Potential rules changes worrying some environmentalists
By TOM MEERSMAN, Star Tribune
With less than two months left in power, Bush administration officials are hustling to loosen federal rules on feedlots, power plants and endangered species — and raising alarms among environmentalists in Minnesota and elsewhere.
One proposal, supported by the National Rifle Association, would end the 25-year ban on carrying loaded weapons into Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota and 13 wildlife refuges.
“We’re very worried about all of this,” said Paul Aasen, policy director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
Two weeks ago, the administration opened 2 million acres of public land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming to oil shale development. The new rules take effect on Jan. 17, three days before President Bush leaves office. Earlier this month, the Bureau of Land Management expanded its oil and gas leasing program by tens of thousands of acres, including tracts near three national parks in Utah. The administration is expected to ease air quality rules that make it difficult for power plants and other industries to operate near national parks and wilderness areas.
Opposition to “midnight regulations” has brought together two groups normally at odds — environmental advocates and free-market think tanks. Leaders of eight organizations, including Defenders of Wildlife, Republicans for Environmental Protection and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, wrote a joint letter to the president on Oct. 31 calling for a moratorium on new rules because they shortcut the normal public comment process.
That suggestion was ignored, and White House officials have denied that the administration is rushing any changes.
The job of an outgoing administration should not be to handcuff the new president, said Aasen, but to “set the table” and provide a smooth transition. However, the Clinton administration also approved numerous rules in late 2000 before ceding power to Bush.
Dozens of changes
Dozens of rule changes in the works would also affect immigration, family leave, mountaintop mining, worker safety and counterterrorism measures.
One late-season rule that has already been enacted benefits owners of large feedlots. Published Oct. 31, it exempts thousands of large dairy and hog operations from needing water quality permits if they do not discharge into lakes and streams.
Another rule under final review would exempt feedlot owners from reporting how much ammonia and hydrogen sulfide escapes into the air from animal wastes.
Environmental and public health groups wanted farmers to report that, but the Environmental Protection Agency considers it unnecessary bureaucracy that doesn’t benefit the environment.
Dave Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, said that the new measures will have little effect here because Minnesota’s feedlot rules for air and water quality are stricter than federal regulations.
The ban on loaded firearms in national parks was approved in the 1980s to prevent wildlife poaching and protect visitors, but a new rule to overturn that policy is expected within the next week or two.
“There was no hue and cry from the American public saying that there need to be guns in national parks,” said Kristen Brengel, campaign director for the Wilderness Society, which opposed the measure.
The change would also relax restrictions on carrying loaded firearms in national wildlife refuges, including 13 in Minnesota. Many refuges allow seasonal hunting but restrict firearms at other times.
Gray wolf issue revived
Protection of the gray wolf in the northern Rockies is also back in play. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped the wolf from the federal endangered species list early in the year, but a federal judge put it back on the list in July after hunters in Wyoming shot several wolves. In October, the Fish and Wildlife Service again proposed removing the wolf from federal protection, and is expected to finish the process quickly after the Nov. 28 deadline for public comments.
The new rule, expected this month, would not directly affect wolves in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, which were returned to federal protection seven weeks ago as the outcome of an environmental lawsuit.
Most changes require 30 days to become law, so Dec. 20 is the final deadline. Some rules must be published 60 days before they become legally effective, so that deadline passed on Thursday.
In late 2000 and early 2001, the Clinton administration issued dozens of last-minute regulations affecting roadless areas in national forests, indoor air pollutants, airline safety, immigration and other issues. Hours after George W. Bush was inaugurated, his chief of staff took steps to undo or postpone President Bill Clinton’s changes that had not taken legal effect.
President-elect Barack Obama is likely to do the same for late changes proposed by Bush appointees. But reversing rules that have been enacted can take months or even years.