- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2008

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Bush administration appeared poised to limit the ability of government scientists to block dams, highways and other development projects under endangered-species regulations that could be put in place before President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

For three months, the Interior Department has been reviewing rules over the objections of Democrats and environmentalists who argue they would weaken a conservation law designed to protect animals and plants in danger of becoming extinct.

The Associated Press has obtained a Nov. 12 version of the final rules, which have changed little since they were first announced in August.

The rules must be published Friday to take effect before Mr. Obama is sworn in Jan. 20. Otherwise, he can undo them with the stroke of a pen.

The rules eliminate the input of federal wildlife scientists in some endangered-species cases, allowing the federal agency in charge of building, authorizing or funding a project to determine for itself whether it is likely to harm endangered wildlife and plants.

Current regulations require independent wildlife biologists to sign off on these decisions before a project can go forward, at times modifying the design to better protect species.

The regulations also bar federal agencies from assessing emissions of the gases blamed for global warming on species and habitats, a tactic environmentalists have tried to use to block new coal-fired power plants.

Tina Kreisher, an Interior Department spokeswoman, could not confirm whether the rule would be published before Friday, saying only that the White House was still reviewing it. But she said changes were being made based on the comments received.

“We started this; we want to finish this,” she said.

The changes would accomplish through rules what conservative Republicans have been unable to achieve in Congress: ending some environmental reviews that lead to delays and cost increases on many projects and cancel others outright.

Supporters of the changes also expected them to be finalized later this week.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, which advocates for property rights, urged that the rules be approved.

“Litigious activists have used the Endangered Species Act to fight projects,” Reed Hopper, the foundation’s principal lawyer, said in a statement.

“The administration’s current proposal is a step toward curbing these abuses.”

If the rules go into effect before Mr. Obama takes office, they will be difficult to overturn because it would require the new administration to restart the rule-making process. Congress, however, could reverse the rules through the Congressional Review Act - a law that allows review of new federal regulations.

It’s been used once in the past 12 years, but some Democratic lawmakers have said they may employ it to block the endangered-species rules and other eleventh-hour regulations by the Bush administration.

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the House will be looking at ways to overturn the endangered-species rules and other “last-minute” regulations.

“The House, in consultation with the incoming administration and relevant committees, will review what oversight tools are at our disposal regarding this and other last-minute attempts to inflict severe damage to the law in the waning moments of the Bush administration,” Mr. Hammill said.

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