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Are they really going to gut the Endangered Species Act?

The White House is proposing to let federal agencies decide for themselves whether construction projects could harm listed species.

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"This is the fox guarding the hen house, said environmental lawyer Eric Glitzenstein to MSNBC. "The interests of agencies will outweigh species protection interests."

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"It’s a cliche," writes Andrew Wetzler on the National Resources Defense Council's blog, "but today’s proposal is as clear a case of letting the fox guard the henhouse as you’re ever likely to see."

Similar denunciations came from the National Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Earthjustice.

Sen. Barbara Boxer told the AP that she thought the proposed changes were illegal. "This proposed regulation is another in a continuing stream of proposals to repeal our landmark environmental laws through the back door," said the California Democrat and chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. "If this proposed regulation had been in place, it would have undermined our ability to protect the bald eagle, the grizzly bear and the gray whale."

She may have a point about the changes not being legal. As MSNBC reports, the White House has tried this kind of thing before:

In 2003, the administration imposed similar rules that would have allowed agencies to approve new pesticides and projects to reduce wildfire risks without asking the opinion of government scientists about whether threatened or endangered species and habitats might be affected. The pesticide rule was later overturned in court. The Interior Department, along with the Forest Service, is currently being sued over the rule governing wildfire prevention.
In 2005, the House passed a bill that would have made similar changes to the Endangered Species Act, but the bill died in the Senate.

Apparently, this proposal grew out of fears about environmentalists using the Endangered Species Act as a "back door" to regulate greenhouse gases. In May, after much lobbying by wildlife groups, the polar bear was listed as threatened by the Interior Department. It was the first species to be listed due to the threat from global warming, as repeated scientific studies revealed that rising temperatures are causing the Arctic sea ice vital to the bears' survival to vanish.

In that May announcement, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne stressed that the listing would not hold individual greenhouse gas emitters responsible for destroying the bears' habitat, and that the Endangered Species Act was not an appropriate vehicle for setting climate policy.

Monday's statement reiterated those points:

The proposed rule is consistent with the [Fish and Wildlife Service's] current understanding that it is not possible to draw a direct causal link between greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and distant observations of impacts affecting species. As a result, it is inappropriate to consult on a remote agency action involving the contribution of emissions to global warming because it is not possible to link the emissions to impacts on specific listed species such as polar bears.

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