The Bush administration already has one of the most deplorable environmental records in recent history, but it apparently has no intention of letting up in its final months in office. The Interior Department announced new rules Monday that would relax protections of endangered animals and habitats. Under the change, agencies could decide on their own if their projects affected endangered species, instead of having to submit their projects to independent scientific review. The changes are harmful and the timing is terrible. Congress and both presumptive presidential nominees should commit to reverse this 11th-hour assault.
Administration officials defended the move with all the usual arguments. They said the scientific reviews consumed too much time and money, slowed developers' plans and muddled the regulatory picture. But this is par for the course from a White House that has put politics ahead of science time and time again.
Environmental activists say the reviews by experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have helped to protect a range of species, from bald eagles and Florida panthers to the whooping crane. Under the proposed changes, however, transportation officials could decide whether a highway project under their supervision, for example, could go ahead without endangering the habitat. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the move would add "clarity and certainty," and he is right — the move would certainly fast-track whatever project a federal agency wanted accomplished. The changes would make it harder for environmentalists to stop construction projects and give experts less time to even mount a challenge. That's likely why the administration drafted the rule without input from agency scientists and why members of Congress were kept in the dark.
Last-minute rule changes by any White House are warning flags of bad policy. In this case, the administration is using its rulemaking power to institute loopholes in environmental policy that failed to pass congressional muster. Congress and the two presumptive presidential nominees should vow to retain this environmental safety net. Independent reviews not only protect endangered animals and habitat, they also give the public confidence that the government can balance its economic and ecological interests.