Obama Moves to Undo Bush-Era Environmental Policies

By Rachel Cernansky | April 29, 2009 4:20 pm

mountaintop_removal_3.jpgThe Obama administration is once again working to reverse the path of former president Bush in another series of environmental policy changes, with two moves in particular looking to some like a crackdown on the coal industry. The Justice Department announced this week that it will challenge Bush’s mountaintop coal mining rules, the EPA has withdrawn a permit for a coal power plant scheduled to be built on Navajo land, and the Interior Department has strengthened endangered species rules.

On Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asked a federal court to abandon a rule approved during the final days of the Bush administration that allows coal mining companies to dump their waste near waterways. Prior to the change, regulations in place since 1983 have barred mining companies from dumping waste within 100 feet of streams if the disposal would diminish water quality or quantity [AP]. However, the Interior Department’s move didn’t go far enough for some environmentalists, who oppose this method of coal mining in general, regardless of the proximity of waste dumping to streams. In mountaintop removal operations, miners blast away large areas of a mountain in order to expose the buried coal seams. A spokeswoman for environmental law firm Earthjustice notes that Salazar’s move won’t halt the practice of mining itself, and says that reverting to the status quo is not enough because it won’t prevent coal companies from filling valleys with mine waste. “That’s not helping the communities concerned with mountaintop removal” [AP].

The next day, EPA regulators announced plans to reconsider a permit issued last summer for the construction of Desert Rock Energy Facility, a 1,500 megawatt coal-fired power plant in northwestern New Mexico that would supply power to cities in Arizona and Nevada. After concluding that the permit was awarded without a complete environmental assessment, the agency told its Environmental Appeals Board that it wanted to address several issues, including soot emissions, possible effects on endangered species and concerns about pollution-control technologies [The New York Times]. While some residents of Navajo Nation support the project because of potential economic benefits it would bring to the region, many Navajos and environmentalists complained that the plant would pollute the air in a place where two large coal plants already operate [Reuters].

Also on Tuesday, the administration announced its revocation of another rule created during Bush’s final months in office that excused oil and gas companies from a review process that was designed to ensure the safety of the endangered polar bear. Salazar said, “By rolling back this 11th hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law” [Reuters]. In polar bear habitat, development of any oil or gas projects must now first be cleared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and in other areas agencies will no longer be allowed to rely on their own internal reviews about potential impacts to endangered or threatened species [Reuters].

Related Content:
80beats: Obama Brings Experts Back to Endangered Species Policy
80beats: Obama & Chu Push Ahead With Clean Coal Projects Despite the Cost
80beats: Bush Administration Rushes to Relax Environmental Rules Before Leaving
DISCOVER: Man’s Greatest Crimes Against the Earth, in Pictures, including three coal-related images

Image: Appalachian Voices

  • cdigs

    I think the other big issue with polar bears and the new classification of CO2 as an atmospheric pollutant under the Clean Air Act is that polar bear impact must be considered not only when works projects fall within established p.bear habitat, but when big, not necessarily local projects emit big amounts of CO2 and thus contribute to global warming that could also negatively impact habitat.

  • Brian

    I think the current administration is taking this country down the trail of economic ruin. You cannot rack up the largest budget deficit in history AND enact legislation that will double (or worse) the cost of energy! Energy drives the economy, economic prosperity frees up resources to THEN invest in alternative energy sources. This guy is trying to do it all at once. It is a house of cards that will crash and take all of us with it. Remember, without the US, who protects the world from tyranny? France? Germany? Russia? China? India?

  • http://www.biologicaldiversity.org Kassie Siegel

    Interior Secretary Salazar has only rescinded one of Bush’s two rules which harm the polar bear. You can ask him to rescind the second damaging polar bear rule by the May 9th deadline by signing the online petition http://www.savethepolarbear.org.

  • Nova Terata


  • Nate

    With all due respect, Brian, to say that Obama is taking us down the path of economic ruin is to adopt such a revisionist stance on recent history as to render your statement downright absurd. Obama was given the reigns of a cart that was already well-entrenched in that path, and was steaming full-speed ahead. I’m not blaming this entirely on the Bush administration; this kind of a catastrophe is the result of market forces well beyond the control of any administration–however, the Bush administration policies certainly did nothing to stop it.

    I will agree with you that Obama shouldn’t try to do too much too soon and put the entire system in jeopardy. However, it’s ludicrous to blame this deficit on him–he’s cleaning up the problems he inherited. The budget deficit under McCain would not be much smaller–and if it was, it wouldn’t have done anything to slow the deterioration of the economy. Any whatever you think of Obama and his stimulus package, you have to admit it has helped cushion the blow. Serious economists–and by serious I mean non-partisan–believe, almost universally, that if anything is wrong with Obama’s plan, it compromised too much, devoted too much to tax breaks, and simply isn’t large enough.

    With regard to the actual story at hand, spending a little more to prevent further environmental degradation is nothing but a bad thing. For far too long we and the rest of the world have operated under a market system that didn’t bother taking into account the natural costs of our activities. It is entirely possible–though growing less and less likely as more scientific evidence appears–that humans’ affect on global warming is not as major as some posit. However, you cannot deny the damage we are doing to our environment in general, and nobody–not scientists, not academics, and certainly not politicians or the general public–understands the full implications the collapse of even a handful of ecosystems around the world. The results could be minimal, or they could be catastrophic. Why risk it?

    The blind devotion to economic growth at the expense of all else is ignorant at best and downright idiotic at worst. The paradigm needs to shift, or we’ll find ourselves on a much less-hospitable planet in the years to come.


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