By MATTHEW BROWN and ELLEN KNICKMEYER
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Down to its final weeks, the Trump administration is working to push through dozens of environmental rollbacks that could weaken century-old protections for migratory birds, allow more Arctic drilling and hamstring the future regulation of public-health threats.
The pending changes, which benefit oil and gas and other industries, deepen the challenges for President-elect Joe Biden, who made restoring and advancing protections for the environment, climate and public health a central piece of his campaign.
“We’re going to see a real scorched-earth effort here at the tail end of the administration,” said Brian Rutledge, a vice president at the National Audubon Society.
The proposed changes cap four years of unprecedented environmental deregulation by President Donald Trump, whose administration has worked to fundamentally change how federal agencies apply and enforce the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and other protections.
Most of the changes are expected to sail through the approval process, which will include the White House releasing the final version and publication in the Federal Register.
Some decisions, if they go into effect, will be easy for Biden to simply reverse. He has already pledged to return the United States to the Paris climate accord as a first step in his own $2 trillion climate plan. But he is faced with years of work in court and within agencies to repair big Trump cuts to the nation’s framework of environmental protections.
One change that Trump wants to push through would restrict criminal prosecution for industries responsible for the deaths of the nation’s migratory birds. Hawks and other birds that migrate through the central U.S. to nesting grounds on the Great Plains navigate deadly threats — from electrocution on power lines, to wind turbines that knock them from the air and oil field waste pits where landing birds perish in toxic water.
Right now, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 offers great protections to more than 1,000 species of birds including hawks and other birds of prey. Federal prosecutors use the act to recover damages, including $100 million from BP for its 2010 oil rig spill into the Gulf of Mexico, which killed more than 100,000 seabirds.
But the Trump administration wants to make sure companies face no criminal liability for such preventable, unintentional deaths.
Federal officials advanced the bird treaty changes to the White House, one of the final steps before adoption, two days after news organizations declared Biden the winner of the presidential race.
For industry, “that’s an important one,” said Rachel Jones, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers. Jones lobbied for the changes in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act at a meeting last year between private-sector representatives and staff from the White House and Interior Department. “It really matters in relation to the infrastructure we need for a modern society.”