Democrats, environmentalists blast Trump rollback of endangered species protections

Democrats, environmentalists blast Trump rollback of endangered species protections
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Democrats and environmentalists on Monday vowed to sue the Trump administration over a new regulation they say illegally dismantles the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

The Interior Department announced Monday morning a series of changes to the law that would allow economic factors to be considered when listing a species while barring analysis of how climate change impacts plant and animal life. 

The new regulation also limits protections for threatened species as well as the review process used before projects are approved on their habitat.

“I know this sounds like the plan of a cartoon villain and not the president of the United States, but that’s what we’re dealing with today,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) said in a call with reporters.

Healey along with California Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraOvernight Energy: Court upholds Trump repeal of Obama fracking rule | Oil price drop threatens fracking boom | EPA eases rules on gasoline sales amid coronavirus Court OKs Trump repeal of Obama public lands fracking rule Hillicon Valley: House passes key surveillance bill | Paul, Lee urge Trump to kill FISA deal | White House seeks help from tech in coronavirus fight | Dem urges Pence to counter virus misinformation MORE (D) said they expect several other states to join them in a lawsuit against the federal government. Many environmental groups have likewise said they will sue.

Becerra said the power to change the Endangered Species Act lies squarely with Congress, not the administration, and violates the Administrative Procedure Act by not following the review process for creating new regulations.

“This administration is trying to change the law by breaking the law and that’s not going to stand,” Becerra said. 

The Interior Department characterized the changes as “designed to increase transparency and effectiveness and bring the administration of the Act into the 21st century.” Democrats rallied around what they repeatedly referred to as an assault on one of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws.

“For more than 40 years, the ESA has been a pillar of environmental protection in this nation,” Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallDemocrats press Pompeo to help Americans stranded abroad amid coronavirus Democrats press FEC pick to recuse himself from Trump matters Overnight Energy: Watchdog blasts planning behind BLM relocation | Progress on Senate energy bill | Dems eye two measures for inclusion ahead of vote MORE (D-N.M.) said. “Its success — and its support among the American people — are undeniable. But this administration’s determination to dismantle bedrock environmental laws, turn a blind eye to science, and roll over for special interests apparently knows no bounds.”

Many industry groups indeed hailed the decision.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association referred to the decision as "long-awaited regulatory relief," while the American Petroleum Institute said it would lead to "the reduction of duplicative and unnecessary regulations that ultimately bog down conservation efforts."

Interior also sent out a long list of comments full of praise from lawmakers from Western states.

“We’ve seen before how the act can be abused by environmental activist agendas, but by increasing transparency and ending the practice of one-size-fits-all reactions, we can end their sue and settle tactics while promoting responsible conservation without heavy-handed government intervention,” Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeGOP senators urge Saudi Arabia to leave OPEC Overnight Defense: Stimulus bill has .5B for Pentagon | Money would be blocked from border wall | Esper orders 60-day freeze for overseas troop movements Senate panel switches to 'paper hearings' amid coronavirus pandemic MORE (R-Okla.) said in a statement.

Democrats see a long list of issues with the new regulation, and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said it “will add to [the] extinction crisis as a favor to industry.”

The regulation ends the practice of giving threatened species — those at risk of becoming extinct in the near future — the same protections as endangered ones. The regulation allows for a species-specific plan rather than the blanket protections the law currently provides.

“You’ll see a parade of species listed as threatened because they will have no protective teeth behind them. ... It’s absolutely driving species closer to extinction,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the groups that said they will sue over the regulation.

Environmentalists are also concerned about how the regulation changes the process for setting aside habitat deemed critical for the recovery of a species. The regulation takes a higher level approach to analyzing what habitat is needed for a species, something environmentalists say will limit important breeding and feeding grounds when a healthy, growing population would demand more space, not less. 

The Trump administration also removed language from the Endangered Species Act that specifically bars financial considerations when weighing whether to list a species — opening the door to allow financial impacts to ranchers, utilities, and oil and gas companies influence such decisions. 

“Science must guide our decisions, not dollar signs. We shouldn’t use economic factors to decide whether a species should be saved,” Rebecca Riley, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

Environmentalists and Democrats were also outraged by the Trump administration's push to block climate change from consideration with its definition of “foreseeable future,” the timeline used to determine whether a species may soon face extinction. 

“We will look out into the future so far as we can reliably predict and not speculate,” Gary Frazer, the associate director for endangered species at the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a call with reporters. “This might be climate-induced changes in a physical environment.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTexas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill Pelosi not invited by Trump to White House coronavirus relief bill's signing COVID-19, Bill Barr and the American authoritarian tradition MORE (D-N.Y.) called the move a “slap in the face to those fighting to address the climate crisis.”

Many critics see it as the latest in a string of examples of the Trump administration ignoring climate change.

“Our climate crisis is creating an extinction crisis,” said Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyHillicon Valley: Twitter says Chinese official's virus disinformation doesn't violate rules | Hackers target WHO | Senators urge agencies to stop coronavirus robocalls Senators urge FCC, DOJ to combat coronavirus robocalls Democrats fume over GOP coronavirus bill: 'Totally inadequate' MORE (D-Mass.), the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. “The Trump administration’s proposed rollback of the ESA at the behest of the oil, gas, and mining industries will put countless species in the crosshairs of extinction. Ignoring the climate crisis has made the challenge for these threatened species greater — this rollback fans those flames.” 

The rule must be posted to the Federal Register before lawsuits can challenge it.