WASHINGTON – Just six weeks before President-elect Barack Obama takes office, the Bush administration issued revised endangered-species regulations Thursday to reduce the input of federal scientists and to block the law from being used to fight global warming.
The changes, which will go into effect in about 30 days, were completed in just four months. But they could take Obama much longer to reverse.
They will eliminate some of the mandatory, independent reviews that government scientists have performed for 35 years on dams, power plants, timber sales and other projects, a step that developers and other federal agencies have blamed for delays and cost increases.
The rules also prohibit federal agencies from evaluating the effect on endangered species and the places they live from a project's contribution to increased global warming.
Interior Department officials described the changes as "narrow," but admitted that the regulations were controversial inside the agency.
Environmentalists viewed them as eroding the protections for endangered species.
Interior officials said federal agencies could still seek the expertise of federal wildlife biologists on a voluntary basis, and that other parts of the law will ensure that species are protected.
"Nothing in this regulation relieves a federal agency of its responsibilities to ensure that species are not harmed," said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in a conference call with reporters.
Current rules require biologists in the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to sign off on projects even when it is determined that they are not likely to harm species.
The rule finalized Thursday would do away with that requirement, reducing the number of consultations so that the government's experts can focus on cases that pose the greatest harm to wildlife, officials said.
But environmentalists said that the rule changes would put decisions about endangered species into the hands of agencies with a vested interest in advancing a project and with little expertise about wildlife.
Several environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco hours after the rule's announcement.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service and a vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, said Thursday that the changes target the "absolute heart of the Endangered Species Act."
Clark told a House hearing on the Bush administration's last-minute environmental regulations that these changes remove "a system of checks and balances that provides an essential safety net for imperiled animals and plants."
Between 1998 and 2002, the Fish and Wildlife Service conducted 300,000 consultations. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which evaluates projects affecting marine species, conducts about 1,300 reviews each year.
The reviews have helped safeguard protected species such as bald eagles, Florida panthers and whooping cranes.
A federal government handbook from 1998 described the consultations as "some of the most valuable and powerful tools to conserve listed species."
The Bush administration worked diligently to get the change in place before Obama took over, corralling 15 experts in Washington in October to sort through 250,000 written comments from the public on the revisions in 32 hours.
Obama has said he would work to reverse the changes. But because the rule takes effect before he is sworn in, he would have to restart the lengthy rulemaking process.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said he would seek to overturn the regulations using the Congressional Review Act after consulting with other Democratic leaders.
The rarely used law allows Congress to review new federal regulations.
Congress has opposed similar changes to the endangered species protections in the past.
In 2003, the Bush administration imposed similar rules that would have allowed agencies to approve new pesticides and wildfire reduction projects without seeking the opinion of government scientists.
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.
Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the leading Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement the new regulations were "common-sense changes to a law much overdue for reform."
There are a handful of other environmental regulations still pending before Bush leaves office, including a rule to exempt large agricultural operations from reporting releases of ammonia and other hazardous air pollutants. They must be finalized by Dec. 19 in order for them go into effect before Jan. 20.
In a related development, the Interior Department also finalized Thursday a special rule for the polar bear, a species that was listed as threatened in May because of global warming.
The rule would allow oil and gas exploration in areas where the bears live, as long as the companies comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act.