President Trump's nominee to lead the premier science office at the Interior Department sidestepped a question yesterday about whether climate change is a core mission of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Speaking with reporters after a Senate hearing, James Reilly II said he "couldn't address" whether the office's climate research fits into its traditional mandate. Reilly told senators that one of his priorities if confirmed would be identifying the core mission of USGS and whether it's working on issues outside those boundaries.

"One of the things I will be looking at very closely, though, is how do the main mission areas, how do they tie in," Reilly told reporters after the hearing with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "A good understanding of the ecosystems is obviously a requirement that we have to have here as a national priority. That's going to be something we're going to obviously focus on as part of the charter of the USGS and one of the prime mission areas."

Reilly, a former astronaut, sidestepped other questions about the agency's mission, not just those on climate, and said he would wait to be confirmed before commenting on specific issues under the banner of USGS.

Under Trump's fiscal 2019 budget plan, USGS would receive just under $860 million, or about a 20 percent decrease from funding levels enacted in fiscal 2017. With about 8,200 employees, the office provides science and mapping on ecosystems, energy and mineral resources, water use, and natural hazards like earthquakes and volcanoes.

It also runs eight regional climate science centers and one national climate adaptation science center. Established by Congress in 2008, the climate science centers develop science and tools to help land managers address climate-related impacts to land, water, fish and wildlife, and cultural sites.

Trump's budget request includes $13 million for only three of the eight regional climate science centers and one national climate adaptation science center. The remaining centers would presumably be shuttered. That is $4.4 million less than the administration allocated in its fiscal 2018 budget proposal and less than half the amount Congress enacted for fiscal 2017 (Climatewire, Feb. 13).

Senate Democrats asked Reilly, who's a geologist by training, about how he would handle proposed budget cuts (Greenwire, March 6).

"The first thing I would do when I get there is I would spend the first 30 days really just talking to everybody in the mission areas, and then finding out where are the places we can cut without seeing any significant impacts," Reilly said.

He also faced questions from Democrats and the committee's chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), about whether he would uphold the integrity of USGS science programs and push back against political pressure.

In December, two USGS officials resigned over what they say was an improper request for information by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on the energy potential within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska prior to the release of a public report. The two officials, Murray Hitzman and Larry Meinert, said Zinke's actions breached the agency's scientific integrity policies (Greenwire, Feb. 22).

"Scientific integrity has got to be a key element of the USGS," Reilly said. "It's an independent organization that's intended to deliver unbiased science to the decisionmakers."