This rule-change by the Interior Department actually makes more sense than it might seem to at first.
The Interior Department on Thursday announced a rule that has largely freed federal agencies from their obligation to consult independent wildlife biologists before they build dams or highways or permit construction of transmission towers, housing developments or other projects that might harm federally protected wildlife.
The rule, quickly challenged by environmental groups, lets the Army Corps of Engineers or the Federal Highway Administration in many cases rely on their own personnel in deciding what impact a project would have on a fish, bird, plant, animal or insect protected under the Endangered Species Act.
In announcing the rule, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said his main intention was to ensure that the 1972 law was not used as a “back door” means of regulating the emission of the gases that accelerate climate change. Without this rule, Mr. Kempthorne said, his decision last summer to list the polar bear as threatened because of the loss of sea ice caused by the warming of the climate could be used to block projects far from the bear’s Arctic habitat.
If I want to start a coal-fired plant in Kansas, I don’t think it is appropriate for someone to use the potential negative impact of that project on polar bears to block the plant. There’s no doubt that spewing carbon into the atmosphere in Kansas is going to negatively impact polar bears, nor is there any doubt that polar bears are now protected under the Endangered Species Act. But the proper way to respond to these realities is to pass specific environmental laws and regulations. After all, carbon emissions endanger all of us, not just polar bears. Using the Endangered Species Act as a backdoor way to stop development is klunky and, ultimately, poor policy.
The problem is, even if the Republicans have identified a potential abuse of the Endangered Species Act, they haven’t addressed the problem in a rational way. They could, for example, explicitly create a waiver that precludes using arctic wildlife to block development in the lower forty-eight states. Instead, they make a rule that strips wildlife biologists of oversight of all development. Ladies and gentlemen, won’t you be happy when the last Republican leaves this administration and turns out the lights?