How do you change environmental laws to favor fossil fuel and mining industries without Congress? You gut regulations by having federal agencies issue a new rule. It is a move President Trump loves to make. In four years, the Trump administration has rolled back more than 125 environmental protections. Even now, dozens more are in the works.
The most recent new rule by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service involves migratory birds. On February 3, 2020, the FWS published a new rule to clarify the ban on the “take” of birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The proposed rule states that the scope of the MBTA applies only to intentional injuring or killing of birds, but conduct that results in the unintentional injury or death of migratory birds is prohibited. The FWS published an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in June and in November and announced the publication of the final EIS.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act: Doing the Bidding of Big Oil
The new rule is a major rollback of the MBTA just two months before Joe Biden takes office. Big Oil drives the move gutting the MBTA. Tellingly, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt is a former oil lobbyist. At least 17 of Bernhardt’s former clients received handouts from the Trump administration during his time as Interior Secretary, according to research by Western Values Project. Excluding incidental killings of birds from the MBTA shields oil companies from liabilities and penalties. The rule would “likely result in increased bird mortality,” as the final EIS acknowledges. But that does not matter as long as Bernhardt’s oil industry cronies are happy.
Western Values Project obtained a request by Western Energy Alliance, submitted to the FWS “suggesting statutory changes to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.” The Independent Petroleum Association of America, Berhardt’s former client, had inside knowledge of the pending rollbacks, the documents also revealed.
“Trump just keeps solidifying his legacy of the worst environmental, public lands, and wildlife presidency in history. This is yet another gift to Big Oil by corrupt Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on his way out the door. Bernhardt puts yet another favor for Big Oil before the needs of small businesses and workers during a pandemic, illustrating “everything that is wrong with the Trump administration and its priorities,” said Western Values Project Director Jayson O’Neill.
The rollbacks of the MBTA extend protections to industry activities that kill birds. If the rollback was in place in 2010, BP would not have faced consequences under the MBTA for the more than one million birds killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. BP paid $100 million in fines thanks to the MBTA protections recently weakened.
Why so many oppose the rollbacks
There is bipartisan opposition to the MBTA rollback, including from congressional members, more than 25 states, tribal governments, scientists, and 250,000 people who submitted comments opposing the rollback.
One reason for the opposition is that the Trump administration sped up the environmental review process by minimizing the comment period and did not do a thorough analysis of environmental impacts and reasonable alternatives. “This environmental review process has made a mockery of the public engagement and scientific review required under the law,” as David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society stated.
Another reason for the opposition is that migratory birds need full protection. Three million birds in North America have been lost since 1970. Climate change threatens two-thirds of North American birds. Oil waste pits kill 500,000 to one million birds a year, which means the Trump administration extended protections to an industry responsible for so many bird deaths.