The 114th Congress convened this month, with Republicans having majority control of both the House and the Senate. President Obama delivered his penultimate State of the Union address, which highlighted the importance of science and climate change. House and Senate Committees have begun to set their rosters and agendas for the year. Of critical importance to the ocean science community will be the leadership of John Culberson (R-TX) who takes the gavel of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, which sets spending priorities for NSF, NOAA and NASA.
The Arctic received much attention this month, starting with an Executive Order to establish an “Arctic Executive Steering Committee.” This initiative would help coordinate the efforts of federal agencies that have overlapping jurisdictions in the Arctic. Furthermore, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) and Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) were released by the Department of the Interior (DOI). The ANWR conservation plan, which is open for public review, recommends 12.2 million acres be given wilderness status – the highest level of federal protection. This effort to protect the nation’s environmental heritage has expectedly stirred up strong opposition from Republican lawmakers, most notably from the Alaska congressional delegation. “What’s coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and our grandchildren to thrive,” Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said. “It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory.”
In a move opposed by environmental groups, the Obama Administration released a map of its five-year offshore oil and gas leasing plan, which allows leasing of the continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean only. The zone it proposes to allow drilling in covers federal coastal waters off Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. A similar idea was shelved in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The controversial Keystone XL pipeline debate has dominated the legislative agenda this month. Both the Senate and the House have debated their respective Keystone XL Pipeline Acts (S.1 and H.R.3) in the first few days of the new Congress. H.R.3 was passed by the House without amendments, while S.1 was passed after being on the Senate Floor for more than a week with dozens of amendments considered. Several climate science amendments have been considered and have garnered the support of up to 15 Senate Republicans.
On a less contentious note, House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology passed three bipartisan bills to prioritize research that would improve tsunami (H.R.34) and windstorm preparedness (H.R.23), as well as low-dose radiation research.
Weather forecasting and its associated technology were popular topics on the Hill this month. The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) held a briefing on the impacts of El Niño on the U.S.; and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and International Research Institute for Climate and Society held a briefing on improving subseasonal to interannual forecasts. Despite improvements in model sophistication, experts claim that gaps are still present in the data needed to improve weather forecast predictions. Topics such as the effects of climate change, the global impacts of El Niño, are still unknown but could hold severe implications for human health and the U.S. economy. Scientists urge for more resources to maintain and improve the infrastructure that generates data for such research. In a Congressional briefing, the Marine Technology Society (MTS) discussed Blue Technology and its opportunities to help improve the nation’s economy and employment prospects. This technology is rapidly growing as it helps to inform decisions that impact America’s safety, economy, and environment, but experts agree that a true government and industry partnership is required to grow towards technology that supports sustainable energy.
On the federal agency front, Craig McLean was appointed director for NOAA research; NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program released its first federal funding opportunity (FFO-2015) (which will support projects that synthesize current scientific understanding and management needs and will inform the future direction of the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program as well as other science and restoration initiatives in the Gulf of Mexico region); and the National Research Council (NRC) released their Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences (a report identifying decadal strategic priorities for ocean sciences, which highlight strategic investments necessary at the NSF, who is the primary funding source for ocean research).