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Obama blocks some of Bush's last-minute environmental decisions

The new president stops plans to loosen a pair of controversial air quality regulations and to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list.

January 22, 2009|Jim Tankersley

WASHINGTON — With a short memo on Inauguration Day, President Obama blocked plans to loosen some air quality standards and to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list. But he did not stop several other controversial, late-term environmental regulations issued by the Bush administration -- at least not yet.

The list of Bush-era environmental rules that survived includes a major tweak to the Endangered Species Act, a first step in opening Western lands to oil shale development, leases for oil and gas drilling near some national parks, and the start of a process to allow new oil rigs off the Atlantic, Gulf, Alaska and California coasts.

Obama still holds several options for changing or reversing those decisions. All carry at least some degree of difficulty -- an apparent victory for an outgoing administration that explicitly tried to finish its rule-making early enough to tie Obama's hands.

"The number of examples where they succeeded" in that effort, said John Walke, clean-air director for the National Resources Defense Council, "far exceeds the examples where they failed."

Like Bush, Obama took office and immediately froze any federal regulations that were not yet finalized. The move halted a push, announced last week, to strip the gray wolf's endangered status in the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest. It also stopped a pair of controversial air quality rules from taking effect, including one that gave greater leeway to industrial polluters and another that declined to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from oil refineries.

It couldn't stop rules that first were published in the Federal Register and had cleared a statutory waiting period before taking effect -- such as the oil shale regulations, meant to pave the way for development leases in Colorado and Utah. Also unable to be touched was a rule that allows so-called mountaintop mining to fill stream beds with leftover dirt from mineral extraction; and a rule that allows federal agencies to forgo expert advice on whether proposed projects would affect endangered species.

The memo also does not affect the decision, announced last week by the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, to begin a process that could lead to oil and gas drilling on parts of the Outer Continental Shelf. That's because the department decided only to begin taking public comments on the plan, not formal rule-making, a department spokesman said.

Obama could launch a new rule-making process to eventually supplant any of the Bush rules, but that could take months or years to complete. More immediately, he could ask Congress to exercise a little-used law that would allow it to overturn any of the late-registered Bush decisions or to prohibit federal agencies from spending money to implement those rules.

The administration could also drop its opposition to several environmentalist lawsuits challenging the Bush rules, signaling to industry that the rules won't stand for long even if upheld in court.

In the case of offshore oil drilling, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar could extend or suspend the comment period on the leasing plan. Or, Obama could issue an executive order reinstating a ban on outer continental shelf drilling.

Jacqueline Savitz, senior director of the pollution campaign for the environmental group Oceana, urged the new president to reinstate the ban, which Bush lifted last summer after gas prices soared.

"Our shorelines and marine life haven't been this vulnerable since the early 1980s," she said.

Salazar signaled mixed support for continental shelf drilling last week in a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Salazar is studying the Bush rules, said Interior spokesman Frank Quimby, and "it's going to be a while" before he decides on how to handle them.

The Interior Department must also now decide what to do about the gray wolf. Environmental groups cheered the regulatory freeze on Wednesday and urged Obama and Salazar to keep the wolf on the endangered species list. But the Western states that pushed Bush to remove it say that the wolf has recovered and that they're ready to manage it.

Jim Unsworth, deputy director of Idaho Fish and Game, said last week that his state was tired of the "roller coaster" of federal wolf protection, which has endured court fights and now a change in Washington.

"Our citizens out here are, I guess, tired of the delay," Unsworth said.

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jtankersley@tribune.com

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