Wednesday, December 31, 2008

California Sues Federal Government Over Changes in Endangered Species Act


by: Julie Cart, The Los Angeles Times

The State of California has sued the federal government over changes in the Endangered Species Act. (Photo: Elvis Santana)

The state attorney general's office says new rules put California's threatened and endangered wildlife in greater danger and could cost the state more to protect the plants and animals on the list.

California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown filed suit against the federal government Tuesday, charging that a recent rule change by the Bush administration illegally gutted provisions of the Endangered Species Act, essentially quashing the role of science in decisions made by federal agencies.

Ken Alex, senior assistant attorney general, said the state took the action because it has both the legal right and the moral responsibility to protect California's environment and resources. The new federal rules, he said, could put California's threatened and endangered wildlife in greater jeopardy and could ultimately cost the state more to protect plants and animals on California's Endangered Species List.

The federal rules, made final on Dec. 16, eliminated mandated independent scientific review of federal agency plans if the agency determined the projects pose no threat to protected species. Further, the new rules removed the requirement to consider the effects of greenhouse gases on protected species and their habitat.

Critics argued that agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees oil and gas leasing on federal land, do not have sufficient scientific expertise to properly evaluate threats to wildlife. And, they said, the rules would make it more difficult to protect animals such as the polar bear, which was placed on the Endangered Species List because of the effects of climate change on the bear's melting habitat.

In announcing the new rules, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne emphasized that the modifications were minimal and did not amend the law. He said the changes were common-sense streamlining of bureaucratic processes and would not imperil protected species.

"We absolutely disagree," Alex said. "These regulations are illegal. It's consistent with the Bush administration's attack on science."

Several environmental groups have also sued over the changes, and Alex said it was likely the cases will be combined, possibly in a California court. An Interior spokesman said the agency does not comment on lawsuits.

It is not uncommon for California to sue the federal government, either to compel it to follow the law or to enforce stringent regulations. In recent years the state has taken on Washington regarding federal forest policy, clean-air and clean-water rules and automobile emissions standards, calling on the federal Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Alex said California has won practically every case that has been ruled on.


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