The Trump administration said Monday it has finalized changes to portions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) dealing with adding or removing species from the act's protections, a move that could have significant effects on the oil and natural gas industry.
"The revisions finalized with this rulemaking fit squarely within the president's mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species' protection and recovery goals," said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. "These changes were subject to a robust, transparent public process, during which we received significant public input that helped us finalize these rules."
The revisions, according to the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI), would not alter ESA's direction that determinations to add or remove a species from the lists of threatened or endangered species be based solely on the best available scientific and commercial information. At the same time, the revisions "clarify that the standards for delisting and reclassification of a species consider the same five statutory factors as the listing of a species in the first place," DOI said.
And, "while this administration recognizes the value of critical habitat as a conservation tool, in some cases, designation of critical habitat is not prudent. Revisions to the regulations identify a non-exhaustive list of such circumstances, but this will continue to be rare exceptions." In addition, the regulations would revise the definitions of "destruction or adverse modification," "effects of the action," and "environmental baseline," DOI said.
The revised rules would be effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.
The changes would impact oil and natural gas projects, which have long had to meet the standards laid out in the ESA.
"Our industry actively works to conserve species every day, but the current regulatory framework for the Endangered Species Act hinders landowners and companies from effectively protecting and recovering species," said Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma. "For far too long, the Act has been weaponized to stop the production of food, fuel and fiber that Americans need every day while turning a blind eye to how red tape actually inhibits the recovery of species. This administration has the fortitude to move forward with common-sense rules that follow the law while improving species protection, despite the hyperbolic rhetoric."
Revising the ESA "will ensure that public-private projects can further promote the conservation of habitat and protection of endangered species, while focusing resources on environmental improvements across the country," according to the American Petroleum Institute.
"Effective species and habitat conservation practices are front and center for the oil and natural gas industry and its employees. Like many Americans, we love our country's open spaces too, and understand that protecting species and their habitats are a necessary aspect of safe and responsible operations to develop the nation's oil and natural gas resources," said API’s Erik Milito, vice president of upstream and industry operations.
"Our member companies and their employees are committed to environmental stewardship, and have a proven record of compliance with regulations, voluntary actions, and innovative partnerships with national and local conservation organizations to preserve habitat and to protect wildlife."
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, for example, has suffered construction delays based largely on allegations that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) failed to fulfill its requirements under ESA in issuing approvals for the project. An ESA-dominated debate about the greater sage grouse and energy projects proposed to be built in its habitat have been fought since at least the administraiton of George W. Bush. And last year the U.S. Supreme Court remanded an ESA case involving protections that the FWSS extended to the dusky gopher frog, an endangered amphibian.
On Monday, critics of the changes to ESA argued that it was another attempt by the Trump administration to remove climate change from the considerations of regulatory agencies. Sierra Club said DOI was rolling back the ESA despite overwhelming public opposition to the move.
"Undermining this popular and successful law is a major step in the wrong direction as we face the increasing challenges of climate change and its effects on wildlife," said Sierra Club senior director Lena Moffitt. "The Endangered Species Act works; our communities -- both natural and human -- have reaped the benefits. This safety net must be preserved."