THE LIGHTBULB

The American burying beetle could be reclassified from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act. (Cindy Maynard/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

When the federal government invited beetle biologist Douglas Leasure, at the time a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Georgia, to help it assess the threat farming posed to an endangered beetle, he said he "was happy to volunteer my time and data to help in any way that I could."

But he and his fellow beetle researcher, Wyatt Hoback, walked away from their roughly month-long stint working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service saying the agency leaned on them to work too quickly to do what they saw as good science and to meld a meticulous map they made of the insect's habitat with another data set from a completely different region of the country.

The result: The pair worry the government may use their research to unduly downplay the threat big business poses to the American burying beetle.

“It felt like the Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to conclude that agriculture is not a risk to the beetle and were going to use the data in a way that made that conclusion, no matter what,” said Wyatt Hoback, a professor of entomology at Oklahoma State University.

The episode, about which I reported Monday, came amid a years-long push by the oil and natural gas industry for the federal government to roll back protections placed on the beetle in 1989 when it was first listed as endangered. So far, that pressure has paid off: Propped by a petition from the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), the agency is currently reassessing the beetle's status and is considering whether to carve out exemptions to rules protecting the beetle that add costs and delays to energy and agricultural businesses.

Here's what happened: Leasure and Hoback, among only a handful of researchers actively studying the insect, had recently published a map of the beetle’s habitat in Nebraska.  As part of the government's reassessment, the agency wanted to overlay the two scientists' map with with another map projecting which untilled areas may one day become farmland. The question: Where might farming, one of the potential drivers of the beetle’s decline in the past, encroach on the beetle’s habitat in the future?

But after reading the study behind the other map that was to be combined with theirs, Leasure and Hoback saw some problems:

  • The other academics mapped potential cropland to the west of Nebraska— not in the sandhills and silty soils of the state, which have different ecologies. The two maps “were never intended to be put together,” Hoback said.
  • To boot, Leasure and Hoback also told the agency their own map of the beetle’s habitat for all of Nebraska wasn’t even the best one to use for the task. Other maps focused more narrowly on specific sections of Nebraska would be more accurate, they said. “The problem was the Fish and Wildlife Service ignored all the other published data,” Hoback said. The result of combining these maps, according to Leasure and Hoback, would be an analysis showing the beetle population to be more spread out and far safer from agriculture than it actually is.
  • The two scientists and the agency may have been able to iron out those issues if Fish and Wildlife did not insist on completing the analysis as soon as possible, the scientists say. A "compressed timeline” would “guard from any perception of biases,” one Fish and Wildlife ecologist told them. 

Fish and Wildlife's treatment of the beetle researchers seems to be another instance of the Trump administration putting business ahead of science, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. “They squashed viewpoints from scientists that they didn’t agree with or that didn’t line up with the preordained conclusion," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the environmental nonprofit, to which Leasure turned after his work went awry with the agency.

However, Fish and Wildlife strongly disagrees with that interpretation of events. The agency told The Post that it "determined the record does not support” their allegations and that the “decision-making processes” behind the assessment “are robust and are designed to use the best available science.” The agency is still working on an assessment of the beetle in order to decide whether it should remain listed under the Endangered Species Act, and it's unclear whether they will ultimately use the scientists' data.

And lobbyists for industries working around the species say it is due time to reassess the beetle's endangered status since its range has ballooned 100-fold since getting federal protection. "The [Fish and Wildlife] Service should be expending its time on imperiled species," said Sam McDonald, IPAA's director of government relations. "The American burying beetle isn’t one of them." 

The energy and agricultural industries care about the endangered status of the shiny, orange-spotted insect because farmers in Nebraska and oilmen in Oklahoma have to try to avoid killing it while developing land or potentially face penalties.

Once living nearly everywhere in the continental United States east of the Rockies, the beetle now exists only a few corners of the country. A filing earlier this year hinted the agency is preparing to upgrade the beetle from endangered to merely threatened.  

Read the whole story here:

POWER PLAYS

— Everyone is getting into podcasting: The Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general is set to release a report Tuesday on former agency chief Scott Pruitt’s security detail, along with an accompanying podcast describing the findings. The agency said in May that the 24-7 protection for Pruitt cost taxpayers nearly $3.5 million during his first year in the role. The OIG said in April it would examine Pruitt’s protection following a request from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). The watchdog office has been putting out podcasts for big reports since at least 2013.

The internal watchdog also announced in a memo on Friday that it would assess how the agency handles concerns about scientific integrity, saying it would review the “extent and type of employee concerns, if any, with scientific integrity,” in order to “determine whether the EPA's Scientific Integrity Policy is being implemented as intended." The office noted that the audit was “self-initiated” and not requested by any specific lawmaker.

— Trump tries a centrist EPA nominee: After Michael Dourson, the president’s first pick to lead the agency’s chemical safety office, withdrew his nomination, Trump is shifting course with a centrist nominee, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. Trump will nominate Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, the EPA Region 1 Administrator, who previously served as the executive director and general counsel for the Environmental Council of States and in the same role at the Association of Clean Water Administrators. “Dunn appears unlikely to stir nearly the same level of political resistance as Dourson, whose nomination in July 2017 drew widespread criticism from environmental and public health advocates,” Eilperin and Dennis report.

— Corps says no environmental risk to Dakota Access pipeline: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Friday it completed a court-ordered review of the environmental impact of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, saying the review found no significant risks, the Associated Press reports. “The Corps said in its summary filed with the court Friday that the chances of an oil spill are low and any impacts to hunting and fishing ‘will be of limited scope and duration,'" per the report. “On the environmental justice issue, the agency said minority populations, including the tribe, and low-income groups are not at greater risk of ‘adverse human health or environmental effects.’”

— Trump taps new Parks chief: Raymond David Vela, the current head of Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, has been picked to lead the National Park Service, a permanent role that has been vacant since days before Trump took office. If confirmed, the 28-year- career parks veteran would be the first Hispanic to head the agency, the Associated Press reports.

— Grizzly ruling: Two days before the first grizzly bear hunts in decades were set to begin outside Yellowstone National Park, a federal judge last week blocked and postponed hunting to consider lawsuits challenging the administration’s removal of endangered species protections for the bears, The Post’s Karin Brulliard and Nick Mott report. USFWS had removed protections from Yellowstone grizzlies last year after its numbers recovered, but conservation groups have filed several lawsuits challenging that assessment.

THERMOMETER

— Climate change could render many of Earth’s ecosystems unrecognizable: According to research out last week in the journal Science, 20,000 years of global fossil and temperature records signal the Earth’s ecosystems could face a major transformation, much like (but faster than) the transformation at the end of the last ice age, The Post’s Sarah Kaplan reports. The study’s lead author says it’s even hard for him to wrap his head around it. “It is concerning to me to think about how much change and how rapidly the change is likely to happen, and how little capacity we have to predict the exact course… which creates very large challenges for all of us out there who are trying to manage wildfire, fish, water, soil, endangered species — all those different ways in which natural ecosystems affect us,” he told Kaplan.

— Harvey one year later: Low-income and minority residents are struggling the most in the recovery following Hurricane Harvey last year, in part because of inequality that played a part even before the storm hit. “In many low-income neighborhoods around Houston, it feels like Harvey struck not last year but last month,” the New York Times reports. “Some of Houston’s most vulnerable and impoverished residents remain in the early stages of their rebuilding effort and live in the shadows of the widespread perception that Texas has successfully rebounded from the historic flooding…. No local, state or federal agency has been tracking how many people remain displaced after Harvey. It is unclear how many residents are struggling to complete repairs or have had their recovery stall.”

— Man, it’s a hot one:

  • A month-long “marine heat wave” on the surface of the Gulf of Maine in August at times saw sea surface temperatures as high as 11 degrees warmer than normal in the “normally chilly waters,” The Post’s Steven Mufson reports, part of a shift that could affect sea life. “We’ve set 10 daily temperature records this summer, after setting 18 this winter,” the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Andrew Pershing said. The institute said the waters have warmed more than three times the global average in the last three decades and at seven times the average in the last 15 years.
  • Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is mapping the heat in Washington and Baltimore, and The Post’s Terrence McCoy notes if the research mirrors earlier studies about Washington, it will show that “wealthier neighborhoods, which often have a lot of trees, yards and parks, will be cooler than poorer neighborhoods, which often don’t.” The research comes "at a time when cities like Washington are beginning to grapple with the prospect of an increasingly hot future, the result of climate change and the unforeseen consequences of urban development,” McCoy writes.
  • How much hotter, on average, is your hometown now compared to when you were born? The New York Times has an excellent new interactive feature that gives you the answer.

— Storm watch: Tropical Storm Gordon, which formed on Monday over Florida’s southern tip, is likely to move toward the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The storm is expected to make landfall by Tuesday night or Wednesday and could strengthen into a Category 1 before it hits, The Post’s Brian McNoldy reports. 

Meanwhile, hurricane warnings were posted Monday for areas in the central Gulf Coast. Two oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico were evacuated and shut down ahead of the imminent impact of the tropical storm, forcing oil prices to sharply increase on Tuesday, Reuters reports

OIL CHECK

— California measure passes on wildfire liability: A bill passed in the final hours of the California state legislative session on Friday would save the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. from bankruptcy as it calls for passing liability costs to ratepayers following the state’s devastating wildfires. The bill heads for California Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) desk, who is expected to sign the bill, the Wall Street Journal reports, noting that is “unlikely to end controversy over how much PG&E customers should pay for what critics call the utility’s failure to invest in maintenance and safety measures in a state prone to severe fire risk.” As wildfires rage in California, so too has a debate over who should pay for them as they worsen due to climate change and lack of fire-prevention funding.

— Nuclear’s costly barrier: A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests the value of nuclear energy as a low-carbon emission power generator that can combat climate change is the only way that nuclear energy can compete in the electricity marketplace. Otherwise, without any cost reduction, nuclear energy is too pricey to compete with cheaper renewable or natural gas power sources, Bloomberg News reports. “The study casts doubt on whether President Donald Trump’s attempts to rescue money-losing U.S. reactors while undoing climate policies can succeed,” per the report. “A more straightforward path to supporting the nuclear industry would be to follow the lead of other countries that have put a price on emissions."

— Electric future: The long-anticipated release of Mercedes-Benz’s electric SUV  on Tuesday is expected to be the start of an ambush of competition for Tesla, which has thus far dominated the upscale electric car market, Reuters reports. But BMW, along with Volkswagen’s Audi and Porsche divisions, are following not far behind. “The Germans’ combined market share will surpass Tesla’s to reach 11.8 percent in 2020 before increasing further to about 19 percent three years later,” Reuters reports. 

DAYBOOK

Today

  • Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings begin before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • The House Rules Committee holds a hearing on legislation regarding small-scale liquefied natural gas.
  • The Energy Department holds a Grid Modernization Initiative Peer Review.

 Coming Up

  • The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation holds an executive session on various legislative measures and nominations on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee holds an executive session on various legislative measures and nominations on Wednesday.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency holds a PFAS community engagement in Leavenworth, Kan. on Wednesday.
  • House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on the Environment holds a hearing on perfluorinated chemicals on Thursday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works holds a hearing on the nomination of Harold B. Parker to be the federal cochairperson of the Northern Border Regional Commission on Thursday.
  • The Bipartisan Policy Center and The Hill hold an event on bipartisan climate solutions with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) on Thursday.
  • The American Enterprise Institute holds an event on implementing the Paris agreement on Thursday.
  • The United States Energy Association holds a membership briefing on Thursday.
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources on Environment holds a hearing on water resources on Friday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— Tropical Storm Gordon as NOAA's satellites see it: