The move was the Obama administration’s latest effort to change course on environmental policies enacted by former President George W. Bush.
During a visit to the Interior Department, Mr. Obama said past administrations had undermined the review process.
“For more than three decades, the Endangered Species Act has successfully protected our nation’s most threatened wildlife. We should be looking for ways to improve it, not weaken it,” he said, according to the Associated Press.
The Bush-era regulation made optional the consultations federal scientists have performed for 35 years on endangered species decisions. The rule allowed federal agencies to decide for themselves whether projects such as dams and power plants posed risks to endangered species or the places they live. The rule also prohibited a project’s contribution to global warming from being part of the evaluation of any threat to endangered species.
The Bush administration said the changes were minor and eliminated unnecessary delays in projects without hurting species. But Democrats and environmentalists argued that the regulations modified long-standing policy.
The Bush administration initially set a 30-day public-comment period on the proposed change, half the normal period allowed for new rules, only to extend the period by another 30 days, after a wave of protests from environmental groups. An e-mail from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supervisor that was later made public indicated that the agency was under pressure to read some 200,000 public comments in the space of five days, the Wall Street Journal reported.
A major spending bill speeding through Congress includes language that would empower President Obama to reverse the rule. Without congressional action, the administration would need to undertake a lengthy process to roll it back.
“I wholeheartedly support the president’s proposal to restore the protections for endangered species that the Bush administration spent so many years trying to undermine,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, according to the AP.
But House Democrats’ efforts to reverse the rule through the spending bill that passed last month have led some Republicans to cry foul. “This is a back-door maneuver to create vast new climate change powers without any public comment or involvement of the American people,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, according to msnbc.com.
The Senate has yet to act on the issue.
Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said President Obama’s memorandum would have a tremendous impact.
“Endangered species are breathing a deep sigh of relief today,” Suckling said, according to the Washington Post. “The consultation process is the heart of the Endangered Species Act power. By reversing Bush’s attempt to deregulate the consultation process, Obama restored oversight and balance and has given endangered species a good fighting chance of survival.”
Shortly after being inaugurated, Mr. Obama ordered all pending Bush-era regulations to be frozen, including the loosening of some air quality standards and the removal of the gray wolf from the endangered species list, the Times reported. The Interior Department has canceled oil and gas drilling leases near national parks and paused efforts to open coastal areas for drilling and Mountain West oil shale for development.
Obama also directed the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its denial of California’s request to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. The EPA holds a public hearing this week, which could result in the state imposing stricter regulations on automakers.
Announcing his decision on the endangered species rule on Tuesday, President Obama said the nation’s economic recovery and protecting the environment are not at odds with one another.
“We can grow our economy today,” he said, “and preserve the environment for ourselves and our children and our grandchildren.