It's fair to say the Bush administration has wreaked havoc on the nation's environmental laws, opened up previously closed areas to energy development and actively thwarted regulations meant to protect clean air and water.
Now, in a rush to further relax environmental rules and deregulate oversight, the Bush administration is pushing a number of rule changes to take effect before Inauguration Day. These include easing restrictions on power plants, allowing factory farms to skirt the Clean Water Act and weakening toxic emissions standards for oil refineries, among other things.
"You just don't know what they're going to do; a lot of people are expecting them to deregulate, to really hack away at the fundamentals of democracy in terms of [National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA] analysis, public involvement, things like that," Nathan Newcomer, associate director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, says.
Under NEPA, the federal government allows the public a certain amount of time to comment on new regulations, changes to existing regulations, or large undertakings such as dam-building or land exchanges. Already, the administration has cut short public comment periods and instructed federal employees to disregard original comments that appear to be generated via form letters.
"I wouldn't put it past them to do anything and everything to undermine the public process," Newcomer says. That's what they've done—and they've really made it an art."
Another rule recently proposed by the Bush administration would allow federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Reclamation or Department of Energy, to approve their own projects without input from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with overseeing how projects might affect rare plants and animals. The proposal would amend the 35-year-old Endangered Species Act and, according to Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director of WildEarth Guardians, be little more than a "parting gift to industry."
If finalized, Rosmarino says the regulation would allow the Bureau of Land Management to authorize oil and gas drilling without considering impacts on endangered species; the Forest Service could do the same with logging and drilling projects; and the Bureau of Reclamation could operate dams regardless of how they might affect endangered fish.
Furthermore, on Nov. 14, the US Department of the Interior published its final rule regarding cleanups of abandoned mines. The rule sends $4 million in grant money for the reclamation of abandoned mines to New Mexico—yet stipulates the money must be used predominantly for coal mines, despite pleas from state officials that this prevents or hinders cleaning up other sites, such as uranium mines.
Bill Brancard, director of the Mining and Minerals Division of the state's Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, is "greatly concerned" the Bush administration is ramming these changes through before leaving office.
"This new rule is a significant change in interpretation [of 2006 legislation authorizing the $4 million] that is not supported by the statute," he says. "It will set back our efforts to work with the Navajo Nation in addressing the threats from abandoned uranium mines."
US Sen. Jeff Bingaman introduced legislation to block the new rule, he says, but adds, "Getting any legislation all the way through Congress is difficult at this stage."