The Week in Washington:
Bald Eagles, Funding Battles, Cheney Meddles

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, June 29, 2007 (ENS) - This week’s decision to remove the bald eagle from the endangered species list represented a rare bit of consensus in Washington, as environmentalists joined the Bush administration to celebrate the recovery of the national icon. Such moments are few and far between as illustrated by other events in Washington this week, with the Supreme Court issuing a 5-4 decision limiting the scope of the law that revived the bald eagle, the House engaging in a heated partisan battle over funding for environmental protection and conservation programs, and new revelations emerging about Vice President Dick Cheney’s apparent meddling with water flows in the Klamath River Basin.

Endangered Species: Eagles, Home Builders and Wolves

"The eagle has returned," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne proclaimed Thursday, announcing the decision to remove the species from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. More than 10,000 nesting pairs can be found in the lower 48 states, up from only 400 in 1963, according the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (See U.S. National Bird Soars Back From The Brink)

Secretary Dirk Kempthorne signs the document removing the American Bald Eagle from the Endangered Species List. (Photo by Tami Heilemann courtesy DOI)
Conservation groups hailed the decision as welcome news, but earlier in the week many of the same voices were decrying a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limited the reach of the Endangered Species Act.

The court’s ruling in two combined cases - EPA v. Defenders of Wildlife and National Association of Home Builders v. Defenders of Wildlife was a blow to environmentalists but it is uncertain how great an impact the narrow decision will have (See Supreme Court Limits the Endangered Species Act).

The homebuilders' case centered on whether the EPA violated the Endangered Species Act in 2002 when it gave Arizona the authority to issue stormwater discharge permits. The Clean Water Act gives the EPA the power to transfer this authority to states, requiring the agency transfer authority if nine specific criteria are met.

Consideration of the impacts on endangered species is not a criterion, but the Endangered Species Act requires that a federal agency must consult with other relevant agencies to ensure its actions do not jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species.

The EPA did not carry out such consultation, prompting Defenders of Wildlife to file a lawsuit, which was combined in the Supreme Court ruling.

The court decided 5-4 in favor of the EPA, reversing a lower court ruling and agreeing with the agency that the CWA trumps the Endangered Species Act on this particular matter. But it but did not address the broader question of how the Endangered Species Act intersects with other competing statutes.

Endangered species also crept into debate over the House spending bill for the Interior Department, the EPA and related agencies.

The House approved the $27.6 billion measure, which increases overall funding by more than four percent, on Wednesday (see U.S. House Boosts Spending for Environment, Conservation).

An amendment to block American hunters from importing polar bear heads and hides was defeated, as was a bid to cut off funds for the wolf recovery plan in Arizona and New Mexico.

Some 60 wolves have been reintroduced in the two states combined, but New Mexico Republican Congressman Steven Pearce said his constituents have had enough.

Reintroduced wolf in the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge 20 miles north of Socorro, New Mexico (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
"This program has attempted to restore a population of wolves into the area, all while providing no compensation to ranchers for their livestock losses and all in the face of nearly unified local public opinion against the program," Pearce said.

A dozen wolves are on track to be removed this year as "problems," Pearce said, adding that "for those of you who want the feel-good feeling of releasing the wolves into the wild, let us release them into your daggone area instead of the area of southern New Mexico."

Representative Norman Dicks, a Washington Democrat, acknowledged there have been some problems with the program but said that is no reason to cancel the effort.

"There are programs in place that compensate livestock operators when wolves prey upon their stock," he said, adding that the amendment would "overturn the Endangered Species Act."

Pearce grew angry during the discussion of his amendment and issued a stark warning to Dicks and other opponents.

"It's a matter of time until these wolves, which will stalk for weeks and weeks and weeks at a time around local homes, it's a matter of time until a wolf catches one of these children," Pearce said. "Their blood will be on your hands, my friend, because we've had the testimony in committee."

Dicks responded that Pearce was "completely overreacting."

The amendment failed by a vote of 172-258.

Congress Warms to Climate Action

A week after the Senate passed its energy bill, the House moved closer to consideration of a slew of energy measures. The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday approved legislation designed to boost production of renewable fuels and to increase energy efficiency.

Congressman John Dingell speaks at a Michigan gas station selling E85. May 2007. (Photo courtesy Rep. Dingell)
Committee Chairman John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, told colleagues he specifically avoided issues such as fuel economy standards, coal-to-liquids and a renewable electricity mandate, in order to expedite approval of measures where there is consensus.

"These issues will be addressed in the fall in the context of comprehensive climate change legislation," Dingell told colleagues, adding that the panel should set ambitious goals and targets for that bill.

"It should stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at levels that will avoid or avert large-scale climate change consequences," Dingell said.

"That will require a reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions of between 60, and perhaps as much as 80, percent by 2050," he said. "How to get there will be the hard part."

On the Senate side, advocates of action to curb greenhouse gas emissions welcomed the news that Virginia Republican John Warner is working on global warming legislation with Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman. Warner could prove a critical swing vote on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which is the likely starting place for any Senate global warming bill.

"In my 28 years in the Senate, I have focused above all on issues of national security, and I see the problem of climate change as fitting within that focus," Warner told colleagues on the panel. "It is the responsibility of the executive and legislative branches to join in taking a leadership role to address this national and international problem."

Political Meddling, Griles Off to Jail

Vice President Cheney’s fingerprints are all over several of the Bush administration’s most controversial environmental policies, according to an article published this week by the "Washington Post."

Vice President Dick Cheney (Photo courtesy U.S. Army)
The article says Cheney led the effort to relax air pollution laws for coal fired power plants, pressured the EPA not to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, pushed to keep Yellowstone National Park open to snowmobiles, and lobbied to reverse Clinton-era protections for the national forests.

Cheney also meddled with federal management of the Klamath River Basin, pressuring the Department of the Interior to maintain irrigation flows to farmers despite federal obligations to balance agricultural needs with environmental concerns.

The diversion of the water was in part responsible for a massive 2002 fish kill that left more than 70,000 salmon dead. The new details about the vice president’s role prompted House Democrats to announce they will convene a hearing to learn more about the his actions.

Former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles (Photo courtesy DOI)
The Interior Department official Cheney initially contacted, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, is intimately linked to another Bush administration official in the news this week, former Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles.

Griles was sentenced Tuesday to 10 months in jail for lying to Congress about his relationship with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff (See Felon Griles Sentenced to 10 Months in Prison).

Griles and Wooldridge began dating when she worked for him at the Interior Department, where she served as a senior aide before becoming the agency’s top lawyer. She left Interior in 2005 to head the Justice Department’s environmental division.

In March 2006, Wooldridge, Griles and the top lobbyist for oil giant ConocoPhillips bought a $1 million beach house together. Nine months later she agreed to a settlement deal with the oil company giving the company more time to clean up air pollution at some of its refineries.

Wooldridge left the Justice Department in January 2007 - she and Griles married in March. Griles is the highest- ranking member of the Bush administration to be tainted by the Abramoff scandal.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.