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Republicans protest polar bear rider in omnibus

Language in the omnibus spending bill that would allow the Obama administration to reverse a controversial regulation on the polar bear is raising the ire of some prominent Republicans, who claim the rider could open the door for the Interior Department to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

The top Republicans on two of the House and Senate panels overseeing natural resources, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), called for removal of the rider yesterday.

"Inserting a rider with far-reaching policy implementations for climate change and energy production without the slightest bit of debate is not good public policy," Murkowski said in a statement. "This would remove transparency and public scrutiny from the process of regulating greenhouse gas emissions."

At issue is language tucked into the massive omnibus spending bill that would give the Obama administration carte blanche to reverse two controversial endangered species rules -- one that scaled back longstanding safeguards for endangered species and another that limited protections for the polar bear.

The option for Interior to throw out the polar bear rule is generating the most ire among Republicans. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) is also working with her state's congressional delegation in opposition to the rider, a spokesman for the governor said yesterday.

The Bush administration finalized both rules in December, just in time for them to enter into force before President Obama took office. The timing leaves little recourse for the new administration to change the rules without starting over with the federal regulatory process.

The rider, however, would clear the way for the Interior or Commerce departments to throw out the Bush-era changes without going through the normal lengthy regulatory process. The spending bill is up for consideration in the House today under a rule that does not allow for any amendments. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he will allow some amendments as the Senate considers the bill within the next week.

Republicans are concerned the rider could open the door to using the polar bear's Endangered Species Act listing to force the federal government to address greenhouse gas emissions.

Last year, the Interior Department listed the polar bear as a threatened species due to its melting sea ice habitat. But to avoid using the ESA as a tool to regulate power plants across the nation, outgoing Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne also issued a special rule in December that specifies that greenhouse gas emissions cannot be regulated in an effort to protect the bear.

The rule also gives leeway for ESA's restrictions on harming or killing a bear and waives some requirements for habitat protection.

Environmental groups have sued over the rule. The lawsuit, still in its preliminary stages in federal court in California, argues that the administration issued the rule without proper notice or environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has listed the polar bear rule among those his department would closely examine to determine options to change the rules. The omnibus would make it possible for him to do so immediately.

The language in the bill says he could withdraw the polar bear rule within 60 days "without regard to any provision of statute or regulation." Otherwise, Salazar would have to follow strict guidelines for public notice and comment, a process that can take months to years to complete.

Murkowski said reneging the rule could be a "backdoor attempt" to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

But it remains unclear whether Salazar would make any attempt to use the bear as a means to achieve greenhouse gas restrictions. In a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month, Salazar said there is "no doubt" that climate change is having an impact on wildlife but dodged a question on whether he might use the Endangered Species Act to control the greenhouse gas emissions.

"The role that the ESA will play in that is something that we will take a look at, but I don't have a specific answer for you today," said Salazar.

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