By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – Most Pennsylvanians have probably never heard of the rabbitsfoot mussel.
Even fewer are likely to have encountered one of the small freshwater mollusks in the wild.
The rabbitsfoot is one of dozens of species on Pennsylvania’s state-level endangered species list, which figures to be the next front in the ongoing political battle between the state’s burgeoning natural gas industry and the environmental movement, which sees the gas drillers as a threat to the state’s natural beauty.
But for the drillers extracting gas from Pennsylvania’s rich Marcellus shale deposits, protected snakes, mussels, frogs and salamanders can stop even the most powerful of their machines.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association and other industry groups are calling for the passage of House Bill 1576, which would remove all species now on the list — though they could be re-added later.
“This legislation aims to bring consistency and transparency to the review process to ensure that habitat and species are protected while not unnecessarily halting projects, economic development and job creation,” said Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
In a letter to state lawmakers, the collection of gas-drilling lobbyists say the changes would ensure accountability — as well as that consistency and transparency — regarding how the state administers the lists by changing the regulatory process and requiring “empirical data and science” when deciding which species should be included.
That’s not sitting well with John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
“We don’t advise them on how to drill gas wells, so we don’t expect them to advise us on how to protect the Massasauga rattlesnake,” he said, referring to one of the endangered species on a list maintained by the commission.
Two House committees examined the proposal during a recent joint hearing in Indiana County. The bill could get some attention during the upcoming legislative session that begins Sept. 23.
Sixty-two fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates are protected by the state’s Fish and Boat Commission as endangered species. A similar list maintained by the Pennsylvania Game Commission includes endangered mammals and birds.
These lists are distinct from the federal endangered species list maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency. While the EPA considers the population of certain species across the entire nation, the Pennsylvania lists take into account species’ populations within the state.
So an animal that might be common in the rest of the country, but rare in Pennsylvania, could qualify for the state list without having federal protection. And that’s how the bog turtle or the banded sunfish can shut down a proposed gas well.
Or a new development of homes or the construction of a new highway.
“Every industry that moves dirt — agriculture, home builders, municipal water authorities and utilities, manufacturing, road construction and energy development — is required to go through a comprehensive habitat review process prior to development activities,” Klaber said.
It’s not only the gas drillers pushing for the changes. The Pennsylvania Home Builders Association is also in support. State Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Indiana, the sponsor of the bill, said he wanted to introduce it after protected bats shut down a school construction project in his district.
But the state’s growing gas industry is the major reason frogs, turtles and mussels on the state endangered species list could soon get the boot.
They could be re-added to the list, but doing so would require a different procedure than the one used now. The Fish and Boat Commission would have to get approval from the state Independent Regulatory Review Commission — a sort of regulator for the regulators — before doing so.
The IRRC listens to concerns of people and businesses objecting to regulations passed by other state agencies. But for now, there is no appeals process for decisions about which animals end up on the endangered species list, leaving the home builders and gas drillers with little recourse if they are told a project cannot continue because of the blue spotted salamander or the Southern leopard frog.
But Arway said the proposed changes would make the process more political and give drillers greater access to the areas where protected species live.
He also worries about a provision that would require the commission to share the list with potential developers and other industries affected by it. Now, the list is kept secret for fear that poachers would target certain areas of the state if they knew commercially valuable species — like the bog turtle — were available there.