Bush Issues Last-Minute Rules On Environment
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now an item about the current administration and an update on the story about air quality in the national parks. In a surprise move, the Bush administration has decided not to go ahead with a rule change in its last days in office. It's one of a number of eleventh hour efforts that we're tracking. And here to explain it is NPR's Elizabeth Shogren, who covers the environment for us. Hi.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Hi.
SIEGEL: What was the Environmental Protection Agency trying to do, and why was the rule dropped?
SHOGREN: Well, the rule would have changed the way that the EPA measures whether pollution from a new plant would make air over national parks dirtier. One official described it to me this way. Let's say you were in a car going 70 miles per hour in a 55-mile-per-hour zone, and a cop pulled you over, and you said, well, but on average over the last year, I've always gone under the speed limit.
SIEGEL: I see. That would get you out of the charge of polluting the air over the national park?
SHOGREN: Yeah. That's in essence what the change would have done. And they've decided not to do this. They say it's just because they've run out of time. Although, quietly, career EPA officials are telling me that it had to do a lot with the change of climate with a new president coming in, and also some of the Bush appointees who had been in the agency for a long time have now gone back to industry. So they weren't there to push this change through.
SIEGEL: You were just talking about political climate when you said that. What other rules have been scuttled?
SHOGREN: Well, there's another rule that involves whether old coal-fired power plants have to put on pollution control devices. This rule would have made it easier not to put on pollution control devices, and the Bush administration decided not to do that. So it's another thing that would have weakened protections for the air that the Bush administration has decided not to do.
SIEGEL: Well, what was the role of congressional opposition to these rule changes?
SHOGREN: As far as both of these air pollution rules go, both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate were working hard to get the administration to drop them. And in fact, they had introduced, just yesterday, resolutions to oppose these rules. So we think that that must have had some kind of an impact on whether or not these rules actually could've stayed on the books for very long.
SIEGEL: So those are some rules changes that the Bush administration has backed off. But some of the Bush changes are going forward, and one of them regards endangered species, one involving polar bears. What's the news there?
SHOGREN: Yes. In fact there are two rules involving polar bears that have just been finished in May. The Interior Department listed the polar bear as a threatened species on the endangered species list. And there were lots of people saying that this means that the administration will have to start regulating greenhouse gases because the reason polar bears are on the list is because the ice that they live on is melting. And so they have no place to live.
SIEGEL: So we have to do something, the theory would go, to save the polar bears.
SHOGREN: Right. And Secretary Dirk Kempthorne from the Interior Department said he didn't want this to become a backdoor way to force regulation of greenhouse gases. And so what he's done is in the rule describing how the government is going to protect the polar bear, it says that we're just going to continue the protections that the polar bear already has. And then a second rule changes whether or not specialists in endangered species who work for the Fish and Wildlife Service or another agency, whether those specialists have to be consulted when a government agency decides to give permission to do all kinds of things. One of the things government agencies have to do is give permission to whether power plants can be built. And they fear that unless they change the rules, that they'd have to start regulating greenhouse gas emissions.
SIEGEL: Elizabeth, these are rules changes. Are these rules for keeps? Do they stay in the books for good now?
SHOGREN: Both the Congress and the new administration have the power to reverse these rules or to strike them out entirely. Now, it would take time for both Congress and for the administration to do it. And environmentalists are concerned that in the meantime a lot of harm could be done.
SIEGEL: Elizabeth, thank you very much.
SHOGREN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Elizabeth Shogren.