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Bush’s parting moves on the environment

Last-minute rule changes would weaken environmental protections, critics say.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 5, 2008

New plans could open swaths of public land in Utah, like this tract near Canyonlands National Park, that has a potash mining operation, to more drilling and mining.

Robert Harbison / The Christian Science Monitor / FILE

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The changes seem minor: clarifications of regulations, revisions to rules, updated land-management proposals.

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But some recent proposals from the Interior Department – many likely to be finalized in the waning months of the Bush administration and pushed through with a shortened comment period – are seen by critics as an assault on America’s environmental resources and an attempt to solidify industry-friendly policy.

The proposals include changes to the Endangered Species Act, new management plans for 11 million acres in Utah, an effort to revoke congressional committees’ emergency powers to protect public lands, and a rule change for mountaintop mining regulations.

The Interior Department says the changes are common-sense ones that balance the needs of conservation with those of national energy policy. Environmentalists counter that the actions represent the final efforts of an administration that has been hostile to the environment since Day 1.

“Overall, it certainly is consistent with the approach this administration has taken for the past eight years,” says Sharon Buccino, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s land program. “It’s one final push before they go out the door to really open up public resources for private and industry gain.”

Mr. Bush is not the first lame-duck president to change environmental rules. Bill Clinton, in the last few days of his presidency, pushed through regulations to protect vast areas of the West.

The proposals include the following:

• A change to the Endangered Species Act to disallow the ESA from being used to regulate global climate change even if a species, like the polar bear, is suffering as a result of it. The change also reduces the number of scientific reviews of projects performed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

• Six new resource management plans for 11 million acres of federal land in Utah that critics say would open more roads and trails, make nearly 9 million acres available for oil and gas development, and reduce the areas managed primarily for environmental value. Five of the plans were finished on Friday.

• A rule change eliminating one of the few regulations governing mountaintop mining, a common practice in Appalachia in which a mountain’s top is blown off to get access to the rich coal beds beneath. Currently, a largely ignored “buffer zone” rule bars mining companies from dumping debris within 100 feet of any stream. The new rule would require them to either avoid the buffer zone or show why that is not possible, and to minimize harming the streams “to the extent possible” if they must dump there.

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