Program Update: Advocacy – January 2014

Capitol-Building-at-Night-Washington-DCCongress passed an omnibus spending package in mid-January that will fund federal agencies for the remainder of the 2014 fiscal year. President Obama signed the bill into law only a few days after passage in the Senate. The package contains $ 1.012 trillion in discretionary spending, an increase from the FY13 level of $ 986 billion and above the anticipated sequester level of $ 967 billion. The omnibus highlights and detailed appropriations chart can be found in the January 13 issue of the Ocean Leadership Weekly Newsletter. In addition, the Whitehouse announced that President Obama will release his 2015 budget on March 4, 2014, which is a month later than usual given the delay in the completion of the FY13 appropriations process. Appropriators may begin the appropriations process before the President’s budget is released with a $ 1.014 trillion discretionary spending cap.

In his State of the Union address this week, President Obama discussed the importance of scientific research, saying that “Congress should undo the damage done by last year’s cuts to basic research so we can unleash the next great American discovery.” He also supported the science of climate change and its impacts on coastal communities, saying “a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought and coastal cities dealing with floods… climate change is a fact.”

The “Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013,” (HR 2642) or more commonly known as the Farm Bill, passed the house 251-166, and the Senate is expected to vote on the bill next week. The Sound Science Act Sec. 12307 of H.R. 2642 in the House-passed version of the bill was removed during the House-Senate conference. The Consortium for Ocean Leadership and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research wrote a joint letter in opposition to this rider in November of 2013, citing concerns that the language could potentially have “unintended consequences that could impede American science and do more to harm than help decision making at the science agencies.” In December 2013, a letter signed by Senators Ed Markey [D-MA], Richard Blumenthal [D-CT], Barbara Boxer [D-CA]], Kristen Gillibrand [D-NY], Martin Heinrich [D-NM], Mazie Hirono [D-HI], Jeff Merkley [D-OR], Bill Nelson [D-FL], Jay Rockefeller [D-WV], Brian Schatz [D-HI], Elizabeth Warren [D-MA], Sheldon Whitehouse [D-RI], and Ron Wyden [D-OR] asked their Senate colleagues on the conference committee to strike these provisions from the final bill.  Further support was offered in mid-January by AAAS CEO Alan Leshner, who said that this provision could “further hamstring agencies already under significant budgetary pressure.”

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held an oversight hearing titled, “The Science behind Discovery: Seismic Exploration and the Future of the Atlantic OCS.” The hearing reviewed advancements in seismic technology to discuss the timetable for the Atlantic Geological and Geophysical [G&G] Activities Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement [PEIS]. The PEIS was initiated in 2009 and is projected to be released at the end of February 2014. Witnesses included representatives from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management [BOEM], petroleum producer companies, and geophysicists. Testimony from both witnesses and Members of the subcommittee expressed a need for new acoustic imaging of the Atlantic OCS because the current data is at least 30 years old. Minority Members were concerned about the effects of seismic operations on marine mammals, and prior to the hearing sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) acting chief, Kathryn Sullivan, addressing those concerns. When witnesses were asked if those concerns were valid, they noted that they were not experts in the field. However, minority witness Dr. Donald Boesch, President of University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, pointed out that this is a controversial issue, with peer-reviewed research published on both the benefits of seismic mapping and on the negative effects of sound on marine life.

Also in January, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works [EPW] held a full committee hearing, “Review of the President’s Climate Action Plan,” to hear testimony from leading officials in federal agencies that would be implementing the Action Plan, which was released in June 2013. Republican Senators disputed President Obama’s statement that global temperatures are increasing faster than experts had predicted. They expressed concern that the Administration is overreaching when it comes to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority of regulating carbon emissions, as outlined in the Clean Air Act, and that implementation of a carbon tax would undermine economic growth and limit jobs in the coal and oil industry. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse [D-RI] noted changes in his costal district due to climate change; stating that land and infrastructure along Rhode Island beaches are being lost to sea-level rise. Sen. Whitehouse dismissed the claims that climate change data is not accurate and he showcased data from NASA GISS showing that although there are periods of where surface temperatures appear to flat line, there is an obvious upward trend of increased surface temperatures. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting climate change and consensus among the American public, partisan divides still exist among members of Congress. Prior to the hearing, Sens. Barbara Boxer [D-CA], Chairman of the Committee on EPW, and Sheldon Whitehouse developed a new Climate Action Task Force, in the hopes that task force Members will promote the President’s climate action agenda.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation held a hearing on January 28 entitled “Enhancing University-Industry R&D Partnerships,” sponsored by House Technology Transfer Caucus Co-Chairs Rep. Gus Bilirakis [R-FL] and Rep. Ben Ray Luján [D-NM]. Presenters stressed the link between research, innovation, and economic growth and compared research funding as a percent of GDP in the United States with funding in other countries.  “Other countries are now funding research at rates that are much greater than in the United States,” said Joe Allen, Former President of the National Technology Transfer Center.

At the end of January, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard held a hearing titled, “West Coast and Western Pacific Perspectives on Magnuson-Stevens Act Reauthorization”. The hearing was a third in a series of regionally-focused hearings on how the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) has assisted or impeded on challenges facing sustainable fisheries management. Details on this hearing will be forthcoming in next Weekly Newsletter. 

The nomination of France A. Cordova of New Mexico to be Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) must be voted on again in the Senate Committee on Health Education Labor & Pensions due to parliamentary procedures regarding the start of the second session of the 113th Congress. Similarly, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee met briefly in January to re-vote on Kathryn Sullivan’s nomination as Administrator of NOAA. The Senate has to repeat the nomination process since the 113th Congress is in its second session and had stalled on the nomination during the first session. In addition, Sullivan appointed Eileen Sobeck as assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, during the month of January. Sobeck currently serves as acting assistant secretary of the Department of Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs. She has served as deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior since 2009. President Obama nominated veteran scientist, Suzette Kimball, to lead the U.S. Geological Survey [USGS]. Kimball has been with USGS for 15 years; she currently is the deputy director and has been serving as the acting director since the retirement of Marcia McNutt in February 2013.

Reps. Sam Farr [D-CA] and Don Young [R-AK] (co-chairs of the House Ocean Caucus) held a briefing entitled “National Coastal Ocean Mapping: Advancing National Defense and Ocean Conservation.”  The briefing discussed a need to integrate marine spatial data across the U.S. to help federal, military, industry, conservation, and management planning efforts. Monica Medina, former specialist assistant to the Secretary of Defense, used the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) developed by NOAA and the University of New Hampshire during the Gulf Oil Spill, as an example of how integrated mapping has informed scientists, policymakers, and emergency responders.

Consortium for Ocean Leadership