In Bush's end-game, lots of changes on environment

WASHINGTON Sun Nov 2, 2008 8:39am EST

President George W. Bush in Quantico, Virginia October 30, 2008. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President George W. Bush in Quantico, Virginia October 30, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As the U.S. presidential candidates sprint toward the finish line, the Bush administration is also sprinting to enact environmental policy changes before leaving power.

Whether it's getting wolves off the Endangered Species List, allowing power plants to operate near national parks, loosening regulations for factory farm waste or making it easier for mountaintop coal-mining operations, these proposed changes have found little favor with environmental groups.

The one change most environmentalists want, a mandatory program to cut climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, is not among these so-called "midnight regulations."

Bureaucratic calendars make it virtually impossible that any U.S. across-the-board action will be taken to curb global warming in this administration, though both Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have promised to address it if they win Tuesday's U.S. presidential election.

Even some free-market organizations have joined conservation groups to urge a moratorium on last-minute rules proposed by the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others.

"The Bush administration has had eight years in office and has issued more regulations than any administration in history," said Eli Lehrer of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "At this point, in the current economic climate, it would be especially harmful to push through ill-considered regulations in the final days of the administration."

John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation, which joined Lehrer's group to call for a ban on these last-minute rules, said citizens are cut out of the process, allowing changes in U.S. law that the public opposes, such as rolling back protections under the Endangered Species Act.

WHAT'S THE RUSH?

The Bush team has urged that these regulations be issued no later than Saturday, so they can be put in effect by the time President George W. Bush leaves office on January 20.

If they are in effect then, it will be hard for the next administration to undo them, and in any case, this may not be the top priority for a new president, said Matt Madia of OMB Watch, which monitors the White House Office of Management and Budget, through which these proposed regulations must pass.

"This is typical," Madia said of the administration's welter of eleventh-hour rules. "It's a natural reaction to knowing that you're almost out of power."

Industry is likely to benefit if Bush's rules on the environment become effective, Madia said.

"Whether it's the electricity industry or the mining industry or the agriculture industry, this is going to remove government restrictions on their activity and in turn they're going to be allowed to pollute more and that ends up harming the public," Madia said in a telephone interview.

What is unusual is the speedy trip some of these environmental measures are taking through the process.

For example, one Interior Department rule that would erode protections for endangered species in favor of mining interests drew more than 300,000 comments from the public, which officials said they planned to review in a week, a pace that Madia called "pretty ludicrous."

Why the rush? Because rules only go into effect 30 to 60 days after they are finalized, and if they are not in effect when the next president takes office, that chief executive can decline to put them into practice -- as Bush did with many rules finalized at the end of the Clinton administration.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto denied the Bush team was cramming these regulations through in a hasty push.

Fratto discounted reports "that we're trying to weaken regulations that have a business interest," telling White House reporters last week the goal was to avoid the flood of last-minute rules left over from the Clinton team.

There is at least one Bush administration environmental proposal that conservation groups welcome: a plan to create what would be the world's largest marine wildlife sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean. That could go into effect January 20.

(Editing by Alan Elsner)

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