Reform of the three-decades-old Endangered Species Act (ESA), which has proved to be a major headache for oil and natural gas producers and pipelines over the years, faces an uncertain future in a Democratic Congress, but some proponents remain upbeat.

Efforts to change the law suffered a major blow in the mid-term elections with the toppling of House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-CA), the major architect of the House bill (HR 3824) that seeks to upgrade the existing ESA law. Pombo and other reform proponents claim the current law fails to actually protect endangered species while imposing burdensome regulations on land use. But opponents of HR 3824 say it would lead to the loss of endangered species protection for plants and wildlife.

Environmental groups, which oppose ESA reform, poured more than $1 million into the campaign of Democrat Jerry McNerney, who lost to Pombo in 2004. This time around, however, McNerney, a wind energy consultant, beat out Pombo with 53% majority of the vote, putting an end to the California Republican’s crusade to reform the ESA.

As for the odds of ESA reform in a Democratic House, “I don’t think it’s a secret that Nancy Pelosi is not a fan of what Congressman Pombo has been trying to do” with respect to changing the ESA, said Spencer Pederson, spokesman for Rep. George Radanovich (R-CA), a strong backer of the House reform bill. Pelosi was elected last week as the next Speaker of the House.

The Republican-led House passed the ESA reform bill, the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2005, in the fall of 2005, but the Senate has yet to act on the measure, Pederson said. If, as expected, no action is taken on the bill before the 109th Congress adjourns in December, it won’t be carried over to the 110th Congress, he noted.

Pederson agreed that ESA modernization could be dead in the water in a Democratic Congress.

But a spokesman for Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), an advocate of ESA reform, appeared more hopeful. “Right now the big question is whether the Democratic leadership is going to have the same kind of commitment that previous Congresses have had to common-sense efforts to modernize this 32-year-old law,” said Dallas Boyd.

“This remains to be seen. We certainly hope” Democrats will display the same kind of support for ESA reform, he noted. “This is a strongly bipartisan effort.” He noted that when the ESA reform bill came up on the House floor in 2005, 36 Democrats voted for passage. “So there’s certainly support among the Democratic caucus for this initiative,” Boyd said.

Even with the defeat of Pombo in the mid-term elections, he noted that “Congressman Walden’s commitment to reforming this law is certainly undiluted.” On the Senate side. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) signaled recently that she will continue to push for modernization of the ESA in the new Congress.

While the “loss of Chairman Pombo is clearly a blow,” ESA reform “is an issue that is much bigger than any one man or woman,” said Jim Sims, executive vice president of Partnership for America, a Denver, CO-based grass roots group involved in energy, conservation, ESA reform and a number of other issues.

The critical question is whether “this is a Congress that will see the wisdom of making the act work better,” he said. Sims told NGI that he remains optimistic that “logic will prevail and both parties will understand that this act needs to be improved dramatically for wildlife.” He noted that his group’s campaign to encourage ESA reform “is not going to slow down one iota.”

He believes the numbers will eventually catch up with the policymakers. “The almost unrivaled record of failure in this act to recover species will have to be addressed at some point,” Sims said, adding that the current ESA law has been responsible for recovering less than 1% of all species that have been listed on the act since it was passed in 1973.

“I don’t know of a single federal law with the regulatory reach of this law that has a similarly poor record of success.”

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