Muckraker: Grist on Politics

As Americans anxiously wait to find out who will become our next president, the current occupant of the White House continues efforts to undermine environmental protections. Whomever wins today will inherit a bounty of 11th-hour actions of the Bush administration on environmental issues, pushed through before No. 44 is sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009.

At least in theory, all new rules should have been completed by Nov. 1. In May, White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten declared that new regulations “should be proposed no later than June 1, 2008, and final regulations should be issued no later than Nov. 1, 2008” — “except in extraordinary circumstances.” The wording leaves some wiggle room, and the nonprofit watchdog group OMB Watch noted in September that it “appears there are a lot of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ to be found.”

Officials would need to publish any economically significant rules by Nov. 20, as the law requires a 60-day comment period before they to go into effect. Less important rules could be announced up until Dec. 20, as those require just a 30-day comment period.

We’ve seen a number of new rules in just the last few weeks, including ones that would ease restrictions on mountaintop-removal coal mining, push forward plans to store nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, speed up the offshore leasing process, and advance efforts to mine uranium in the Grand Canyon. The Bureau of Land management has also proposed opening wilderness-quality areas to oil and gas drilling in Utah.

The Bush administration is likely to move forward with plans to weaken air-pollution standards for power plants by altering the “new-source review” rules. Those rules now require power plants to install new pollution-control equipment if they are making upgrades that would keep their facilities operating more hours each day and increase overall emissions. Instead, the administration’s proposal would allow older power plants to upgrade without installing costly new equipment as long as their hourly emissions rates don’t increase. There’s also talk of easing limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants near national parks, and allowing increased emissions from oil refineries, chemical factories, and other industrial plants with complex manufacturing operations, as well as weakening the cleanup standards for radioactive releases.

In August, the administration proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act that would exempt federal agencies from independent reviews under the law, instead allowing the agencies themselves to determine the possible harm their proposed projects might pose to endangered species. The changes also would not allow agencies to include greenhouse-gas emissions in their calculations. That proposal attracted more than 200,000 comments, which the Bush admin only allowed reviewers 32 hours to look over — meaning that their 15 reviewers had to read seven comments per minute, even though some were dozens of pages long. New memos regarding the Bush administration’s legal approach to the ESA were also leaked to the press recently; they argue that the act can’t be used to spur regulation of specific sources of greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Washington Post recently detailed a number of other efforts the administration is taking to deregulate in its last days, including a rule that would allow natural-gas pipelines to operate at higher pressures. A proposed rule from the National Marine Fisheries Service now under consideration would lift a requirement that environmental impact statements be prepared for certain fisheries-management decisions and would turn review authority over to regional councils, many of which are run by fishing interests.

And special interests are lining to ask for more rule changes. The Post reports that the commercial scallop-fishing industry has requested that catch limits be eased, and National Mining Association officials requested that rules on keeping coal slurry waste out of Appalachian streams be relaxed. Last week, representatives of the biofuels industry asked the EPA to ignore the requirement that life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions from the production of various biofuels be taken into account in issuing new rules regarding the Renewable Fuel Standard established last year under the Energy Independence and Security Act.

So in addition to two wars, a financial crisis, and all those other problems out there, the next president will likely inherit a big stack of last-ditch anti-environment rules from the Bush administration.