Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne has a wildly misleading op-ed in USA Today about his proposed regulatory changes to the Endangered Species Act. The Secretary makes it sound like his sole concern when proposing these changes was preventing the Endangered Species Act from being used to address greenhouse gas emissions (more about that later). He writes:
Congress, however, never intended this law to be the solution to global climate change. The law is already a complex source of red tape and litigation. The possibility of it becoming a tool for greenhouse-gas oversight — as a consequence of the polar bear listing in May — threatened to overwhelm agency experts and do more harm than good to the cause of conservation.
So the Interior Department recently proposed common-sense regulations that would prevent the law's consultation process from becoming a back-door mechanism to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
This is simply wrong. More than that, it is deliberately wrong.
As I’ve discussed before, the core of the new regulations is a provision that allows federal agencies to determine for themselves if their contemplated activities may negatively affect protected wildlife. And if they decide “no”? Well, then the agency can proceed with its plan without any outside review. These “self-consultations” would replace existing rules that require federal agencies to first consult with independent scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service if they conclude that any of their projects “may affect” a protected animal or plant.
Here’s the point: self-consultation is an idea that has been rattling around Washington, D.C. (promoted by industry groups) for years, certainly long before the polar bear ever shambled its way onto the list of endangered and threatened species. In fact, variations of self-consultation has been tried (often unsuccessfully) on the EPA’s regulation of pesticides and on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management projects, such as logging and prescribed burns—none of which has thing one to do with global warming. If adopted, the self-consultation rule will apply to all federal agencies and to all listed species. Everything from road construction to off-road-vehicle use to dredging rivers will be impacted. Using the polar bear’s listing as an excuse for such mischief is like blaming a hospital patient for the high cost of healthcare.
USA Today understands the broader implications of such a massive abdication in oversight. In a parallel editorial that also ran today it writes:
But the plan to remove automatic review by fish and wildlife experts is truly alarming. It's one of several regulations the lame-duck Bush administration is trying to push through to reward its backers and tie the hands of its successors.
In this case, it's ludicrous to expect that federal agencies that build dams and roads will seriously search out impediments to their projects. Even small children can cite the fox-and-henhouse parable.
So what about that global warming argument? There is absolutely no reason that the Endangered Species Act, any more than the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Protection Act, or any of America’s other bedrock environmental laws, shouldn’t be used to control global warming pollution providing, of course, that the situation warrants it and that law applies. If this is an issue that Secretary Kempthorne is truly concerned about, then that’s debate he should have in Congress. What he should not be doing is using the polar bear as an excuse to weaken the Endangered Species Act for all of America’s wildlife.