A coterie of oil and gas companies operating in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia has applied for a special permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to cover the effects of their upstream and midstream operations on five endangered or threatened bat species.
The coalition wants an incidental take permit that would allow the companies to conduct operations that might result in the death, injury or harassment of the covered species, essentially absolving the group of liability under the federal Endangered Species Act. As required by federal law, the applicants are developing a habitat conservation plan to avoid or minimize the effects on the declining bat species.
The coalition includes Antero Resources Corp.; Ascent Resources LLC; Chesapeake Energy Corp.; Enlink Midstream LP; EQT Corp.; Rice Energy Inc.; Southwestern Energy Co.; Williams Companies Inc.; MPLX LP, subsidiary MarkWest Energy Partners LP, and parent Marathon Petroleum Corp. The permit would cover exploration and production, as well as pipeline development.
As part of the environmental review process, FWS began a 30-day comment period, which ended this week and included several public meetings in all three states in addition to a webinar. The conservation plan and permit would cover the endangered Indiana bat and the threatened northern long-eared bat, the little brown bat, the eastern small-footed bat and the tri-colored bat.
FWS said an environmental impact statement (EIS) must be developed before it can issue the permit. Additional opportunities for public comment will be offered when the draft EIS is released, which the FWS anticipates in late 2017.
In recent years, populations of North American bats, especially in the eastern, southern and midwestern United States, have dwindled. Bat fatalities have been attributed to white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that affects hibernating bats and appears on the muzzle and other parts of their bodies. Tree removal from logging, road-building, construction of pipeline corridors and other industrial activity fragments the dense forests bats rely on for feeding and roosting.
The Center for Biological Diversity has filed comments opposing the permit on behalf of several national and local environmental groups. "Bat populations are plummeting, and any additional stress or harm to these species and their habitat only exacerbates the risk that they will be gone forever," said Ryan Talbott, an attorney for the Allegheny Defense Project. The groups argue that it's not possible to adequately craft a plan that foresees the kind of management needed to protect species and their habitat over the course of decades.
Similar to the sage grouse in the West, bats have been a bone of contention in the Northeast in recent years, posing hurdles for oil and gas development at a time when regulatory scrutiny has increased. Energy Transfer Partners LP has urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve its Rover Pipeline this week, citing a seasonal window for tree-clearing to avoid harming two protected species of bats. The company said that window closes in March and won't restart until the fall, which could risk delaying the project by a full year without immediate approval.