By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008
The Bush administration is finalizing changes to the Endangered Species Act that would ensure that federal agencies would not have to take global warming into account when assessing risks to imperiled plants and animals.
The proposed rule changes, which were obtained by The Washington Post, are under review by the Office of Management and Budget and are close to being published in the Federal Register.
The main purpose of the new regulations, which were first unveiled in August, is to eliminate a long-standing provision of the Endangered Species Act that requires an independent scientific review by either the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of any federal project that could affect a protected species. Under the administration's proposal, individual agencies could decide on their own whether a project would harm an imperiled species.
The latest version of the rule goes further than the language Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne issued in August by explicitly excluding climate change from the factors that would trigger an interagency consultation. The move is significant because the administration has listed polar bears as a threatened species under the act on the grounds that their sea-ice habitat is shrinking, but Kempthorne has repeatedly argued that this move should not trigger a federal curb on greenhouse gas emissions linked to the melting of sea ice.
The rule states: "Federal agencies are not required to consult on an action when . . . the effects of such action are manifested only through global processes and (i) cannot be reliably predicted or measured at the local scale, or (ii) would result at most in an extremely small, insignificant local impact, or (iii) are such that the potential risk of harm to species or habitat are remote."
John Kostyak, director of wildlife conservation and global warming at the National Wildlife Federation, said not only would the rule block federal officials from considering a carbon cap to help preserve the polar bear's habitat, "you have to question whether this is going to stop us from looking at the loss of snowpack and its impact on salmon."
The interagency consultations matter, Kostyak argued, because they sometimes avert federal projects that might have a devastating effect on vulnerable species, as in the case of a limestone mine that was blocked in 2004 because it would have harmed the Florida panther's habitat.
"The agencies that are pushing these projects through are inherently biased, because they want to get these projects through at a minimal cost and they don't like delays associated with endangered species," he said.
Interior Department spokeswoman Tina Kreisher said the administration is close to issuing a final rule but is still reviewing the language for potential changes. Interior has classified the proposal as "a minor rule," which means the government has determined that it would not have a major economic impact. It will take effect 30 days after being published in the Federal Register.