By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
In a move that will subject a number of government projects to enhanced environmental and scientific scrutiny, President Obama is restoring a requirement that U.S. agencies consult with independent federal experts to determine whether their actions might harm threatened and endangered species.
The presidential memorandum issued yesterday, which marks yet another reversal of former president George W. Bush's environmental legacy, will revive a decades-old practice under the Endangered Species Act that calls for agencies to consult with either the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on whether their projects could affect imperiled species. On Dec. 16, the Bush administration allowed agencies to waive such reviews if they decided, on their own, that the actions would not harm vulnerable plants and animals.
Obama, who visited the Interior Department to commemorate its 160th anniversary, said he had instructed Interior and Commerce Department officials to review the Bush rules. In the meantime, according to the memorandum, officials should "follow the prior longstanding consultation and concurrence practices" that call for independent reviews. "The work of scientists and experts in my administration, including here at the Interior Department, will be respected," Obama said. "With smart, sustainable policies, we can grow our economy today and preserve the environment."
Environmentalists and scientists welcomed the move, but business officials said it could delay federally funded projects that could help revive the nation's economy: All of them agreed it would prompt a second look at several initiatives adopted by the Bush administration in its final months in office.
Earthjustice lawyer Janette Brimmer, whose group had challenged the Bush rule in federal district court in California, said she expected that the new administration would reexamine two pending projects: a Bureau of Land Management plan for overseeing Oregon's forests, which was finalized on Dec. 30 and could affect protected species such as the northern spotted owl; and construction of the White Pine coal-fired power plant in Nevada.
"I think the Obama administration now is going to take a step back on these projects. It needs to bring science back into the equation," Brimmer said, adding that her group will not drop its lawsuit until it can assess how the new policy is working.
Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an activist group, said the switch would help guard against the potential conflicts of interest and lack of expertise that could color decision-making by any agency hoping to press ahead with a particular project. "After years of scientific scandal, the Interior Department and its partner agencies need desperately to regain credibility by making decisions with honesty, clarity and transparency," Grifo said.
But William L. Kovacs, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president of environment, technology and regulatory affairs, said that reviving another layer of review "will result in even greater delays to projects -- including stimulus-backed, job-creating projects -- as agencies now grapple with the prospect of lengthy interagency consultations to determine, for instance, if a bridge project in Florida contributes to the melting of Arctic ice. This is such a departure from the spirit and the letter of the Endangered Species Act that we wonder if the law's drafters would even recognize it today."
The latest policy shift follows several other administration actions revamping environmental policies, including a reexamination of fuel economy standards and offshore oil drilling; a new review of whether to grant California and other states the right to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles; and the endorsement of a new international treaty negotiation on global mercury emissions.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), who had been seeking to overturn Bush's endangered species rule through legislation, called the announcement "one more indication that the new administration truly represents change for the better and is committed to the protection of our natural resources and our environment."
Officials said the move is unlikely to trigger broad use of the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. While the Bush rule specifically prohibited endangered species consultations on the basis of "global processes" such as climate change, an Interior official speaking on the condition of anonymity said that under the new policy, such a review would be triggered only if scientific evidence suggested "a causal connection" between emissions from a federal project and its effect on an imperiled species or an identifiable part of its habitat.