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Science Pendulum Swings Quickly in White House

Environmental and scientific policy reversals signal difference between last and current presidential administrations.

Environmentalists and scientists hoping for a quick roll-back of Bush administration policies, which critics said endangered the environment and elbowed scientists out of the regulatory process, have been handed a host of major victories in the first six weeks of Barack Obama's presidency.

The latest announcement this week, that Obama will overturn a midnight regulation weakening the Endangered Species Act, was hailed as a victory for both embattled wildlife and the scientists charged with protecting it.

The Bush regulation would have allowed federal agencies to proceed with projects such as the construction of roads and dams without first consulting government scientists about the risks to endangered habitat.

"President Obama rightly restored the proper role of government scientists in deciding the fate of imperiled species," the Union of Concerned Scientists' Francesca Grifo was quoted in a statement. "His predecessor pushed federal scientists aside to pave the way for potentially destructive federal projects."

Grifo, who has been a vocal critic of abuses of scientific integrity during the Bush administration, said the last-minute regulation "made it easier for federal agencies to cherry pick science to justify their projects."

The Environmental Defense Fund called the announcement "another indication that science is once again respected within the White House."

The announcement, which came as Obama and new Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar were celebrating the 160th anniversary of the Interior Department, was also celebrated by a number of organizations that had little love for the previous administration, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club.  

The decision follows several other early and dramatic shifts in environmental and scientific policy by the Obama administration, as well as several court decisions striking down Bush-era policies.

Salazar last month announced he would cancel leases to drill for oil and gas on Utah land near a national park. Last week, he added that he would throw out a regulation, put on the books in January by the Bush administration, rushing the development of oil shale in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Feb. 17 announced it was re-examining a rule preventing the government from regulating carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. Several environmental groups had filed suit against the Bush administration to overturn the memorandum, which was signed on Dec. 18. Those same groups now say the EPA's shift will open the door for future regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions at power plants.

Signaling another significant shift in the government attitude toward science, Obama announced in early February that he would issue a new executive order reforming the way the Office of Management and Budget reviews regulations. The seemingly arcane issue has been a sensitive one for government scientists, many of whom felt that Bush's OMB had politicized the use of science in crafting regulations.

On the legal front
A federal court in February ruled that the EPA must close a three-decade-old loophole that allowed polluting companies to evade paying for environmental cleanup by filing for bankruptcy. Industries such as mining would in the future — once EPA regulations are written — be required to provide financial assurance that they can pay for the cleanup.

In another case, a federal appeals court ruled on Feb. 24 that Bush administration clean-air standards for airborne particles like soot were insufficient. Earthjustice argued that the EPA ignored recommendations by its own scientists, and the regulation will now be sent back to the EPA for review.

The court ruled that the EPA's adoption of weaker standards was "contrary to law and unsupported by adequately reasoned decisionmaking."

The Supreme Court on Feb. 23 also declined to hear an appeal filed by the Bush administration to overturn a ruling that an EPA regulation governing mercury pollution violated the Clean Air Act. The regulation avoided strong limits on mercury emissions from power plants. The Obama administration had asked the Supreme Court to drop the appeal.

(The court did deal one blow to environmentalists, though. Tuesday, on a 5-4 vote that upheld the position of the old administration, justices ruled that advocacy groups which haven't been directly harmed by specific regulations can't challenge them in court. The challenge centered on environmentalists opposed to salvage logging on federal lands that hadn't undergone public scrutiny. "Standing is an issue in almost all environmental litigation challenging agency compliance with federal law.," Indiana University law professor Robert Fischman commented. "In dismissing this challenge, the Court makes it more difficult for the judiciary to hear citizen suit challenges to agency actions.")

Finally, in perhaps the strongest sign yet that scientists are reclaiming a prominent role in government — and in our national debate over how to solve issues like climate change, energy independence and health care — a newly appointed government scientist made an appearance this week ... on The Daily Show.

Watch here, as Nobel laureate and Presidential Council of Advisers on Science and Technology co-chair Harold Varmus tackles such questions as, "Does eight years in the wilderness do real damage to science?"