MSNBC reported today that the Interior Department has proposed changes to the rules governing required reviews under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  From the news report is appears the two most significant proposed changes are:



  • Removal of the requirement  to "consult" with Fish and Wildlife or other federal experts as part of the required review under Section 7 of the ESA.  The proposed rules would allow federal agencies on their own, without consultation with sister federal agencies, to determine if project  will have an impact on endangered species. To give you an idea of the breadth of projects being reviewed, the article states that Fish and Wildlife performed 300,000 consultations between 1998 and 2002.
  • Prevent the ESA to be used as tool to regulate greenhouse gases.  This change was proposed after the Department of Interior proposed listing the polar bear as a "threatened" species. When the listing action was announced, Secretary Kempthorne clarified that the Department of the Interior (DOI) intends to act “to make certain the ESA isn’t abused to make global warming policies.”  Today’s announcement appears to be the action referenced by Secretary Kempthorne.  It would bar federal agencies from assessing the emissions from projects that contribute to global warming and the corollary effect on species and habitats.

Section 7 of the ESA required federal agencies to consult with FWS (or other federal agencies) to ensure that any action they authorize through permitting or other means are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat.  Some developers have complained that Section 7 results in long delays and unnecessary expenses associated with projects. 

The proposal to overhaul the Section 7 process is controversial and will be challenged if it moves forward. On its website, the Department of Interior characterizes the proposal as "narrow changes" to the ESA..  Whether you support ending the consultation process or not, it is simply not accurate to describe it this a narrow change.  More importantly, the proposal and surrounding controversy detracts from the legitimate concern over the use of the ESA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

The real issue is taking steps necessary to prevent the use of a myriad of federal and state regulations to leverage reviews of an individual project’s contribution to global warming. Global warming by its very nature is a global issue.  Unlike other pollutants, emission of greenhouse gases themselves do not have local impacts.  The impacts stem from the overall increase in temperature associated with the accumulation of gases in the atmosphere. 

The best way to address global warming is through comprehensive federal legislation establishing a cap and trade program that lowers emissions in a cost effective manner.  Use of the ESA or portions of the Clean Air Act to combat global warming is like fitting round holes with square pegs.  Unfortunately, the Department of Interior actions and announcement detracts from this important policy debate. 

(photo: from flickr, Frank Wouters)