Obama Freezes Bush Administration

Obama Freezes Bush Administration

Alisa Opar
Published: 03/05/2009

On March 3, President Obama dealt a blow to one risk facing endangered species in the U.S. He issued a memorandum that temporarily rescinds a Bush-era rule that weakened the Endangered Species Act.

As we reported in the November-December issue, the changes essentially did away with the requirement for expert, outside review. Under the new rule, when the U.S. Forest Service or Minerals Management Service wanted to, say, extend a highway, drill for oil in a new area, or dam a river, instead of consulting federal wildlife biologists, officials could use their own discretion to determine if the project wouldn’t harm a species listed as endangered or threatened. It essentially removed scientific review from the process.

The memorandum directs the departments of the Interior and Commerce to review the regulation, which the Bush administration issued December 16 (the rule was finalized on January 15). If the agencies determine that the best course of action is to undertake new rulemaking procedures, it’ll likely lead to a complete revocation of the rule. In the meantime, until officials complete that review, agencies are required to return to the former practice of consulting with, and acting on the advice of, scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Obama announced the decision while addressing Interior Department employees, telling them: "For more than three decades, the Endangered Species Act has successfully protected our nation's most threatened wildlife, and we should be looking for ways to improve it - not weaken it. Throughout our history, there's been a tension between those who've sought to conserve our natural resources for the benefit of future generations, and those who have sought to profit from these resources. But I'm here to tell you this is a false choice. With smart, sustainable policies, we can grow our economy today and preserve the environment for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. That is what we must do." (Play the AP video above to hear more.)

The memorandum doesn’t necessarily mean the Endangered Species Act is in the clear quite yet, though. As ENS reports:

More action may be needed by the administration to fully rescind the rule, including a new rulemaking or action by Congress. The Senate is currently considering an Omnibus Appropriations Bill from the House that would allow the Obama administration to rescind both the rule covered by today’s memo and a special rule issued in conjunction with last year's listing of the polar bear as threatened.

That rule exempted greenhouse gas emissions and oil development from regulation under the Endangered Species Act even if they harmed the bears and their melting habitat.

An amendment by Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat, proposes that if the administration does choose to rescind the two rules, a 60 day comment period would be held.

The changes to the Endangered Species Act were just a few of the dozens of the last-minute new rules the Bush administration pushed through. For an up-to-date list of what’s happening with midnight regulations and efforts to overturn them—including oil shale development and mountaintop mining—check out OMB Watch.