Bush’s parting moves on the environment

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

Robert Harbison / The Christian Science Monitor / FILE
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.

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

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.

• A proposal to remove an “emergency powers” provision that allows the Interior Department or two congressional committees to protect public lands. The rule gained prominence this summer when the House Natural Resources Committee declared 1 million acres next to the Grand Canyon off limits to uranium mining.

These proposals have been portrayed incorrectly, says Chris Paolino, a spokesman for the Interior Department.

The proposed changes to the ESA, Mr. Paolino says, would clarify the Interior secretary’s belief that the ESA is not the right mechanism for regulating climate change. “Science at this point cannot make the link between the specific greenhouse-gas emissions from, say, Kansas, and link it to the effect on a subset of polar bears or an individual polar bear in the Arctic region,” he says. As for the reduced number of federal scientific reviews of projects, he believes it will allow the Fish & Wildlife scientists to give more time to projects that are more likely to affect listed species.

Environmental groups counter that allowing different agencies to determine whether a project needs independent scientific review hasn’t worked in the past and could lead to a scattershot approach in which potential hazards to species are overlooked. “They won’t have good sense of the cumulative impacts if they’re not tracking projects across species and agencies,” says Noah Greenwald, science director for the Center for Biodiversity in Tucson, Ariz.

As for the ESA’s role in climate change,  Mr. Greenwald argues that it provides a focus for assessing the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions. He notes that even in the past, when the ESA was used to regulate DDT because of its impact on the bald eagle, officials did not tie one use of DDT to the death of one particular eagle.

Some of the harshest criticism is reserved for the land-management proposals in Utah and the easing of restrictions on drilling and oil-shale exploration, in part because they would be difficult for a future administration to overturn.

“Defaulting to providing more and more routes for oil and gas and more land for oil and gas development effectively prohibits other uses of these lands,” says Nada Culver, senior counsel for The Wilderness Society. Encouraging oil-shale development and geothermal leasing, and creating new “energy corridors” in the West, could lead to an “industrialization of the landscape,” she adds.

The Bureau of Land Management, for its part, says most of the lands were already open to potential drilling and off-road vehicles. The new plans would get rid of some of the unrestricted vehicle use, they say, and put designated routes in play. “There seems to be a perception ... that these plans would throw open vast new acreage to development and use,” says Don Ogaard, planning lead for Utah’s BLM. “The land is open to that use now.”

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