Editorial: Agencies Ignore a Deadline on Changes in Regulations

Friday, November 21, 2008

ACKNOWLEDGING "the historical tendency of administrations to increase regulatory activity in their final months," White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten issued a directive to federal agencies in May to release any final regulations before Nov. 1. The administration billed this as a bit of "good government." We would agree, were it not for new rules with broad implications that continue to churn their way to adoption long after Mr. Bolten's deadline.

The Interior Department wants to revise the application of the Endangered Species Act. The Environmental Protection Agency wants to do the same with the Clean Air Act. If what's being proposed goes through, air quality in and around national parks, and threatened plant and animal species, would be imperiled. President-elect Barack Obama might be saddled with

policies that run counter to his environmental vision.

Interior's action on the Endangered Species Act was the result of listing the polar bear in May as "threatened" under that law because of climate change. The statute was never intended to regulate the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet and melting the Arctic ice habitat of polar bears. So Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne proposed stripping the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service and other agencies of their roles in consulting with federal departments on building projects that are "likely to adversely affect" a listed species. The rationale that their experience complying with the Endangered Species Act gives agencies enough expertise to determine for themselves whether a project is likely to harm a species, not just polar bears, is flawed. Without those protective services in the consultative loop, there will be no check against the ambitions of agencies that want to complete projects -- and no safeguard for threatened and endangered species in the agencies' path.

Over at the EPA, construction of coal-fired power plants and other polluting facilities would be allowed near national parks and wilderness areas under a revised method of measuring air quality, according to documents obtained by Post writer Juliet Eilperin. This most certainly could lead to more plants spewing more pollutants, clouding the air and degrading the parks. Ms. Eilperin also reported that there is vigorous resistance among EPA regional administrators to this change.

Which brings us back to Mr. Bolten. In his May directive, Mr. Bolten noted that exceptions would be made to the Nov. 1 deadline in "extraordinary circumstances," which were not defined. Given that neither the EPA's nor the Interior Department's rule change is needed for the continued functioning of the republic for the next 60 days, Mr. Bolten should hold true to his good-government instincts and order the EPA and Interior to stand down.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company