WASHINGTON — For the second time in recent weeks, the Bush Administration put off issuing an interagency agreement Friday aimed at more clearly establishing guidelines for protecting wetlands, prompting criticism from environmentalists.
The Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement that it was approving a 15-day extension for further discussions over the final wording of an agreement between the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Last month a decision was postponed for 30 days.
The memorandum of agreement has been the subject of weeks of discussions within the Administration after members of Alaska's congressional delegation complained to the White House that it threatens oil and gas development in the state.
The EPA and Corps of Engineers tentatively agreed last November on the memorandum, which outlines specific actions and procedures a developer must take in a wetland area, including actions to mitigate environmental damages to the wetlands and a requirement for compensation, possibly by developing other wetlands, if mitigation is inadequate.
Environmentalists argue that the Alaskans' concerns are unfounded and that the actual opposition is coming from the oil industry, which sees the agreement as making it more expensive to explore for oil in wetland areas, especially over vast areas across northern Alaska.
The EPA said in a statement Friday that the 15-day extension of deliberations stemmed from "the high level of interest" in the agreement.
Environmentalists criticized the delay, suggesting that Bush was reneging on promises to do everything possible to stop the dramatic disappearance of wetlands in the country in recent years.
"We can only assume that the delay is intended to give the oil industry more time to sink the President's clear commitment to a national policy of no net loss of wetlands," said Jay Hair, president of the Wildlife Federation.
EPA spokesman David Cohen said the agency does not consider the continuing deliberation over the memorandum of agreement with the Corps of Engineers as central to the Administration's overall wetlands policy.