On July 12, during a press conference at the US Capitol, a procession of suit-wearing white men, steeped in oil-and-gas money, took turns at a podium to declare legislative war on the Endangered Species Act (ESA). First, though, like all good aggressors, they vilified their enemy.
Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, who has received more than $400,000 in oil-and-gas campaign cash over the course of his 15-year congressional career, called the act “the most inept program we have in the federal government.” Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte, best known for body-slamming a political reporter during the 2017 special election, described the law as a “bludgeoning tool for frivolous lawsuits from special-interest groups.” Representative Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, who has raked in nearly $150,000 in oil-and-gas campaign money, implied erroneously that the ESA has relied in the past on “fake science…to achieve some other political purpose that really has nothing to do with the environment.” Standing beside these and other politicians as they spoke was the approving leader of the Western Energy Alliance, a hard-charging trade group that represents some of the most politically influential fossil-fuel corporations in the country.
Taken together, this scene perfectly captured the de facto corruption fueling the current political attack on this country’s most iconic environmental law—and on America’s conservation system more broadly.
At the present moment, an alliance of conservative legislators, Trump administration officials, fossil-fuel front groups and their allies are leading the most sustained attempt in decades to sabotage the ESA. In Congress, Bishop and members of the Western caucus are pushing a package of nine bills that are ostensibly meant to “modernize” the ESA but which, in fact, would mutilate it. Among other things, these bills would make it easier to roll back federal protections for endangered or threatened species, make it harder for citizens’ groups to petition to have a new species protected under the law, effectively make it more costly for legal advocates to use the courts to enforce the act, and give additional influence to state and local governments that are so often captured by industry interests.
In defense of the package and its sponsors, Tanner Hanson, a spokesperson for the congressional Western Caucus, says the legislative package is an effort to correct “deficiencies, themselves not intended by Congress, that have put roadblocks in front of conservation, development, or both” and “that might not otherwise be evident to the average lay-supporter of the Act.”
“Our members have long been vocal advocates for a policy of responsible economic development—energy, infrastructure, you name it,” he adds. “If it boosts the American economy and the position of the average worker without generating significant externality, they’ll give it serious consideration.”