Energy Interests Prevail in Legislative Process, State Rep. Writes

State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil

State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil

Editor’s Note: This column was reprinted with permission from state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, who has long been a proponent of responsible drilling. In it, he writes about the Endangered Species Coordination Act. White states:

(It) was supposed to “establish a uniform and transparent process for evaluating; designating and protecting threatened and endangered species and their critical habitats in the Commonwealth.” But upon actually reading and analyzing the bill, it became clear that this was more about making it easier to keep endangered species and habitats off of the endangered list to allow development of those habitats, mainly for energy development.

But I will let him tell the story. Here is the column in its entirety. -amanda

Who’s Really The Endangered Species Here?

One of the committees I serve on in the State House of Representatives is the Game and Fisheries Committee, a committee that doesn’t usually end up in the headlines. But last week a piece of legislation we considered made headlines across Pennsylvania, and it’s a good example of how special interests get involved in the legislative process.

House Bill 1576, also known as the “Endangered SpeciesCoordination Act”, was supposed to “establish a uniform and transparent process for evaluating; designating and protecting threatened and endangered species and their critical habitats in the Commonwealth.” But upon actually reading and analyzing the bill, it became clear that this was more about making it easier to keep endangered species and habitats off of the endangered list to allow development of those habitats, mainly for energy development.

The energy industry wasn’t hiding their support for this bill; in fact, they were among the first to stake a position. A letter sent by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association urged passage of the bill, throwing in government buzzwords like “transparency”, “consistency” and “accountability”. Now, why would the energy industry care about the endangered species and high-quality streams unless there was something in it for them? The red flags were almost too obvious.

One of the big sticking points was the requirement that the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, commonly known as IRRC, approve all recommendations. This is problematic because IRRC has no scientists on their staff; the practical impact meaning that bureaucrats will be reviewing the work of scientists with no basis on knowing what they are really looking at. To many, including me, it smacks of politicizing science, which is bad public policy.

Groups representing sportsmen and outdoorsmen had serious concerns about the bill, as did environmental groups and the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. When virtually all the stakeholders have such a problem with a proposed bill, that usually indicates there are real issues to be concerned about, and HB 1576 was no exception.

The Fish and Boat Commission noted that HB 1576 creates anunfunded mandate for the agency, further limiting the PFBC’s ability to adequately survey and conserve the aquatic resources of the Commonwealth. They also noted the bill disallows consideration of species that are rare, but unlisted, in the permitting process, therefore not providing the needed protection to prevent further population declines. So in effect, there’s no way to fix a potential problem until it’s way too late.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission noted this legislation fixes a problem that does not exist, and requiring the listing of a species to go through the IRRC approval process will add months – and potentially years – onto the process and result in added layers of inefficient bureaucracy. Moreover, HB 1576 will have the opposite effect of its intended goal because state endangered species programs serve as a first line of defense in protecting species not yet federally listed.

There was also major concern about how the bill effectively eliminates the exemption under the Right to Know Law that protects threatened and endangered species location information from disclosure. This gives a virtual road map for poachers who will know exactly where to find these threatened and endangered species by simply filing a request under the Right to Know Law.

Despite all of these perfectly legitimate concerns, HB 1576 passes the Game and Fisheries Committee by a vote of 16-8 and now heads to the full House of Representatives for consideration. I was one of the eight “NO” votes.

An interesting note- the meeting in which we voted on the bill was attended by virtually every energy industry lobbyist in the Capitol. As they slapped themselves on the back in congratulations, it was disheartening to see how routine it has become to chip away at the ability of Pennsylvania’s strong heritage of outdoorsmen, sportsmen and nature enthusiasts so long as you have friends in the right places.

To get updates from state Rep. Jesse White, you can access his website here or “like” him on Facebook here.

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