George W. Bush’s White House drew an outcry from environmentalists again in mid-August by proposing a new rule to allow federal agencies, such as the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), to decide whether a construction project might cause harm to an endangered species.
Conservative Republicans in Congress have been trying—and failing—for years to curb environmental reviews, which they believe cause delays and cost increases on many projects. The White House’s proposed new rule, published in the Federal Register on Aug. 15, does not need the approval of Congress.
For the past 35 years, highway projects with federal funding had to be sent for independent review under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service for an assessment of whether the project would affect any endangered species.
Under the new rules, the project could proceed without independent review if the FHWA decided the construction would not harm vulnerable species. If the agency found potential harm, then formal review would still be required. The new rules would apply to highways, dams, mines and other construction projects.
“Clearly, that’s a case of asking the fox to guard the chicken coop,” said Bob Irvin, senior vice president of conservation programs at the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife. He questioned how some federal agencies could make an assessment regarding endangered species when most of them do not have wildlife biologists on staff, the Washington Post reported.
Dale Hall, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the new rules would relieve his agency of having to conduct reviews of projects that posed little threat, the Washington Post reported, and give them more time to focus on the most endangered species.
“We have to have the ability to put our efforts where they’re needed,” Hall said.
The American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO) said it had not yet had enough time to analyze the specific proposed rule but it “generally supports changes to the Endangered Species Act that would authorize federal agencies to develop and use alternative procedures for meeting consultation requirements for certain projects or categories of projects.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, went as far as to say the Bush proposal was illegal, the New York Times reported, and called it “another in a continuing stream of proposals to repeal our landmark environmental laws through the back door.”
The late-term, unilateral action by Bush may be futile. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama said he would reverse the rule change if he were elected.
“After over 30 years of successfully protecting our nation’s most endangered wildlife like the bald eagle,” said Obama campaign spokesman Nick Shapiro in a Washington Post report, “we should be looking for ways to improve it, not weaken it.”
Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain declined to comment on the proposal.
Roads & Bridges called the FHWA for a comment and received the following e-mail message: “The Federal Highway Administration is reviewing the proposed rule to determine the impact on our programs.”