George W. Bush's Last Environmental Stand

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Susan Walsh / AP

George W. Bush

When Barack Obama takes the oath of office as President on Jan. 20, he'll have an environmental agenda of his own. But before he can push his initiatives, Obama may need to clean up the legacy of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

With less than three months remaining in office, the Bush Administration has proposed a flurry of last-minute changes that will likely weaken several of the nation's environmental protections — and could remain well into the next presidency. If the changes make it into the Federal Register — the official record of Washington rules and regulations — by Nov. 20, they will take effect before Bush leaves office and can likely only be undone by a new Administration. "It will be a lasting challenge for the policymakers who will take the helm," says Vickie Patton, the deputy general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Eleventh-hour executive changes are not unique to this outgoing Administration — President Bill Clinton launched a number himself before leaving office, though many of his were designed to strengthen environmental regulations. Of the new changes, White House spokesman Tony Fratto says, "We're implementing regulations and we're trying to do them in the best way that protects the interest of the nation." But greens, who distrust virtually everything that comes out of this White House — which they consider one of the least environmentally friendly ever — feel differently. "If you thought the first 100 days of the Bush Administration were bad, just wait and see what the last 100 could bring," said Democratic Representative Edward Markey, chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

Here's a rundown of some of the most prominent proposed changes:

Power Plant Pollution: Under the current regulations, every time a power plant is upgraded, the Environmental Protection Agency examines whether the modifications increase the plant's annual emission of pollutants, such as particulates and smog-causing nitrogen oxide. If they do, the plant is required to take action to control the pollutants. But the Bush Administration wants to change the rule to focus instead on the hourly emission rate of pollution, instead of the total amount of emitted pollutants. That means that plant modifications that keep the hourly rate of emissions steady while increasing the overall amount of pollutants released would not trigger a review.

With the U.S. set for a wave of power plant construction and extensions to meet a coming increase in electricity demand, the change could potentially allow millions of tons of additional pollutants. "It's fair to say that what the Bush Administration is trying to do could have a substantial impact on not just the environment, but public health and safety," says Celia Wexler, Washington representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Endangered Species Act (ESA): Every time the federal government approves a development project — such as a new road or a mine — it must consult with scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to see if the project has the potential to impact an endangered species. This expert scientific review is the heart of the ESA — and the Bush Administration proposes to all but eliminate it. Instead, Bush would allow the federal agency in charge of the project itself to determine its potential impact on endangered species.

The White House calls the changes "narrow," but greens say the effect on one of the most significant environmental laws in U.S. history would be enormous. "I've been working on this act for 15 years, and this is by far the most serious threat that I have ever seen," says John Kostyack, director of wildlife conservation and global warming for the National Wildlife Federation. As required under law, the Administration opened the proposed change to a 10-day period of public comment — and received some 300,000 comments, which greens say indicates just how unpopular the proposal would be.

The Administration is also trying to de-list the gray wolf of the northern Rockies — which conservationists say is still in danger.

Water Quality: The Bush Administration is proposing to weaken one rule that dates back to President Ronald Reagan, no friend of regulation himself. Currently there is a 100-foot buffer zone around streams, designed to protect them from the polluting byproducts of mining operations. The White House would extend that protection to other bodies of water, like lakes and wetlands, but tweak the regulation in way that could allow significantly more water pollution overall, by effectively reclassifying valley fills and other waste from mining as non-pollutants. That's damaging to mountaintop areas, especially in the coal-rich Appalachians. "It really takes the buffer out of the buffer zone," says Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice.

The Bush Administration has also ruled that the more than 15,000 factory farms across the nation can avoid oversight by the Clean Water Act as long as they claim they don't discharge animal waste into streams or rivers. Environmentalists say that self-regulation will lead to worsening nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, which can poison drinking water and worsen dead zones in coastal areas.

With Obama headed for the White House, many of these changes could have a short shelf life. The true environmental legacy of George W. Bush will be in what he didn't do — address climate change. Since Bush took office, EDF's Patton notes, the U.S. has released more than 50 billion tons of greenhouse gases. "This is a sobering legacy for the nation," she says. "It's time for America to move forward." That job will fall to Bush's successor, Barack Obama.