Outside editorial: Environmental rules erased at midnight hour

Posted: Sunday, November 30, 2008

This editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

George W. Bush may be the undisputed champion when it comes to presidential vacations, but his staff is working overtime. As the clock ticks down to Inauguration Day, the Bush administration is working feverishly to dismantle at least 10 major safeguards of the nation's air, water, endangered species and national parks.

Most of the damage took place before Nov. 15, 60 days before Inauguration Day. That's because most new federal rules take effect 60 days after being published in the Federal Register. Once in effect, they are more difficult and time-consuming to undo.

In recent weeks, the Bush administration has:

• Opened up 2 million acres of Western land to the development of oil shale, one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet. Another 360,000 acres - including large swaths of public land near Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park in Utah and Dinosaur National Monument on the border of Utah and Colorado - were opened to oil drilling.

• Exempted large factory farms and mountaintop mining operations from parts of the Clean Water Act. The prohibition against dumping mining waste into rivers and streams dates back to the administration of President Ronald Reagan, who was not exactly an environmental radical.

• Loosened clean-air rules to make it easier to build power plants, refineries and chemical plants near national parks. It also changed rules to make it easier for coal-fired power plants to avoid installing pollution controls or clean up soot and smog emissions.

• Changed rules to prevent Congress from blocking uranium mining on claims filed near the Grand Canyon. Higher prices for uranium have prompted hundreds of new mining claims on federal land. In June, a House committee ordered that about 1 million acres of land near the Grand Canyon be exempt from mining. The rule change would block that.

And several days ago, the Washington Post reported that a new rule that is close to being finalized would prevent federal agencies from taking climate change into consideration when they make decisions about imperiled animals and plants. That's apparently being done because polar bears were added earlier this year to the list of species in jeopardy. The administration reportedly believes that the move could serve as a pretext for imposing a cap on carbon emissions.

The Bush administration previously had eliminated rules that require independent scientific reviews of federal agency decisions that could harm protected plants and animals. The effect of that change, for all intents and purposes, is to institutionalize conflict of interest by allowing agencies that propose new projects to avoid the complications that would ensue if other federal agencies asserted that those projects would harm endangered animals or plants.

Many of the proposed rules changes, such as the Clean Air Act rule on coal-fired power plants, would accomplish things the administration tried and failed to win in Congress.

Bush seems determined to cement his place in history as the Great Deregulator.

Given the amount of damage he's doing to popular environmental protections, it seems more likely he'll be remembered as the Great Despoiler.

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