policy decisions were based upon. The bill would amend  a provision in the America COMPETES Act of 2007 (Public Law No: 110-69) and would codify already existing policies at nearly two dozen agencies that began developing scientific integrity policies following  a 2009 memorandum from President Barack Obama requiring them to do so.

Several pieces of legislation were introduced that relate to climate and extreme weather events. Two are directly at odds with each other: the No Tax Dollars for the United Nations’ Climate Agenda Act (H.R.673) and a non-binding resolution (it doesn’t become law but conveys a position on a topic) expressing commitment of the House of Representatives to continue to support pledges made by the U.S. in the Paris Agreement (H.Res.85). The former would prohibit U.S. contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Green Climate Fund. The latter would pledge members work with nations that signed the Paris Agreement and “take meaningful action” to ensure the president does not withdraw our nation’s involvement in the Agreement. Several natural hazards bills would help prepare the country for potential future disasters, including the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017 (H.R. 353, which passed the House). Others would better prepare our nation for floods (H.R. 879), tsunamis (H.R.312)( S.53), earthquakes (H.R.654), volcanoes (S.346), and space weather (which can disturb satellite signals and communication networks) (S.141). The Digital Coast Act (S. 110), which already passed out of committee, would authorize the continuation and improvement of the Digital Coast Project online resource, assembled and hosted by NOAA to help monitor coastal hazards.

A number of bills relating to deregulating vessels and fisheries have also been moving through Congress. Representative Don Young (AK-At Large)’s bill would remove one of the firmest requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (the primary law governing marine fisheries in U.S. federal waters). The Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act (H.R. 200) would alter that law to increase flexibility for managers to change fishery rehabilitation timelines to prevent “significant economic harm” to fishermen. However, critics of the bill say it could worsen overfishing problems. The controversial Commercial Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (S.168) would remove restrictions for releasing ballast water; it passed the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation amidst concern it could lead to an increase in invasive species in the Great Lakes. The Maritime Lien Reform Act (H.R. 234) would remove regulations that allow marine creditors to claim fishing permits when vessel owners default on loans. On the other hand, several bills would increase regulations, including H.R. 223, which would prevent authorities from allowing commercial finfish aquaculture operations in the Exclusive Economic Zone, and H.R.962, which would ban aquaculture facilities that pollute rivers. Several bills introduced by Representative Don Young (AK-At Large) are his latest effort to increase regulations on genetically engineered fish, including two that would require labels in stores (H.R. 204 and H.R. 205) and one (H.R. 206) that aims to introduce a broad ban on genetically engineered finfish possession, sale, transport, or release to the environment.

Several of the 115th Congress bills relate to oil spills and offshore drilling. The Preserve Our Lakes and Keep Our Environment Safe Act (H.R.458) would require a study of the economic and environmental risks of oil spills in the Great Lakes, and the Foreign Spill Protection Act of 2017 (S.125) aims to enforce new penalties on oil spilled from foreign offshore companies. The Marine Oil Spill Prevention Act (S.74) would extend the moratorium on oil and gas leasing in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and increases the capabilities of NOAA, the Coast Guard, and coastal states to prepare and respond to spills. Introduced in both the House and Senate, the West Coast Ocean Protection Act of 2017 (H.R.169 and S. 31) would permanently prohibit offshore drilling on the outer continental shelf off the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington, while two bills (H.R. 49 and S.49) would establish an oil and gas leasing program the Alaskan Coastal Plains.

Finally, two bills promoting women in science have already made it through the House and Senate and are currently sitting on the president’s desk. Introduced and passed in the first weeks of January with bipartisan support, the bills direct the National Science Foundation recruit and support women in science-related entrepreneurial careers (H.R. 255) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to encourage women and girls to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to pursue aerospace careers (H.R.321).

While Washingtonians felt the heat here in D.C. last week, so too have legislators in their home districts while Congress has been in recess. This week, members are back in session, and lawmakers will continue considering these bills and much more.

Access the updated legislative tracker here.