President for 60 More Days, Bush Tearing Apart Protection for America's Wilderness

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

President for 60 More Days, Bush Tearing Apart Protection for America's Wilderness

Oil shale mining in Rocky Mountains gets go-ahead • 'Midnight regulations' to dismantle safeguards

by
Suzanne Goldenberg

US President George W. Bush speaks in Washington, DC. Bush might hold a final press conference before leaving the White House on January 20, but then again he might not, his spokeswoman said Tuesday. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

George Bush is working at a breakneck pace to dismantle at least 10
major environmental safeguards protecting America's wildlife, national
parks and rivers before he leaves office in January.

With barely
60 days to go until Bush hands over to Barack Obama, his White House is
working methodically to weaken or reverse an array of regulations that
protect America's wilderness from logging or mining operations, and
compel factory farms to clean up dangerous waste.

In the latest
such move this week, Bush opened up some 800,000 hectares (2m acres) of
land in Rocky Mountain states for the development of oil shale, one of
the dirtiest fuels on the planet. The law goes into effect on January
17, three days before Obama takes office.

The timing is crucial.
Most regulations take effect 60 days after publication, and Bush wants
the new rules in place before he leaves the White House on January 20.
That will make it more difficult for Obama to undo them.

"There
are probably going to be scores of rules that are issued between now
and January 20," said John Walke, a senior attorney at the National
Resources Defence Council. "And there are at least a dozen very
controversial rules that will weaken public health and environment
protection that have no business being adopted and would not be
acceptable to the incoming Obama administration, based on stances he
has taken as a senator and during the campaign."

The flurry of
new rules - known as midnight regulations - is part of a broader
campaign by the Bush administration to leave a lasting imprint on
environmental policy. Some of the actions have provoked widespread
protests such as the Bureau of Land Management's plans to auction off
20,000 hectares of oil and gas parcels within sight of Utah's Delicate
Arch natural bridge.

The Bush administration is also accused of
engaging in a parallel go-slow on court-ordered actions on the
environment. "There are the midnight regulations that they are trying
to force out before they leave office, and then there are the other
things they are trying not to do before they go. A lot of the climate
stuff falls into the category of things they would rather not do," said
a career official at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Other
presidents have worked up to the final moments of their presidency to
impose their legacy on history. But Bush has been particularly
organised in his campaign to roll back years of protections - not only
on the environment, but workplace safety and employee rights.

"This
is Bush trying to leave a legacy that supports his ideology," said Gary
Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, an independent Washington
thinktank that monitors the White House office of management and
budget. "This was very strategic and it was in line of the ideology of
the Bush administration which has been to put in place a free market
and conservative agenda."

The campaign got under way in May when
the White House chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, wrote to government
agencies asking them to forward proposals for rule changes. Bolten had
initially set a November 1 deadline on rule-making. The White House
denies that the flurry of rule changes is politically motivated. "What
the chief of staff wanted to avoid was this very charge that we would
be trying to, in the dark of night in the last days of the
administration, be rushing regulations into place ahead of the
incoming, next administration," Tony Fratto, the White House spokesman,
told reporters.

But OMB Watch notes that the office of management
and budget website shows 83 rules reviewed from September 1 to October
31 this year - about double its workload in 2007, 2006 and 2005.

Meanwhile,
the Bush administration cut short the timeframe for public comment. In
one instance, officials claimed to have reviewed 300,000 comments about
changes to wildlife protection within the space of a week.

The
new regulations include a provision that would free industrial-scale
pig and cattle farms from complying with the Clean Water Act so long as
they declare they are not dumping animal waste in lakes and rivers. The
rule was finalised on October 31. Mountain-top mining operations will
also be exempt from the Clean Water Act, allowing them to dump debris
in rivers and lakes. The rule is still under review at the OMB.
Coal-fired power plants will no longer be required to install pollution
controls or clean up soot and smog pollution.

Yet another of the
new rules, which has generated publicity, would allow the Pentagon and
other government agencies to embark on new projects without first
undertaking studies on the potential dangers to wildlife.

Announcements
of further rule changes are expected in the next few days including one
that would weaken regulation of perchlorate, a toxin in rocket fuel
that can affect brain development in children, in drinking water.

The
Bush strategy has prompted a fightback from environmentalists, the
Democratic-controlled Congress, and members of the Obama transition
team.

John Podesta, who is overseeing the transition, has said
that Obama will review the last-minute actions, and will seek to repeal
those that are "not in the interests of the country".

Pollute, baby, pollute

The
last-minute rules passed during the "midnight hours" of the George Bush
presidency differ from his predecessors because they are basically a
project of deregulation - not regulation. Among the most far-reaching:

  • Industrial-size pig, cow and chicken farms can disregard the Clean Water Act and air pollution controls.
  • The interior department can approve development such as mining or
    logging without consulting wildlife managers about their impact.
  • Restrictions will be eased so power plants can operate near national parks and wilderness areas.
  • Pollution controls on new power plants will be downgraded.
  • Mountain-top mine operators could dump waste into rivers and streams.
  • 2m acres of land in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado opened to development of oil shales, the dirtiest fuel on Earth.

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