The Trump administration’s Interior Department announced on Monday its official proposal to significantly weaken the nation’s Endangered Species Act. The move would make it easier for new mining, oil, and gas development to take place in areas critical to protected species.
The widely popular conservation law, passed in 1973, has been heralded worldwide for its success. It is credited with saving iconic American species such as the bald eagle and grizzly bear from extinction.
Under the Interior Department’s proposed revisions, it will be more difficult to apply considerations regarding the impact of climate change on wildlife in deciding whether a species should be protected.
Critical habitats would also likely shrink as the rule change paves the way for fossil fuel extraction in areas critical to protected species. And, in a first, economic factors will be allowed to be taken into account when deciding whether new animals should be added to the list of protected species.
The proposal comes after two years of work to narrow the law. Last year, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that the Endangered Species Act places an “unnecessary regulatory burden” on companies.
Bernhardt, however, has a history of lobbying against the law. Prior to joining Interior, he ran the natural resources department at lobbying and law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. During his time there, he worked on behalf of oil and gas companies as well as large agribusinesses to weaken environmental protections. Bernhardt also lobbied on behalf of Westlands Water District and agricultural interests against the Endangered Species Act.
And during his time at the Interior, Bernhardt intervened to block a study showing pesticides might threaten the existence of 1,200 endangered species, according to documents recently revealed by the New York Times.
Fossil fuel companies have also continued to lobby against endangered species protections over the course of the Trump administration. For instance, in May, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal to downgrade the status of the American burying beetle — an insect threatened by climate change — from “endangered” to “threatened.” This was the result of oil and gas lobbying, and would make it easier for companies to build pipelines.
And two months before that, in March, the Interior Department announced a sweeping set of revisions to Obama-era sage grouse proposed protections. The Trump administration’s planned changes include removing restrictions for new oil, gas, and mining development on millions of acres of sage grouse habitat across the West. In October 2017, a proposed mining moratorium on 10 million acres of crucial sage grouse habitat was also canceled — this was swiftly followed by a decision from the Bureau of Land Management that December ending directives stating oil and gas leases should be prioritized for outside of sage grouse habitat.
One of the most controversial changes among the proposed revisions released Monday is the fact that economics will be a consideration in whether or not a species should be protected. Currently, the decision to add or remove a species is designed to be based purely on science.
“There can be economic costs to protecting endangered species,” Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans at Earthjustice, an environmental law organization, told the New York Times. But, he added, “If we make decisions based on short-term economic costs, we’re going to have a whole lot more extinct species.”