Energy, Environment, and Conservation

  • A federal judge has blocked the Trump Administration from using $3.6 billion in military funds to build the border wall. The judge ruled that the administration could not reauthorize funding already approved by Congress. This stops about one-third of the funding that administration has budgeted for 450 miles of wall; the administration is expected to appeal (Texas Tribune). 
  • The Department of Defense has announced an internal review of the Army Corp of Engineers decision to award a $400 million border wall construction contract to Fisher Sand & Gravel, a company that President Trump advocated for, even though the border wall prototype from the company was late and over budget. Officials are also concerned that Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) may have shared information with the company, which is based in North Dakota, to increase the competitiveness of their bid (NBC). 
  • Honolulu is banning most single-plastics, which account for 85% of trash found on beaches and in waterways. The ban will be one of the strongest in the nation, although it bill exempts plastic bags for chips, bread, ice, and loose items such as vegetables.  The bill will go into effect for styrofoam packaging in 2021 and all disposable plastic by 2022 (Huffington Post). 
  • The LEGO toy block company has committed to manufacturing all of their toys from biodegradable plastic sourced from hemp by 2030. Currently, LEGO manufactures 60 billion blocks per year from petroleum-based resin, which does not degrade (Educate Inspire Change). 

Congressional Committees

  • Two appropriations bills were passed by Congress in December, including funding the National Science Foundation at $8.278 billion, a 2.5% increase. The National Institutes of Health received a 6.5% increase to $41.8 billion. No federal science agencies received a funding reduction, except the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which was cut by about 1%. The United States Geological Survey received a 9% increase (AIBS).
  • Congress has passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which creates an initiative to protect sensitive US research from foreign interference and espionage. The initiative included provisions to to make sure the new security policies didn’t result in racial profiling of Chinese Americans and created two committees to help the research community balance security with scientific openness. Additionally, the bill aims to develop engineering and carbon capture technologies, creates the Space Force, and establishes a Climate Security Council to analyze security implications of climate change across the federal government (AIP). 

Higher Education and Academia

  • A former chief of the Texas State University police has been accused of hiring unqualified officers, favoritism, and creating a culture of low morale and high turnover. The university has recently come under fire for underreporting crime statistics to the public. The former chief says the environment was toxic when he arrived and that the complaint comes from an aggrieved former employee. During the chief’s tenure, turnover reached 56%, applicant recommendations were disconnected from their background checks, and employees were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements around hiring practices (Texas Tribune).

Federal Agencies

  • A Department of the Interior (DOI) official broke federal ethics rules by meeting with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank at which he was previously employed, to discuss a rollback of endangered species protections. The DOI’s inspector general says Assistant Secretary Douglas Domenech met with the foundation even as they were suing DOI over protections for the endangered Bone Cave harvestman spider; this year, the department announced a review to consider removing the spider from the Endangered Species List. A similar investigation cleared Secretary David Bernhardt of improperly influencing the content and timing of a study on the effects of pesticides on endangered species; although he delayed the report and changed its contents, this was not found to be an ethics violation since none of his former lobbying clients would be affected (New York Times). 
  • President Trump has nominated a new director for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Sethuraman Panchanathan is a computer scientist from Arizona State University where he has worked on human-technology interactions and became executive vice president for the universities “knowledge enterprise.” Panchanathan replaces France Córdova, who served for six years (AIP). 
  • Several scientific societies have written a letter of concern to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy about a potential executive order that would require that all federally-funded research be published in journals that are immediately open-access. The letter cited the current policy which makes articles open-access only after an embargo of 12 months as necessary for publishers to recover the investment made in publishing the articles (AIBS).
  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) has written a letter criticizing the agency’s proposed “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule, saying it would not add transparency, was unclear, and potentially bureaucratic and burdensome. The letter also said the Trump Administration interpretation of the WOTUS (Waters of the United States) rule was inconsistent with EPA-recognized science and criticized the EPA’s ruling that it was not “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions (AIBS). 

Public Health

  • A new review has concluded that cutting air pollution has immediate and substantial health benefits, including preventing deaths within weeks and saving billions of dollars in the long term. Numbers of heart attacks, premature babies, asthma attacks, and children missing school drop dramatically and rapidly upon reducing air pollution. For example, a smelter’s strike that lasted eight months in the southwest of the US cut overall death rates by 2.5%. The World Health Organization estimates 90% of the human population is breathing toxic air (The Guardian). 

Climate Change

  • The Climate Mayors network has announced the launch of a new Steering Committee, made up of 24 mayors including Austin Mayor Steve Adler, to increase membership and highlight city-led climate action. The network is now made up of 438 mayors from around the country who have committed to meeting the Paris Agreement, regardless of the federal commitment to the agreement (Climate Mayors). 
  • Massive wildfires in Australia are merging to create megafires, including one which measures 1.5 million acres or about the size of Delaware. High wind speeds and dry conditions are exacerbating the fires which are growing so large they are creating weather patterns, consuming 14.5 million acres in total so far. At least 25 people have died and up to 1 billion non-human vertebrates are affected or killed, it is estimated. The carbon emissions from the fires are equivalent to a year’s worth of Australia’s typical emissions from fossil fuels (Washington Post). 
  • A new study in Nature Climate Change has been able to detect the signature of climate change from a single day’s weather data. The researchers can identify the effects of warming in global patterns of temperature and humidity for any day since 2012. Scientists called it “disturbing” that the signal from anthropogenic climate change has now become so strong it is observable in daily weather data, which is generally very noisy (Nature Climate Change; Washington Post).

Science Communication / Miscellaneous

  • A Russian Academy of Sciences commission has found rampant unethical activity in Russian-language journals, with more than 4,000 cases of plagiarism, 70,000 works published more than once, and evidence of people paying for authorship on already-accepted manuscripts. The commission has requested retractions on over 2,500 papers from 541 journals, although some have refused to comply (Science Magazine).

Texas News

  • The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) found a higher than expected rate of cancer in a neighborhood in north Houston, likely caused by creosote contamination of the groundwater from a wood preserving plant nearby. DSHS sent the study to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who requested it and also published it on their website, but did not inform the residents of the neighborhood. The residents were not aware of the study until months later when the city health department requested a similar analysis. It is likely that the creosote evaporates from the soil and exposes residents through the air (Houston Chronicle).
  • The University of North Texas has opened a cafeteria that is free of milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. The cafeteria aims to serve allergen-friendly food that tastes high-quality, helping to serve the approximately 10% of Americans that have allergies or intolerances (Texas Tribune). 
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) did not begin air quality monitoring soon enough after Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast in 2017. The EPA found that TCEQ shut down their stationary air monitors during the storm, and that mobile air monitoring conducted by TCEQ did not coincide with most of the air pollution events that companies reported. The report also noted that TCEQ refused to respond or participate in this investigation. The report recommends improvements to the monitoring system in the wake of emergencies (Texas Tribune). 
  • Two non-profit health insurance companies are suing the Texas Health and Human Services Commission for denying them state health insurance contracts, and instead giving those contracts to for-profit companies. The commission said the nonprofits did not provide the best value with their plans. However, the list of contract winners differed significantly from the list of highly-ranked companies, and the nonprofits say the commission is required by law to include them (Texas Tribune). 
  • The University of Texas at Austin has released a report naming 17 employees who were found to have violated the university’s sexual misconduct policy since 2017. Seven of the employees remain at the university, amid protests from undergraduates. UT will hold a student-led forum on the topic January 27th (Texas Tribune). 
  • The Sierra Club has requested records on how the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) came to a decision to relax emission restrictions on ethylene oxide. The TCEQ refused to release the documents and instead asked the Attorney General of Texas to determine if they were required to release the documents, which include communications from the TCEQ’s top toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt, who is also the chair of the Scientific Advisory Board at the Environmental Protection Agency. The Attorney General ruled in favor of releasing the information, and now the TCEQ has sued the Attorney General to prevent its release (Texas Tribune). 
  • The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has acknowledged that its general enforcement approach is not stringent enough and, in particular, it did not fine Texas Petroleum Chemicals Group, which was responsible for a Port Neches chemical plant explosion in November, enough for multiple violations in 2018. The fines for the company for the year were reduced to about $22,000. Commissioners at the TCEQ agreed the agency takes too long to penalize companies. In 2018, the TCEQ fined only 57 out of 4,590 emission events in the state (Texas Tribune).

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