June has been a busy month for appropriations, with several key measures advancing through the House and Senate. The Senate Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 bill passed quickly through subcommittee and full committee earlier this month and was on its way to full Senate approval. However, the Senate pulled the CJS bill from the floor, along with two other appropriations bills that were being considered as part of a miniature omnibus package. The floor vote on the “minibus” containing the CJS bill, which funds NSF, NOAA and NASA, was put on hold after both parties could not find agreement on the required number of votes for passage of the bill. The House has already passed its version of the CJS Appropriations bill.
The Defense Appropriations FY 2015 bill also progressed this month, moving through the House Appropriations Committee and being approved in a floor vote (340-73). The bill allocates $15.877 billion for the Navy’s Research, Development, Test and Evaluation department. Funding for basic and applied research programs would decrease from current levels, whereas advanced technology development funding would increase. The bill also includes an amendment by Representative David McKinley [R-WV-1] prohibiting funding for the National Climate Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The Senate Defense Appropriations bill has yet to be brought to committee.
The House and Senate Energy and Water Appropriations FY 2015 bills, which provide funding for the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), made their way through the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, respectively. The Senate version of the bill was delayed from its scheduled June 19th full committee markup to avoid votes on two controversial amendments. The first would require certification that electricity prices would not increase and jobs would not be lost as a result of new regulations on carbon emissions from power plants and the second would prevent jurisdiction expansion of the Clean Water Act. The latter amendment was included in the House version. The Senate bill would increase funding for the DOE Office of Science by $20 million from FY 2014 to $5.086 billion, and provide $5.134 billion to the ACOE (a $601 million increase above the President’s request). Similarly, the House version recommended $5.071 billion for the DOE Office of Science and $5.492 billion to the ACOE. Of note is the 34% reduction in House funding for water power from FY 2014, down to $38.5 million for FY 2015. Funds would be divided equally between marine/hydrokinetic and conventional hydropower. The House will likely not consider the Energy and Water Appropriations bill until after the July 4th recess.
In addition to appropriation bills, several other pieces of legislation have made progress towards or have reached enactment. Looping back to the House CJS bill, it is of note that NASA funding was approved at $17.9 billion for FY 2015. This is greater than $17.6 billion recently approved for NASA in the NASA Authorization Act of 2014 (H.R. 4412). Passing the House this month (401-2), the measure authorizes funding for space exploration and operations, education, and technology efforts. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology report clarified the purpose of the additional funds as paying for new Earth science responsibilities transferred from NOAA such as climate instrument development and measurement.
President Obama has signed the bipartisan Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA- H.R. 3080) into law. The final bill does not include a provision for the National Endowment for the Oceans, nor does it include language preventing the Army Corps of Engineers from implementing ecosystem-based management. Up next for the President’s approval is the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 2014 (S. 1254). This bill, which has been approved by both the House and Senate, would authorize $20.5 million per year for research and mitigation of harmful algal blooms and hypoxia events through 2018 and requires that a “substantial portion” of appropriated funds for research purposes be used for extramural research activities.
The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee met at the end of June to markup the Secret Science Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4012). The bill calls for transparency of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when proposing, finalizing or disseminating regulations. However, Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson [D-TX-30] called the bill an “insidious attack” on the EPA and “the culmination of one of the most anti-scientific and anti-health campaigns” in the Committee’s history. Two amendments were proposed by Representative Suzanne Bonamici [D-OR-1] and Representative Joe Kennedy [D-MA-4]. Both amendments sought to maintain the original bill’s intent to promote public access to and transparency of data the EPA uses for rulemaking, while protecting confidential and patient information, a concern shared by several Democratic committee members. The bill’s sponsor, Representative David Schweikert [R-AZ-6], and others argued personal information is already safeguarded under other federal privacy laws and that the agency can statistically blind the data. The amendments were both defeated by voice vote and the bill was passed out of Committee (17-13).
Climate change was a topic of several hearings this month. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology first held a hearing to examine the process of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The witnesses, all of whom have previously been involved in either the IPCC report or the National Climate Assessment process, agreed that greater transparency was needed in the IPCC process. The panel debated other issues including IPCC’s handling of scientists who disagree with the Panel, the validity and usefulness of climate assessment models and whether or not the changes seen in our climate are within the historical range and the extent of human influence.
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held the next two climate change hearings. The first hearing was in the Subcommittee on Green Jobs and the New Economy to consider the impacts of climate change to fishing and other recreational activities. Witness Daniel Ashe, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, spent much of his time answering questions concerning the validity of climate change impacts. Examples of current on-the-ground impacts of the changing climate on fisheries were raised by witness Dr. Daniel Cohen of Atlantic Capes Fisheries and by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse [D-RI]. The Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety also held a hearing entitled “Climate Change: The Need to Act Now” with testimony by former EPA administrators. Witnesses noted the concerns and assumptions about past environmental regulations during creation and implementation seldom came to pass, implying that it would be the same with those associated with climate change. Committee members stressed the need to support both the climate change science and the scientists presenting it.
In addition to hearings on climate change, hearings were also held on a number of science related issues this month. The joint House Subcommittee on Oversight and the Subcommittee on Research held a hearing on the administrative burdens of federally funded research. It was noted that scientists spend approximately 40% of their time on administrative work associated with federally funded research, much of which is spent applying for grants that are shrinking both in quantity and amount. Concern was raised about the way this impacts students and young scientists in terms of the direction they take their careers (i.e. those who once considered academic careers, but are no longer). Administrative burden reduction recommendations included requiring less information in initial grant applications and increasing coordination between the audit and research communities.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing entitled “EPA’s Proposed Carbon Dioxide Regulations for Power Plants” with EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, Janet McCabe, as the sole witness. The lines of questioning by Committee members were clearly divided down party lines. The majority of Republicans were focused on the EPA’s legal authority to implement such a rule and the impacts the rule may have on the economy, their concern stemming from the belief that required decreases in emissions equate to the shutting down of power plants and lost jobs. Administrator McCabe assured the Committee that the rule was legal and could spark job growth with the opportunity for states to transition to new, more efficient technologies. On the other hand, questions by Democrat Committee members focused on the individual state’s flexibility to implement the emissions reductions and the potential home energy bill reductions predicted by EPA.
Interest in the way this will impact ocean acidification was also broached, with McCabe stating the rule will contribute to reducing ocean acidity. McCabe was later questioned as to why the United States is moving forward on this issue when the majority of global emissions come from overseas. According to the Assistant Administrator, as a world leader, the United States has a responsibility to set an example for other nations and our actions will ultimately pressure those countries to act themselves. Representative Eliot Engel [D-NY-16] summarized the situation when he said, “No single action to reduce carbon pollution will ever stop climate change, but we’ll never address this problem without many individual actions. So these actions do add up to a meaningful difference.”
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation held a hearing this month on the readiness of the Coast Guard and the need to update current infrastructure. It was noted that the cuts proposed in the President’s budget would delay the acquisition of much needed assets and hinder the Coast Guard’s mission. For example, the nation desperately needs an additional heavy ice breaker, costing more than $1 billion, as currently only one of the two Coast Guard’s heavy icebreakers is operational and there is concern regarding the opening Arctic.
The Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a NASA laboratory for Earth climate research, has a new director. Gavin Schmidt, who has been at Goddard since 1996, has taken over the position after the retirement of James Hansen last year. Schmidt is a noted climate modeling whose primary research interest is the simulation of past, present and future climates.
During June’s National Oceans Month, several exciting announcements were made that will have a substantial positive impact on our oceans. At the opening of Capitol Hill Oceans Week, John Podesta, Counselor to the President, revealed that the public would once again be able to nominate locations for designation as National Marine Sanctuaries. One week later, at the Our Oceans Conference hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, President Obama declared the proposed expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument from the current 87,000 square miles to 782,000 square miles. The President also announced the creation of the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud. The coastal countries of Palau, Bahamas and Cook Islands also extended marine protection in their waters by creating or expanding marine reserves and the nation of Kiribati proclaimed the end to non-commercial fishing in their marine reserve. Finally, actor Leonardo DiCaprio stated his Foundation would be donating $7 million over the next two years to ocean conservation projects. DiCaprio asked the audience and those around the world to consider the importance of the cause. “This isn’t simply an exercise in wildlife conservation. If we don’t do something to save the ocean now, it won’t just be the sharks and the dolphins that suffer. It will be our children and grandchildren,” he warned.