09/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"No Comment" from McCain on Bush's Evisceration of Endangered Species Act

While environmentalists and the public at large have been almost singularly focused on energy issues when it comes to the environment and the presidential election, a new faultline opened last Monday that highlights John McCain's staunchly conservative, anti-environment, anti-regulation record on the Endangered Species Act and the proper role of government in protecting our air, water, lands, and wildlife.

After obtaining a leaked internal document, the AP exposed the Bush administration's latest 11th-hour plan to gut the Endangered Species Act. Instead of requiring the expert scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (or Marine Fisheries Service) to assess whether a project would adversely impact a species, federal agencies would be allowed to decide for themselves. So, the Department of Transportation, for example, would get to decide whether its own projects would be subject to possible delay or cancellation due to environmental concerns.

Second, the new rules also considerably narrow the grounds for evaluation in order to effectively prevent the impact of global warming on a species from being considered. This would close off the ESA as a legal and regulatory last resort in the face of continuing federal inaction on the protection of wildlife from the ravages of warming. This move was presaged by the backhanded listing of the Polar Bear earlier this year.

Bush and other conservatives have long sought to either repeal the ESA or render it impotent, as this proposal would. Similar efforts to gut the ESA passed the House in 2005 under the tutelage of enviro supervillain Rep. Richard Pombo, but were singlehandely blocked in the Senate by former Senator (and former Republican) Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island (who also cast the deciding vote in committee to block the disastrous Bush "Clear Skies" initiative).

Pombo, of course, went on to lose his seat in 2006 in the face of a massive campaign by environmentalists to unseat him. Just this past Monday, Chaffee joined former Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa (who was defeated in a major upset in 2006) in endorsing Obama.

The Sierra Club was quick to join others condemning both the "sweeping and egregious assault" on one of our nation's bedrock environmental laws and the shotgun manner in which the new rule is being rushed through: just 30 days for comments, no public hearings, no Congressional review.

When asked about the Bush plan, the Obama campaign answered in forceful and unequivocal terms. Obama's spokesman said that he would work to "improve [the ESA], not weaken it" and that he would immediately junk the Bush changes if elected. Meanwhile, John McCain had "no comment."

As he continues to greenwash both his poor environmental record and pro-oil energy agenda, it's no surprise that McCain would want to duck awkward questions about whether he really supports environmental laws or instead sides with pro-business special interests and the Bush Administration's ongoing war on science. Here's some of the lowlights of McCain's record on this important issue:
*Land use and species issues took center stage in the 1990s, with conservatives famously claiming that Bill Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt had declared "War on the West." John McCain consistently sided with aggresively anti-environmental special interests during this period, something that is reflected by his abysmal League of Conservation Voters scores: 1992-8%, 1993-19%, 1994-15%, 1995-7%, 1996-15%, 1997-29%, 1998-ZERO, 1999-11%, and 2000-ZERO.
*In 1995, John McCain voted to prohibit the listing of new species or the designation of critical habitat under the ESA. After the Chair then ruled the amendment out of order, McCain voted in lockstep with his Republican colleagues to overturn the ruling of the Chair.
*In 1996, John McCain cast the deciding vote to effectively continue the listing moratorium. Not coincidentally, one of the main sponsors of the amendment to continue the listing moratorium was none other than then-Senator and now-Interior Secretary, Dirk Kempthorne.
*In 2001, a severe drought intensified a water conflict that pitted legally-mandated protections for the Klammath River coho salmon against agricultural interests. McCain voted in favor of a plan by Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) to override ESA protections and a court order mandating that water flows remain at a level sufficient to protect the river's highly endangered salmon. After the Smith measure narrowly failed, subsequent intervention by Vice President Dick Cheney, chronicled in a 2007 Washington Post expose, resulted in the deaths of more than 77,000 fish and the failure of the region's chinook salmon fishery after water was diverted away from fish to agricultural interests.

John McCain wants to have it both ways. He says he supports renewable energy, but then votes against it. He says he supports environmental protection, but then votes against enforcing some our nation's most important environmental laws. He says he'll put science before politics, but then stands silently by while the Bush administration continues its unlawful assault on science and the law. It's time for John McCain to be honest and give voters some real straight talk about his record.