On January 2, the Senate confirmed a lengthy list of President Trump’s nominations by voice vote. Some of the confirmed geoscience-related agency nominees include Kelvin Droegemeier as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Daniel Simmons as assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the Department of Energy, and Teri Donaldson for inspector general at the Department of Energy. Mary Neumayr was also approved to head the Council on Environmental Quality and Alexandra Dunn to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemicals office.
The longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history ended on January 25, when President Trump signed a short-term spending deal that temporarily reopens affected agencies—including the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of the Interior—which had been shut down since the end of last year. The legislation provides continued funding at last year’s levels for certain agencies through February 15, pushing back the deadline for Congress and the administration to agree upon the final 2019 appropriations bills for those agencies or enter into another partial government shutdown.
On January 18—day twenty-six of the government shutdown—the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a confirmation hearing on the nomination of Andrew Wheeler for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Wheeler has served as the acting administrator since July 2018, following the resignation of former administrator Scott Pruitt in light of a series of ethics scandals. (UPDATE: On February 5, the committee voted 11-10 to advance Wheeler’s nomination, sending it to the full Senate for consideration.)
On December 15, 2018, President Donald Trump announced that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would be stepping down at the end of the year. During his time as secretary, Zinke faced a string of investigations over allegations that he violated ethics rules, while the Department of the Interior has been under scrutiny over concerns about scientific integrity. Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt will be taking charge as acting secretary amid a partial government shutdown.
On December 11, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Army proposed a revised definition of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule to clarify the scope of waters federally regulated under the Clean Water Act. The proposed revision would limit where federal regulations apply, clearly outlining what would be considered “waters of the United States” in addition to specific exclusions from the definition.
A series of nomination processes moved forward in December as Congress wrapped up their lame duck session following the November 6 midterm elections. On December 6, the Senate confirmed Bernard McNamee to be a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The nominations of Rita Baranwal to be assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the Department of Energy (DOE) and Raymond Vela to be director of the National Park Service (NPS) were still awaiting a final confirmation vote by the Senate at the end of December 2018.
On June 21, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a plan to reform and reorganize executive branch departments and agencies of the federal government, following President Donald Trump’s March 13, 2017, executive order (E.O. 13781) intended to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of the executive branch. The plan outlines over eighty recommendations for structural realignment across the executive branch, including changes to geoscience-related federal agencies.
On May 24, President Donald Trump nominated Dr. Christopher Fall for the position of Director of the Office of Science at the Department of Energy (DOE). The DOE Office of Science is the nation’s largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences, supporting fundamental energy research at DOE laboratories and more than three hundred institutions of higher education in every U.S. state and the District of Columbia. Dr. Fall is currently the acting head of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).
On April 10, the National Science Foundation (NSF) released a Dear Colleague Letter, titled “Towards a New Approach for the Provision of Marine Seismic Capabilities to the U.S. Research Community,” announcing its decision to divest of the marine seismic research vessel Marcus G. Langseth by 2020. Early career geophysicists and groups such as the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) have replied to NSF with letters expressing concern about divestment of the vessel and limited options to continue cutting edge seismic research in deep-ocean crustal imaging.
The EPA released a new proposed rule, titled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, in the Federal Register on April 30. The rulemaking summary states, “the proposed regulation provides that when EPA develops regulations, including regulations for which the public is likely to bear the cost of compliance, with regard to those scientific studies that are pivotal to the action being taken, EPA should ensure that the data underlying those are publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation.”