US Interior revokes Bush endangered species rule

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, April 28 (Reuters) - The Obama administration said on Tuesday it rolled back a Bush-era rule excusing oil and gas companies in polar bear habitat from special reviews designed to ensure they are not harming the animals.

The Alaska energy industry said the move could slow exploration and production activity in the state. Environmental groups applauded the decision as an important step protecting threatened species.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said they rescinded the Endangered Species Act regulation issued in December by the Bush administration, which eliminated the long-standing “Section 7 consultation” requirement for special scrutiny of any proposed activities that might harm a listed species.

“By rolling back this 11th hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law,” Salazar said.

“Because science must serve as the foundation for decisions we make, federal agencies proposing to take actions that might affect threatened and endangered species will once again have to consult with biologists at the two departments,” he said.

For polar bears, the reversal means any oil and gas development in their habitat must be cleared through consultation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Polar bears, highly dependent on Arctic sea ice, were listed last year as threatened after federal biologists determined they were especially vulnerable to the rapidly warming climate in the far north.

A decision on a separate special Bush administration rule limiting federal polar bear protections is due by May 10, according to Bruce Woods, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska.

Tuesday’s reversal of the consultation exemption also affects energy development elsewhere in the United States, where permitting agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and Minerals Management Service had been allowed to rely on their own internal reviews about potential impacts to endangered or threatened species.

Environmental groups applauded the move.

“Restoring these core protections of the Endangered Species Act signals a renewal of America’s conservation ethic,” John Kostyack, the National Wildlife Federation’s executive director of wildlife conservation and global warming, said in a statement. “Permanently reinstating independent scientific review puts the teeth back into the law that saved the bald eagle and Yellowstone grizzly bear.”

But a representative of Alaska’s oil industry said withdrawal of the Bush administration regulation could eventually slow permits for development because the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service -- the agencies with authority over all Endangered Species Act listed populations -- are overburdened.

“Adding this additional huge layer of evaluation on them when they’re already stretched thin is troubling and certainly will not do anything to speed up the necessary development of the nation’s resources,” said Marilyn Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. (Reporting by Yereth Rosen, editing by Richard Valdmanis and David Gregorio)