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Government Scientists Get Back to Work

From the agencies to Antarctica, work picked up anew



NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr

"We're back!" With that triumphant Thursday morning tweet, the NASA Climate Twitter feed announced its return, the end of the government shutdown and the restoration of climate science activities at the agency.

NASA, which is very active on social media, had been missed by its 5 million followers during the shutdown. To fill the gap, online space and science enthusiasts created the hashtag #ThingsNASAMightTweet, as well as the @NASAShutdown Twitter account.

Through those alternative channels, science fans learned that the sun was flaring, the Juno mission to Jupiter had come out of safe mode, and the MODIS satellite imagers were still sending back clear pictures of the Earth.

But while @NASAShutdown tried to take the agency's place in the social media universe, it could do little for the climate science activities at NASA and other agencies that were put on hold during the shutdown.

Take Operation IceBridge, the NASA mission that collects aerial data on polar ice as a way of bridging the gap between the agency's ice-observing satellite missions.

IceBridge activities, which were scheduled to run out of McMurdo Station in Antarctica this field season, have been delayed due to the shutdown (ClimateWire, Oct. 4).

Michael Studinger, the project scientist for IceBridge, returned to work yesterday and is doing what he can to get the project back on track.

"We have more questions than answers, but we should know more sometime next week -- hopefully," Studinger wrote in an email. "Both NASA and [the National Science Foundation] are committed to enable a shortened McMurdo deployment if possible."

Polar research set to restart
Researchers already in Antarctica, who had been preparing to leave due to the shutdown, were excited to return to their science projects (ClimateWire, Oct. 11).

"Science is (almost) rolling again here on the ice," Jamie Collins, a graduate student at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, wrote on his blog.

"The sense of relief on station is palpable -- members of the various science teams are excited to set up their laboratories and begin the meticulous business of sampling and data collection," reported Collins.

James Overland, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research oceanographer who studies the Arctic, was readying his research team for flights it had planned to begin Oct. 2. They will now start Oct. 19.

The team is measuring the transfer of heat from the ice-free ocean into the atmosphere, to see if that heat may be affecting weather patterns in places like the U.S. East Coast. While the research team is flying out as soon as possible, the delay has forced them to fly over a lower part of the ocean.

However, Overland is just glad to get back to work.

"If the shutdown had gone one more week, it would have been too dark and without enough warm ocean temperatures for us to really do our research. Because the shutdown ended yesterday, we'll still be able to salvage some research during this window," Overland said.

Shutdown ends before things 'start falling apart'
Other NOAA workers were similarly happy to return to their jobs.

Alexander MacDonald, the director of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., said his employees got back to work as soon as they could. MacDonald had been one of the 100 or so federal employees or contractors working at the ESRL facility during the shutdown.

Now, for the first time in 16 days, the parking lot was full and the 900 employees who normally work there were in the building, he said.

"When I saw people back in the hallways, they were all just excited to be back to work," MacDonald said.

Russell Schnell, deputy director of NOAA's Global Monitoring Division, which monitors concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, said his team had a backlog of air samples to analyze, which will take them a few weeks to get through.

"We have about 500 or so that we'll get started on. We can only do 20 a day or so," said Schnell.

The Global Monitoring Division sends air sampling flasks out to a far-flung network of stations all over the world. During the shutdown, it was unable to send out flasks and standard gases to these stations, some of which had run out of them.

Overall, Schnell said the shutdown did not last long enough to create big gaps in the observational record, although there will be some gaps. Partly, this is because the researchers had sent extra flasks and gases out in advance of the shutdown.

"Had we gone another week or two, things would start falling apart, because we would really start running out of supplies," said Schnell.

EPA wakes up after 'deep sleep'
U.S. EPA employees trudged back to work yesterday to a trove of unheard voice mail messages and emails. The bright spot: muffins and hugs from Vice President Joe Biden (Greenwire, Oct. 17).

"It's like waking up after a deep sleep," said Julia Valentine, a press officer for the agency. Since reopening, EPA has notified employees of timing to return to work and has conducted maintenance on the agency's computer servers.

"EPA employees will work to tackle the three-week backlog on pesticide imports and other services as quickly as possible, however delays are expected in this process," wrote Alisha Johnson, the spokeswoman for the agency throughout the shutdown. "However, other important actions that did not take place during the shutdown, like air, water and hazardous waste inspections, cannot be made up."

The nearly three-week shutdown could delay the proposal of carbon dioxide emissions standards for existing power plants, expected by June 1 of next year, said a former EPA staffer who held an administrative role in the Office of Air and Radiation.

"Either they're going to have to find a way to make up those two weeks to get some of the analysis, some of the responses to comments, more quickly than they had planned, or they're going to have to delay the dates for the rules for a couple of weeks," he said.

Listening sessions in Boston and Philadelphia to gather public input for the proposal have been canceled, and rescheduled dates have yet to be announced. The listening sessions in nine other cities will continue as scheduled.

EPA has set a strict timeline for the rollout of two sets of New Source Performance Standards for the future and existing power fleet. The schedule will culminate in June 2016, when states must submit plans to outline how they will reach federal carbon standards -- just months before a presidential election. A new president could potentially disrupt the Obama administration's work on climate change (ClimateWire, June 26).

Rulemaking process not likely to slow
Rulemaking at EPA includes meeting with other agencies and departments, including the Department of Energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally run utility. The closure of these coordinating agencies also burdens the process.

"In any major rulemaking, there's a lot of economic, legal, analytic, policy coordination work that needs to be done," the former staffer said.

John Cooney, a former assistant solicitor general and deputy general counsel with the Office of Management and Budget during the Reagan administration, thinks the shutdown will leave little impact. OMB houses the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which reviews agencies' proposed and final regulations.

"The process at OMB and EPA in the rulemaking department is basically dealing with projects that have a long term, from beginning to end," he said. "They don't respond to breaking developments."

According to the OMB shutdown plan, staffers were expected to put projects in a state of "suspended animation," said Cooney, so that work on them could pick up immediately once Congress approved appropriations.

"Rulemakings lend themselves particularly well to that approach, I think, because they're data-driven, they're analytical to responding to real-world events," he said. "I think the agency staffs will come in and be able to pick them up immediately where they left off."

Currently, there are 18 EPA regulations pending at OMB, including the required levels for biofuels for 2014 under the federal renewal fuel standard. Other regulations include performance standards for residential wood heaters and adjustments to allowances for the production of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), powerful greenhouse gases.

Energy Department, KXL process make it through with reserves
The shutdown also slowed the State Department's work on a pending final environmental impact statement on TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil sands crude from Alberta to Texas' Gulf Coast. In a statement, a department official said State continued work during the shutdown but noted that finalizing the environmental impact statement involves consulting with "cooperating agencies."

In April, for example, EPA questioned State's conclusion in its draft environmental impact statement that KXL would not exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions if constructed (ClimateWire, April 23).

"Most of those cooperating agencies had a large number of staff furloughed, so that consultation process was slowed," the State official said. "We cannot make any predictions on when the final [impact statement] will be released." The department recently completed posting comments on a draft environmental statement -- but a final decision on the pipeline from the Obama administration could take months.

The Department of Energy, meanwhile, absorbed the shock with a surplus of previously appropriated funding, giving itself a few weeks to cruise until Congress sorted out the mess.

The agency, whose duties range from maintaining nuclear weapons to funding physical science research, employs 13,814 people. Officials at DOE did not respond to requests for comment, but before the shutdown, an agency spokeswoman cautioned that such an event would cripple the agency's capacity to carry out its mission if the dispute outlasted its reserve funds.

Most of DOE's 17 national laboratories continued operations as normal, though the facilities under the umbrella of the National Nuclear Security Agency, like Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, required some "rebalancing of funds," according to a lab representative.

Despite this, phone calls to Livermore yesterday were met with a recorded message announcing that the lab was closed due to a lapse in appropriations.

Agency appointments continue
Nonetheless, the idling government didn't stop personnel changes. Earlier this week, the Senate confirmed Bradley Crowell as assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental affairs at the Energy Department. Crowell's job will include coordinating with states to advance clean energy.

Climate research from other agencies stalled, however.

"We've had two weeks of no progress on a lot of fronts," said John Balbus, who leads the climate change and human health group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

Earlier this year, Balbus helped launch an online portal to pool climate and health data sets to track disease under changing temperatures, rainfall and seasonality (ClimateWire, May 23). He lamented that researchers couldn't access their computers, so the projects involving this database stopped dead in their tracks.

Over at the Federal Aviation Administration, the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) was completely frozen for the duration of the government shutdown, setting the air traffic efficiency program back by two weeks. The delay comes as sequester cuts have already stalled implementation of the $42 billion program.

"It's very fortunate the shutdown didn't go on any longer," said Dan Stohr, spokesman for the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents companies developing NextGen technologies and works closely with the FAA on implementation.

"It's a very complex program, a system of systems, so to have the full benefit, you have to have all systems running," Stohr added.

The primary thrust of NextGen is to improve the efficiency and reliability of air travel through satellite-based navigation. If implemented on schedule, by 2030 NextGen is expected to reduce aircraft fuel burn by 1.6 billion gallons and eliminate 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Defense's energy programs suffer
The Department of Defense's ongoing field operations continued unabated by the shutdown, but the department's forward-thinking energy programs did encounter bureaucratic speed bumps. Officials in the office of Operational Energy Plans and Programs, for instance, had to cancel meetings and postpone coordination efforts with DOE because so many federal workers had been furloughed.

DOD is interested in adopting low-carbon energy sources, like distributed solar power and generators running on waste resources, to reduce reliance on the U.S. central power grid on home bases and to reduce the risks of delivering liquid fuels in the battlefield. The shutdown slowed consideration of energy initiatives for the fiscal 2015 budget, said DOD spokesman Mark Wright.

According to Undersecretary of Defense Robert Hale, at a minimum DOD lost $600 million in lost productivity from having to furlough almost 400,000 civilians for four days. He said the shutdown also dealt a severe blow to workforce morale.

Wright also highlighted the difficulties both the shutdown and the sequester were placing on the department.

"When you layer the shutdown with the sequester furloughs earlier this year, and the continuing budget uncertainty moving forward, all of it contributes to an environment where it is more difficult to retain our highly skilled workforce in support of our mission to give the troops better energy options so that they can defend the nation," said Wright.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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