The wind, oil and gas industries will no longer face penalties for causing incidental migratory bird deaths, per a legal argument published Friday by the Interior Department.
The brief, which calls repercussions for bird deaths a “sword of Damocles,” replaces a conflicting argument laid down by the Obama Administration that threatened fines on industry for “incidental takes,” of more than 1,000 species of migrating birds.
Rep. Liz Cheney had proposed an amendment to the same effect that passed through in the U.S. House of Representatives in November, part of a larger bill attempting to give states more control over permitting and regulating oil and gas activities.
The new legal position from the Trump administration has rankled environmental groups like the Audubon Society who say it sets back conservation efforts and gives industry a free pass to be careless. Industry groups are applauding the action, saying they were unfairly threatened with expensive charges when birds were killed by their otherwise lawful operations.
The Obama approach, ushered in at the tail end of his administration, conflated migratory bird protections with endangered species protections, said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance in Denver.
“Those restrictions that reduce jobs and economic opportunity are justified when birds are truly threatened or endangered and any impact can threaten their survival, but not for species that are not,” she said in a statement Friday.
Sgamma criticized a 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study often cited by the Audubon society that reported 500,000 to 1 million bird deaths per year from oil field waste pits.
While industry groups argue that the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act was being misapplied, conservation groups say the expansion of the law was a milestone in protecting bird species from the perils of development.
The Trump administration is pitting economic advancement against conservation in what had been a bi-partisan issue, argued said David O’Neill, Audubon’s chief conservation officer, in a statement Friday.
“Christmas came early for bird killers,” O’Neill wrote. “By acting to end industries’ responsibility to avoid millions of gruesome bird deaths per year, the White House is parting ways with more than 100 years of conservation legacy.”
The Audubon society said it would fight the Trump administration move.