Proposed Pennsylvania legislation would make it more difficult to list and protect endangered species in the state, while making it potentially easier to site wells in the Marcellus Shale, but it also could force the "taking" of more than $27 million a year in federal funding for state fish and game commissions, according to officials.
Companion bills introduced in June and July by Republican state Rep. Jeff Pyle of Armstrong (HB 1576) and Sen. Joe Scarnati of Jefferson (SB 1047) would curb the authority of two independent state commissions to protect threatened and endangered species, and give the state more control over the listings, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which overseas the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) program.
The industry-led Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association and the Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania outlined their support for the legislation in a letter last month. The industry groups said the changes would provide for more effective resource development in Pennsylvania.
If the state were to supersede federal authority, Pennsylvania would be ineligible for federal fish and wildlife restoration grants, said FWS Division of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration chief John Organ. He expressed his "significant concerns" in August to Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) Executive Director Carl Roe.
"This could be a violation of federal regulations and result in loss of eligibility to participate in the grant programs," Organ said of the proposed legislation.
The FWS grant program requires state commissions to have independent authority over species conservation, as well as how restoration grants and license revenue are spent.
The proposed bills, which have been referred to committees, would require that all endangered species designations by the PGC and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) be approved by state legislative committees, as well as a joint legislative regulatory review committee.
Plants, fish or animals on the state's endangered and threatened listings would be delisted and reconfirmed every two years. In addition, bills would prohibit designating species as state threatened or endangered if they already are listed under the ESA.
A controversial point in the legislation concerns a shift in paying for the species studies.
Under the proposals, the burden and financial costs of proving the presence of endangered species to government agencies would be shifted to Pennsylvania agencies from developers/industry applying for permits to operate in a specific area. The legislation also proposes to create a centralized, publicly accessible endangered species database to enable individuals, developers or industry to identify their locations.
The PGC this year received 24% of its total budget, or $19 million, from a a federal wildlife restoration grant. The PFBC received almost 30% of its budget for 2013, or $8.3 million, from federal officials.
PFBC Executive Director John Arway said the amount of the grants at risk "certainly got my attention..." The proposals "would stop our ability to list species, and that goes to the very heart of our mission as an independent commission of state government."
At a hearing on the bills held in August, Roe testified that the state commissions have the expertise to best manage the endangered species program.
"It is an increase in bureaucracy that results in totally inefficient and ineffective governance," Roe stated. "Having an independent regulatory commission review the actions of another independent regulatory commission is redundant government that will negatively impact our constituents and will negatively impact our wildlife resources."
According to the PGC, Pennsylvania has 28 birds, bats and mammals are on the endangered and threatened lists, including the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, northern flying squirrel, great egret, short- and long-eared owls, and small-footed and Indiana bats.
The PFBC oversees 62 listings of 62 state endangered or threatened fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates, which include the short-nosed sturgeon, spotted gar, Massasauga rattlesnake, bog turtle and 10 freshwater mussels species. Over the past five years, the PFBC has added 13 species to the state's endangered list and removed 11 species, Arway said.
Pyle's bill was introduced after a school district within his purview was required to pay to mitigate the impact of a construction project in Indiana bat habitat -- a federal and Pennsylvania endangered species. In the required assessment the school district said it found no evidence of bats on the property.
Pyle told reporters that in addition to helping public entities, it was "fair to say" that the proposed legislation would benefit Marcellus Shale developers and the coal industry.
"The gas guys have said this legislation is great because now when they buy the gas rights they have no way of checking if the property is in the endangered range," Pyle told reporters. "This bill allows them to check if it's in the range. The oil and gas industry has provided tremendous employment. All I'm asking is for the commissions to show us the proof that the animals are there."
Pyle claimed that attorneys with the House Republican Caucus told him the federal money would not be lost if the legislation is enacted. Rather, it would be re-appropriated to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.