Independent oil and natural gas producers gave high marks to the House Resources Committee for passing two bipartisan bills last week that would reform the 30-year-old Endangered Species Act (ESA), placing a heavier burden on the federal government to show a species is endangered before actually listing it and foreclosing its habitat to development.

Producers favor anything that uses better science and provides more certainty about “where we can be and when we can be there,” and that does not overstate the size of the critical habitat area, said Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA).

The bills, which were sponsored by Reps. Dennis Cardoza (D-CA) and Greg Walden (R-OR), are particularly important for producers in the InterMountain West region, which has a number of species listed as threatened or endangered and a wide swath of federal lands, he noted. The InterMountain West area covers everything from the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Madre, including New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

The House Resources’ measures “[would] put much better science into whether species should be listed” as endangered, and it would provide a “much better handle of the area that needs to be protected from development,” Fuller told NGI.

The existing act, which was passed into law under the Nixon administration, “tends to protect more area” than is needed to shield an endangered species, he noted. The proposed House reforms would provide a more accurate reading of the surface area that would be off-limits to drilling, as well as a more accurate assessment of the timing (such as mating and nesting seasons) when producers could not drill, Fuller said.

It’s doubtful that legislation reforming the ESA will get out of Congress this year, particularly in light of the abbreviated session due to the presidential election this year. While the measures could get to the House floor when lawmakers return from their six-week recess in September, the Senate isn’t expected to take up the issue until the next Congress.

“It’s likely to become a priority next year,” said Will Hart, a spokesman for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the ESA. The Senate panel will hold only one hearing — a field hearing in Wyoming — on the issue this year, he noted.

Putting a species, whether animal or plant, on the endangered list can have wide repercussions in the energy industry, according to Fuller. For example, if the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decides to list the Sage Grouse as endangered, it would affect producers in 11 states, he said.

The ESA was enacted into law to conserve and recover species identified as threatened or endangered to healthy populations, but it has had a poor recovery rate over its 30-year history. The law has recovered only 12 of 1,300 listed species, for a success rate of 0.01%. “Unintended consequences have rendered it a failed managed-care program that checks species in, but never checks them out,” said House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-CA).

Responding to critics who says the proposed reforms would “gut or weaken” the ESA, “To them I ask, how could we possibly make this law any weaker than its unintended consequences have — and its results show — over the last thirty years?”

The Cardoza bill, the “Critical Habitat Reform Act” (H.R. 2933), would adjust the “arbitrary” deadline under which the FWS is required to designate critical habitat, giving the agency more time to collect data. The objective would be to re-focus the FWS’s sights on species recovery and improving the 0.01% success rate.

The Walden initiative, the “Sound Science for ESA Planning Act” (H.R. 1662), would bolster the science used in species recovery by requiring a peer review of decisions involved in listing a species as endangered.

“These are common-sense reforms, designed to hold this runaway law accountable to sound science and peer review,” said Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-MT), a committee member. They would “impose scientific accountability on federal bureaucrats empowered with spending millions of tax dollars to list and control the habitat of whatever species they determine to be threatened.”

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