Bush keeps busy changing rules

Many late-inning moves involve end to environmental protections

November 21, 2008|By Jim Tankersley | Jim Tankersley,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - As the hour grows late, President George W. Bush, like many chief executives before him, seems to hear the call of the wild.

Honoring a tradition that dates at least to President Ronald Reagan, Bush is pushing through a bundle of controversial last-minute changes in federal rules - many involving the environment, national parks and public lands in the West.

President Bill Clinton used his last weeks and months in office to strengthen a host of environmental rules and lock up federal lands with wilderness and other protective designations. Bush is taking the same window of opportunity to open swaths of wilderness land for oil and gas drilling and to loosen safeguards for air, water and wildlife.

In recent days, the Bush administration announced new rules to speed oil shale development across 2 million rocky acres in the West. It scheduled an auction for drilling rights alongside three national parks. It has set processes in motion to finalize major changes in protection of endangered species, to allow more mining waste to flow into rivers and streams, and to exempt factory farms from air pollution reporting.

Researchers who track "midnight regulations" say Bush pushed 53 of them through the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the past three weeks, nearly double the pace of Clinton at this point in his final year.

Some of the most controversial rules deal with the environment - a legacy-cementing area where Bush diverges sharply from Clinton and President-elect Barack Obama.

In the mid-1990s, when Clinton was in the White House, the Republican-controlled Congress established rules designed to rein in late-inning regulatory changes. But the effort has largely been ineffective.

Outgoing presidents "have an incentive to push stuff that the next administration won't be in favor of," said Veronique de Rugy, a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, who tracks midnight regulations. "It's your last chance ... to extend your influence into the future."

White House officials say they've taken pains to avoid a late-term blitz. Spokesman Tony Fratto said Bush is keeping roughly the same regulatory pace as last year, and that many rules won't be enacted because agencies missed a Nov. 1 deadline for final action that Chief of Staff Josh Bolten set this year. Bolten's order allows exceptions for what are considered extraordinary circumstances.

"It's unprecedented in the history of administrations to try to do something this way, and do it the right way," Fratto said.

Environmental activists and government watchdogs, on the other hand, say Bush rushed several of the rules to completion so that Obama could not easily overturn them.

Obama can summarily reverse anything not enacted by the time he takes office, a lesson that Bush learned by blocking several of Clinton's last-ditch environmental measures, such as a ban on road-building in national forests.

"The Bush administration is trying to prevent Obama from doing to it what it did to Clinton," said Matt Madia, a regulatory policy analyst for OMB Watch, a Washington-based watchdog group.

Under federal rules, it takes 60 days to enact an economically "significant" regulation, which carries an estimated impact of $100 million or more. Other regulations take 30 days.

The process moved especially quickly in the case of oil shale. In July, the administration proposed rules that would eventually lead to leasing 2 million acres of public land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming for oil shale extraction, even though serious questions remain about how much power and water - a particularly scarce resource on much of that land - would be needed to make it work.

The rules were finalized this week.

The American Petroleum Institute praised the rules as "an integral step" toward increased domestic energy production. "It lays the groundwork, lets investors know what they're going to face going forward," said Andy Radford, a senior policy adviser for the institute.

Environmentalists cried foul. Sen. Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, said Bush had "fallen into the trap of allowing political timelines to trump sound policy."

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