The Environment

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  Undoing The Damage, Step By StepApril 30, 2009 07:19 The Obama administration is reversing many of the potentially damaging anti-environmental regulations rushed through in the Bush administration’s final months. This week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar withdrew a rule that would have weakened protections for endangered species. He also took the first legal step to revoke a rule that would have allowed the ruinous coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal to inflict even greater damage on Appalachia’s landscape.

Former President George W. Bush’s endangered species rule would have greatly narrowed a longstanding requirement that federal agencies consult with scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before proceeding with any project like a dam or road that could harm an imperiled species. For years, such consultations had been automatic; under the Bush rule, an agency could skip this step if it decided — entirely on its own — that no species would be harmed.

Mr. Bush’s Interior Department presented the change as an overdue act of regulatory streamlining, arguing that it would only affect cases in which there was no obvious threat. But there was impressive evidence assembled by the National Audubon Society and other mainstream environmental groups that federal agencies often underestimated the threat and that projects frequently needed to be modified or scrapped altogether in order to protect endangered species.

The Bush administration also rewrote a Reagan-era rule — the so-called stream buffer rule — in a way that allowed coal companies to dump wastes produced by mountaintop mining operations into the valleys and streams below. Restoring the old rule, which barred operators from depositing debris within 100 feet of a stream, will not by itself stop the practice. The rule must be rigorously enforced, which both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to do. The government estimates that 1,600 miles of streams in Appalachia have been wiped out this way since the mid-1980s.
  Interior Dept. Reinstitutes Independent Reviews On Endangered SpeciesApril 28, 2009 13:32 The Obama administration announced today that federal agencies will once again be required to undergo an independent scientific review if they embark on projects that might affect threatened or endangered species, marking yet another reversal of a last-minute Bush administration environmental regulation.

In mid-December, former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne issued a rule allowing government agencies to decide on their own whether a project would harm an imperiled plant or animal without consulting with either the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, depending on the species. At the time, Kempthorne said the move would streamline the bureaucratic process without harming protected species.

President Obama called for a review of the rule last month. Today, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Kempthorne's successor, and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said in a joint statement that scientific evidence justified restoring the independent reviews that Fish and Wildlife and NOAA had conducted for decades.

"By rolling back this 11th hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law," Salazar said. "Because science must serve as the foundation for decisions we make, federal agencies proposing to take actions that might affect threatened and endangered species will once again have to consult with biologists at the two departments."
  Brazil'S Endangered Species List Triples In SizeApril 27, 2009 23:25 Deforestation and illegal animal trade have done enormous damage to the species of Brazil over the last 20 years. The country's list of endangered animals now stands at 627 species -- 288% higher than the 218 species that were on the same list in 1989.

It's not clear if this is the first major revision to Brazil's endangered list since '89, but it's a significant update: 489 species were added to the list, while 79 were considered recovered enough to be dropped from the list.

Environment Minister Carlos Minc said "Industry is expanding, agriculture is expanding, people are occupying protected areas and our conservation units do not have the protection needed," but "We'll fight to remove the largest number of species possible from that list."

Minc reported that 90% of Brazil's Atlantic rainforest, where most of these newly endangered species reside, has been chopped down. More than 232,000 square miles of Brazilian forest have been destroyed since 1970.

Minc took over as Environment Minister earlier this year, after his predecessor, Marina Silva, resigned, citing government "stagnation" in the fight against deforestation.
  Biologists Call On Obama Administration To Overturn Bush Rules That Cut Science Out Of Endangered Species DecisionsApril 27, 2009 09:36 More than 1,300 federal and independent scientists with biological expertise and three leading scientific societies today called on the Interior and Commerce departments to overturn rule changes made in January that weaken the scientific foundation of the Endangered Species Act.

In a letter, the scientists urged the department secretaries to rescind changes to Endangered Species Act regulations that allow federal agencies to decide for themselves if their own projects -- such as roads, dams and mines -- would threaten imperiled species. Previously, federal agencies were required to consult with biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or National Marine Fisheries Service before undertaking or permitting projects. (For a copy of the letter, go here.)

"Many federal agencies do not have the scientific expertise to determine the consequences of federal projects on endangered species and may have vested interests in the implementation of a project," said Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, who helped organize the scientists' letter. "The new rules exclude expert scientists -- who for decades have provided impartial review and critical analysis -- from the process."

The Ornithological Council, Society for Conservation Biology and the Wildlife Society, which collectively represent more than 20,000 scientists, also sent a letter today asking the Interior and Commerce secretaries to rescind the changes and make other improvements to the scientific base of the Endangered Species Act.

  Interior Sends Revised Endangered Species Rule To OmbApril 24, 2009 14:28 The Interior Department is proceeding with a final rule revamping changes that the Bush administration made to Endangered Species Act regulations in its final months.

The department sent a final rule on ESA consultations to the White House Office of Management and Budget yesterday, OMB said. The move suggests Interior will use authority given it by Congress in a recent spending bill to fast-track the regulatory rewrite without going through the normal full review process.

At issue is the Bush administration's revision of a rule that required federal agencies to consult with Fish and Wildlife Service biologists before undertaking actions that might threaten a protected species. The Bush rule made biological consultations optional, allowing agencies to proceed with projects if they maintained there would be little threat to a species.

Congressional Democrats and environmental groups widely criticized the rule revision -- both for its substance and for the way it was done. The Bush administration proposed the overhaul in August and expedited its review of public comments to put the final rule in place by December.

Congress gave the Obama administration authority to throw out the ESA regulations without going through the normal public notice and comment process. The fiscal 2009 omnibus appropriations bill gives Interior until May 9 to overturn two ESA provisions: the consultation rule and a special rule for the polar bear that explicitly exempts greenhouse gases from Endangered Species Act regulation.

Interior has sent OMB a rewrite of only the wildlife consultation rule, not the polar bear rule.
  Interior Secretary Should Repeal Bush'S Weakening Of The Endangered Species ActApril 21, 2009 21:07 OUR new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has some decisions to make. One of them will clearly signal whether he will fulfill President Obama's promise to "develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making" or whether he will continue George W. Bush's long-standing commitment to undermine scientific integrity.

Salazar has until May 9 to undo one of Bush's 11th-hour and more regressive policies — one that would gut America's signature environmental law and the strongest tool we have to protect and restore our majestic plant and wildlife heritage. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been our nation's safety net for species facing extinction since 1973 and it is one of the few legal tools capable of confronting the growing impacts of global warming.

The ESA has withstood numerous concerted and often virulent attacks, the most serious from a hostile Congress led by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., a committed lifelong ESA opponent, until his defeat in 2006. But it has survived because Americans understand its need and have witnessed its benefits.

Most recently and dramatically, gray wolves protected by the ESA found their way back to Washington from Canada after an 80-year exile. They had been wiped out by decades of needless persecution. The ESA provides the most complete guide to salmon recovery.

The act has survived not only because Americans love wildlife but because we know that salmon, eagles, wolves and grizzly bears are all barometers of the health of our environment — the same environment we depend on for our well-being and that of our children.

At the heart of the law is science. The law rightly recognizes that the best people to oversee government decisions that may negatively affect endangered species and their habitats are the biologists with expertise in wildlife and ecological sciences.
  Drilling Off Alaska Can'T Proceed Without Further Environmental ReviewApril 19, 2009 09:20 Reporting from Washington and Nuiqsut, Alaska — A federal appeals court dealt a blow Friday to oil and gas industry efforts to allow drilling in the fertile energy-producing regions in the icy seas north of Alaska.

FOR THE RECORD: Arctic drilling: An A Section article Saturday about a federal court ruling that blocked oil leases off the Alaska coast identified Michael LeVine as an Ocean Conservancy lawyer. LeVine is a lawyer with the environmental group Oceana.

The Bush administration had started to auction off leases in the Arctic waters along Alaska's coast, which are expected to produce billions of barrels of oil. But a three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals panel in Washington ruled that the Interior Department had failed to properly assess the environmental impact of the leases. The court halted the program pending a full review.

The decision comes at a time of increased pressure to tap new sources of oil and gas globally. The Bush White House had pursued the leasing program after Congress thwarted its efforts to drill in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"It would be a disservice to all Americans -- and a devastating blow to the economy -- if this decision were to delay further the development of vital oil and natural gas resources," the American Petroleum Institute, a leading industry trade group, said in a statement Friday.

The Arctic may hold 90 billion barrels of oil, more than the known reserves of Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Mexico combined and enough to supply U.S. demand for 12 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

But in Inupiat Eskimo communities preparing to go on their spring hunt for whales near some of the areas targeted for drilling, there was a sense of relief Friday.