The Bush administration is trying to make it tougher for Congress to block mining and oil and gas drilling on public lands.
The Bureau of Land Management, which manages 258 million acres of federal property, stripped from its regulations Thursday a provision that gives two Congressional committees the power to compel the Interior Secretary to temporarily place public land off limits to mining and oil and gas development.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and top candidate for interior secretary under President-elect Barack Obama, attempted to employ the little-used provision for the first time in more than 20 years earlier this year in an effort to halt uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.
The House Natural Resources Committee passed a measure to block the mining 20-2, but the Interior Department has yet to issue an emergency withdrawal, saying there were not enough Republicans present for a quorum.
In a written statement Thursday, Grijalva said the last-minute change was part of a strategy by the Bush administration to avoid complying with the resolution.
"I will continue to fight this rule change and all midnight regulations to roll back protections for our environment which are coming down the pike before the new administration is sworn in," he said.
While the law still allows the House Natural Resources Committee or Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to use the provision, the lack of a regulation would likely make it more susceptible to legal challenges. Previous attempts to use the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act have been challenged on constitutional grounds, since the committees' resolutions don't require the approval of the full House or Senate, or Congress.
Alaska Rep. Don Young, the top Republican on the House panel, applauded the administration's action saying it was needed to ensure that the country's energy potential was tapped. The uranium mined near the Grand Canyon would supply nuclear power plants.
"We cannot afford to have more of our nation's vital minerals and energy supplies to be locked up by ill-advised actions of a single Congressional committee," said Young, who called the regulations removed Thursday invalid and unconstitutional.
The rule still allows the Interior Secretary to issue emergency withdrawals when mining and other development poses a threat to natural resources.
Only four other times in history has the House committee attempted to use the law. The last time was in 1983.