With Obama’s time short, Ken Paxton sues feds for perhaps the last time



Highlights

Texas attorney general attacks what he says is federal overreach on critical habitat definitions.

Federal officials have said the species protection rules are meant to increase transparency, efficiency.

Obama administration has been challenged by Texas officials on environmental matters at least two dozen times.

For perhaps the last time before President Barack Obama leaves office, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has filed suit against the federal government for what he considers federal overreach, this time in an endangered species matter.

Deservedly or not, the Obama administration has been a ready punching bag for Texas state officials the last eight years — Paxton’s predecessor, Gov. Greg Abbott, once famously described his job as waking up in the morning, suing the federal government, and returning home — and with fellow Republican Donald Trump ascending to the presidency in less than two months, state officials appear to be confronting a future without an obvious political foe in Washington.

In the latest lawsuit, filed in a federal court in Alabama on Tuesday, Texas joined 17 other states attacking new federal rules involving endangered species habitat.

The issue runs hot and heavy in Texas, where real estate and oil and gas interests sometimes find themselves running into habitat rules. In Central Texas, environmentalists and developers have waged pitched battles over protections for the golden-cheeked warbler, for instance, or the Barton Springs salamander, to name two of the most famous protected species.

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One rule revises the definition of “destruction or adverse modification” of habitat.

Under the old definition, habitat destruction involved “a direct or indirect alteration that appreciably diminishes the value of critical habitat for both the survival and recovery of a listed species.”

But courts found that the definition was wanting. Thus, the new definition holds that destruction is anything that diminishes “the conservation of a listed species.”

RELATED: Barton Springs project for salamanders likely to cost $1.7 million

Another rule clarifies the procedures and standards used for designating critical habitat.

Federal officials say the changes are meant to increase transparency.

“The Endangered Species Act is the last safety net between our most at-risk species and extinction, and, as such, we want to do everything we can to make sure it functions efficiently and effectively,” Gary Frazer, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s assistant director for ecological services, said in February, when the rules were finalized.

But the suit says the changes would allow the government “to exercise virtually unlimited power to declare land and water critical habitat for endangered and threatened species, regardless of whether that land or water is occupied or unoccupied by the species, regardless of the presence or absence of the physical or biological features necessary to sustain the species, and regardless of whether the land or water is actually essential to the conservation of the species habitat protections for endangered species.”

RELATED: Texas mussel proposed as endangered, with implications for waterways

The rules were proposed in 2014.

But that didn’t stop Paxton on Tuesday from suggesting the rules were “another end run around Congress by a president who is desperate to establish his environmental legacy by any means necessary before his time in office ends in less than 60 days.”

“The Obama administration,” he said, “is hiding behind bogus rules to perpetrate land grabs, kill energy projects and block economic development.”

Texas has challenged the federal government on at least two dozen environmental-related cases since Obama took office.


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