Energy, Environment, and Conservation

  • The National Butterfly Center is set to have a tract of land cleared in February to build the border wall. The Trump administration waived 28 environmental laws for the construction, sparking lawsuits from environmental groups which have been dismissed. In response, Customs and Border Protection stated that they plan to conduct a survey of the butterfly sanctuary and will attempt to minimize impacts and allow access to the majority of the sanctuary that will be south of the wall. However, the Center says that a thorough environmental review can’t be conducted in the allotted time frame and that they expect to take a significant financial hit from loss of visitors due to the three-story high wall. Action: Join the National Butterfly Center or contribute to its legal defense fund (San Antonio Express News, The Guardian).
  • The Trump administration has announced a rollback of conservation measures for the sage grouse, which once numbered in the millions. The population declined 56% between 2007 and 2013, largely due to oil and gas development in their habitat, and is now estimated at 500,000 in 11 states. The US Fish and Wildlife Service declined to put the grouse on the Endangered Species List in 2015, and instead worked with ranchers and developers to jointly protect the grouse. The rollback will eliminate protections for the birds in 80% of their remaining habitat (Washington Post).
  • In a paper published in the Journal Biological Invasions, scientists maintain that cat advocacy groups have spread misinformation about the impacts of outdoor domestic cats on wildlife in an attempt to sow doubt in the public and prevent policies that would reduce outdoor cat populations. According to several studies, outdoor cats kill billions of birds in the U.S. each year, have caused the extinction of 63 species and carry multiple parasites and diseases harmful to other animals and people, leading to a scientific consensus that cats are an invasive species (American Bird Conservancy, Biological Invasions).

Congressional Committees

  • Senator Joe Manchin (D – WV) will be the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee next year. Several activists and senators opposition within the Democratic Party opposed his nomination due to his support for the coal industry (Washington Post).  

Higher Education and Academia

  • The number of science PhD recipients who had firm employment plans post-graduation is on the rise after consistently decreasing since 2000. Approximately 65% of life science PhD recipients in 2016-2017 had employment plans, about half of those were postdocs, and 55% of life science PhD graduates were women (Science Mag).

Federal Agencies

  • Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has announced he will step down at the end of 2018, after multiple scandals and investigations. Zinke will likely be replaced, at least temporarily, with David Bernhardt, who was previously an oil industry lobbyist and who many say has been implementing the policy side of Zinke’s environmental rollbacks. House Democrats say they plan to investigate Mr. Bernhardt’s many conflicts of interest within the agency (New York Times).
  • The EPA has released a proposed rule change for the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. Based on ideas from late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the new rule excludes man-made ponds, ditches, and wetlands that don’t have a direct surface connection to other waterways, estimated at 51% of all US wetlands. Activities affecting these bodies of water would not require a federal permit, which EPA head Andrew Wheeler claims will simplify the rule (Engineering News-Record).
  • The National Resources Defense Council says that the Department of Energy hasn’t spent nearly 80% of it’s appropriated research funds, known as ARPA-E. Approximately $280 million is unspent, and much of the money that was spent went to salaries and travel, rather than clean energy research and development (NRDC).

Public Health

  • US District Judge Reed O’Connor has ruled Obamacare unconstitutional in a case brought by Texas and a coalition of 20 other states that argues because Congress set the individual mandate tax at $0, the entire law is no longer constitutional. The White House has announced that the law will remain in place pending appeals, and California has announced they will appeal immediately. Legal scholars describe the argument as unconvincing and suggest the ruling may be ideologically motivated (Texas Tribune).
  • Fentanyl has surpassed heroin to become the number one drug involved in fatal drug overdoses in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While fentanyl was reportedly involved in about 1,600 overdose deaths in 2012, the number of associated fatalities surpassed 18,000 in 2016 and continued to rise steeply in 2017. Many counties and states have not required investigation or reporting of the specific drugs causing fatal overdoses, leading to under-counting of these figures, but reporting of these data has been improving (NPR).

Climate Change

  • Ireland, a country poor in fossil fuels, has burned peat for energy for centuries but is beginning to eliminate peat energy as it releases more greenhouse gases than coal. Peat is partially decayed plant matter buried under wetlands. Ireland is eliminating its use as part of the EU’s plan to decarbonize the economy, and will replace it with burning biomass (grass, shells, beet pulp) which is considered carbon-neutral due to the uptake of carbon during growth. The peat wetlands will be restored, which act as carbon-sinks (Science Mag).
  • Wells Griffith, President Trump’s top White House energy adviser, promoted coal and climate inaction at the UN climate change talks in Poland, prompting mocking laughter in the audience and chants by dozens of protesters. While Trump and the higher profile US contingent at the talks seek to undermine the premise of the summit, State Department officials continue contributing to the Paris Climate Agreement–a battle for influence which could help determine the success of the climate summit (Washington Post).

Science Communication / Miscellaneous

  • A new poll shows that 8 in 10 Americans support using taxpayer funds for scientific research, and 6 in 10 believe science funding should be increased. Experts are expecting this to result in another increase in funding during current appropriation negotiations (Government Executive).
  • Many researchers from Africa and other regions were denied Canadian visas and entry into Canada to attend Black in AI, a conference of Artificial Intelligence researchers of African descent. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau considers Canada a leader in AI research and a supporter of diversity in science, but said he hadn’t heard of the visa issues (Wired).
  • Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil, has been moved to a new room in the Field Museum in Chicago and in the process reassembled to reflect new scientific understandings of T. rex since her original assembly in 2000. This includes added gastralia–ventral ribs that probably helped dinosaurs breathe–giving Sue a more rotund appearance reflecting an estimated weight of 9-10 tons based on her bones (Science Mag).
  • After a 20-year excavation in South Africa, researchers have completed and cleaned the skeleton of Little Foot, a 3.67-million-year-old hominin of the species Australopithecus prometheus who likely walked upright, was vegetarian, and sustained a childhood injury to her hand, before fatally falling into a cave where she was found in 1994 (Live Science).

Texas News

  • A report commissioned by Governor Greg Abbott after Hurricane Harvey suggests 4,000 potential projects to improve Hurricane preparedness in Texas, including buyouts for flood-prone areas and a “coastal spine” of levees and dams to protect the Gulf Coast. The report mentions a changing climate once, and focuses on recognizing that the future is “uncertain” (Texas Tribune, report). When pressed by reporters on the role of anthropogenic climate change, Abbott stated that it was impossible for him to answer the question as he is not a scientist (Twitter).

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