August 17, 2008

Still Working to Reduce Oversight

[Click on image for full size.]

As the Bush Administration plods through what are thankfully its last days, it would be foolish to believe that the corrupt zealots at the White House are going to coast across the finish line. On the contrary, they are working as hard as they can to provide final handouts to their backers and to inflict as much of their radical agenda on America and the world as they can, even as the clock winds down.

A case in point is last week's announcement from Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne that he was pushing a regulatory overhaul of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). These changes would permit federal agencies to sidestep the independent scientific reviews that have been required for more than three decades, and to decide for themselves whether protected species would be imperiled by agency projects. From a report in the Los Angeles Times:
The new rules, which will be subject to a 30-day comment period, would use administrative powers to make broad changes in the law that Congress has resisted for years. Under current law, agencies must subject any plans that potentially affect endangered animals and plants to an independent review by scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service. Under the proposed new rules, dam and highway construction and other federal projects could proceed without delay if the agency in charge decides they would not harm vulnerable species.
Despite Secretary Kempthorne's laughable declaration that this wholesale rewriting of the rules is no more than a "narrow regulatory change," there is little doubt that the results would be devastating. In addition to exempting thousands of federal activities from the checks and balances of independent review, they would:
  • Narrowly define what can be considered harmful;
  • Automatically approve any project whose evaluation exceeds a paltry 60-day deadline for wildlife experts to evaluate it in the instances when they are invited to participate;
  • Permit large-scale projects to go unexamined by splitting them into hundreds of smaller projects that remain exempt from review;
  • Prohibit consideration of a project's contribution to global warming.
On top of all that, the administration tried to slip through another proposed rule change limiting protection for species only to where they can currently be found. Under current rules, each species is protected across its entire historical range because many endangered animals have lost substantial portions of their habitat. The effect of this rule is easy to see when one considers that, prior to being reintroduced into the wild, the California Condor would only have been listed as a protected species in zoos.

While the Endangered Species Act has been ridiculed for preventing economic activity - the spotted owl and snail darter, for instance, are two species that have slowed or stopped significant projects in the past, creating significant controversy - it is hard to make the claim that mankind is not permitted a free enough hand when it comes to development. To see the effects of an environmental policy that reduces independent oversight and fails to take a holistic view of the effects of human activity, it is only necessary to look at the expansion of oceanic dead zones. The number of these areas, in which bottom waters are so depleted of oxygen that they cannot support life, has, according to Scientific American, increased eightfold since the 1960s.

Dead zones are caused almost exclusively by burning fossil fuels - which create airborne nitrogen oxides that are washed into the ocean when it rains - and the use of nitrogen-based fertilizer in industrial agriculture:
This fertilizer runoff, instead of contributing to more corn or wheat, feeds massive algae blooms in the coastal oceans. This algae, in turn, dies and sinks to the bottom where it is consumed by microbes, which consume oxygen in the process. More algae means more oxygen-burning, and thereby less oxygen in the water, resulting in a massive flight by those fish, crustaceans and other ocean-dwellers able to relocate as well as the mass death of immobile creatures, such as clams or other bottom-dwellers. And that's when the microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments take over, forming vast bacterial mats that produce hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas.
Today, there are dead zones dotting the entire east and south coasts of the United States, and if history is any guide, almost none of them will recover. Vast swaths of coastal fishing grounds are becoming lifeless, and in addition to the environmental impact, the economic damage to the fishing industry is staggering:
This is no small economic matter. A single low-oxygen event (known scientifically as hypoxia) off the coasts of New York State and New Jersey in 1976 covering a mere 385 square miles (1,000 square kilometers) of seabed ended up costing commercial and recreational fisheries in the region more than $500 million. As it stands, roughly 83,000 tons (75,000 metric tons) of fish and other ocean life are lost to the Chesapeake Bay dead zone each year—enough to feed half the commercial crab catch for a year.
The Endangered Species Act may not be perfect, but it is far better than the failure that has been unrestrained economic activity at the expense of the environment., and while one can argue that the dead zones indicate that the Marine Fisheries Service has failed in its duty, things would certainly be much worse without the limited monitoring and enforcement that has occurred. Considering the complete lack of oversight championed by George Bush's executive branch - and the results thereof, whether no-bid contracts in Iraq, politicization of the Justice Department or the torture of prisoners in the "War on Terror" - it is clear that the changes advocated by Secretary Kempthorne are nothing more than the latest in a long series of White House efforts to exclude expertise perceived to obstruct ideological goals.

The ESA may, in fact, require revisions - after all, it dates to the Nixon Administration - but any such changes must come by way of honest and thorough evaluation conducted by experts. The last thing the Endangered Species Act, the country, or even the world needs is yet one more instance of this White House forcing its fringe ideology down the throats of the public. A wiser president who had governed well could lead such a review; George W. Bush and his lackeys however, have fully earned the distrust and anger with which this latest move is most deservedly regarded.

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