Court Decisions Support Biden Rules on Protecting the Environment
WASHINGTON —The Biden administration won another court victory on July 5 in its efforts to roll back Trump-era environmental policies that limited protections for wildlife under the Endangered Species Act.
A federal judge in California threw out an interpretation that allowed economic factors to be considered in defining a species as endangered. He also said future events, such as climate change, could be considered in granting special protection for wildlife.
The ruling comes days after a different federal judge in Washington, D.C., dismissed a lawsuit by timber companies that sought to cut down trees in protected Pacific Northwest forestland.
The California decision restores protections for more than 1,600 species of animals and plants. They include the California condor, the leatherback sea turtle and the peregrine falcon.
It also means environmentalists are more likely to succeed in blocking oil and gas drilling projects that could damage the habitat of endangered plants and animals.
Trump administration policies allowed federal agencies to assess the economic impact of protecting animals and plants when deciding whether to move forward with projects, such as construction or oil drilling. If the economic consequences surpassed a threshold, the projects could continue despite the impairment of habitat.
Previously, the environmental assessments also were supposed to consider future risks for species, most commonly from climate change. President Donald Trump said future impacts no longer needed to be considered.
The Trump administration justified its 2019 changes as a more efficient way of administering the Endangered Species Act without trampling the rights of landowners or corporations.
U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar disagreed, saying in his ruling there was no reason to hold on to Trump administration rules that the Biden administration planned to change anyway. He wrote that the Biden administration has not “evinced any desire to keep the 2019 [Endangered Species Act] rules intact.”
The Endangered Species Act is a 1973 federal law that authorizes the government, individuals and organizations to petition the Fish and Wildlife Service to have a species listed as endangered or threatened. After a review, the listed species are granted special protections from developers, hunters or others that could harm them.
The law is credited with rescuing from extinction animals like the bald eagle, grizzly bear, Florida manatee and humpback whale.
The California court decision resulted from a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups to block the Trump administration rules.
“The court spoke for species desperately in need of comprehensive federal protections without compromise,” Kristen Boyles, an attorney at Earthjustice, said in a statement after the ruling Tuesday. “Threatened and endangered species do not have the luxury of waiting under rules that do not protect them.”
The ruling is consistent with a federal appellate decision in Washington a week earlier that reinstates protections for the northern spotted owls that live near the West Coast from northern California into British Columbia. Biologists estimate only about 2,000 pairs of them remain.
Saving them meant preventing timber companies from infringing on their habitat in 3.5 million acres of forests.
A timber trade association that sued said blocking their logging operations on such a large tract of land was an overreach under the Endangered Species Act.
U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon dismissed the lawsuit, saying the Biden administration acted within its discretion in making rules that prevent development of the owls’ critical habitat.
The ruling comes amid an aggressive rewrite by the Biden administration of environmental rules.
In March, the Environmental Protection Agency restored California’s authority to set its own strict greenhouse gas emissions for automobiles, reversing a Trump administration policy that said the state must comply with more lax federal standards.
The EPA also is granting states greater control over projects that could impact their water quality.
Coal and oil-fired power plants are being subjected to new regulations to limit their mercury emissions in a return to a 2012 interpretation of the Clean Air Act.
Tom can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @tramstack.