Protecting high-quality trout streams would become more difficult under legislation being considered by the Pennsylvania General Assembly, which could also remove protections for state-designated threatened and endangered species.
The Endangered Species Coordination Act has been sharply criticized by environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which warned about its implications for trout streams.
But the legislation is backed by the powerful natural gas industry, as well as coal-mining and home builder organizations.
Right now, the designation of endangered and threatened species and trout streams are recommended by agency biologists from the state Fish and Boat Commission and Game Commission, both of which are overseen by independent commissions rather than a governor-appointed secretary like most state agencies.
If the commissions agree with the scientific basis for the recommendations by biologists, the designations go through a formal state rule-making process.
The legislation would require all such designations to also be reviewed by legislative committees and then be approved by the state Independent Regulatory Review Commission, a five-member panel appointed by the governor and legislative leaders.
In addition, the legislation would require all current state-designated threatened and endangered species to go through the new review process within two years or lose their designations.
“We are simply asking for sufficient burden of proof that a species is truly endangered or under a threat of extinction,” said Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong, who introduced the bill, which has been the subject of several recent hearings. A version has also been introduced in the Senate.
In a joint letter, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association argued to lawmakers that the two commissions should follow the same procedures as state agencies. “We endorse an open and transparent designation process which includes the necessary checks and balances and is best achieved through the regulatory review process,” they wrote.
The legislation does not affect federally listed threatened or endangered species.
The presence of state-designated species could delay, force alteration or sometimes prevent some projects from going forward. High-quality trout streams designated by the Fish and Boat Commission also receive special protection from development.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, one of many environmental groups objecting to the proposed change, warned that the scientific basis for designating trout streams would be diluted under the legislation.
“None of the proposed committees would have the scientific expertise or standards needed to evaluate the need for stream designation changes,” the CBF said in a letter to lawmakers. “This layering of further oversight will fail to ensure the scientific data will be accurately assessed and may in fact lead to merely increasing workloads on agency staff and slowing down the review process.”