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Rabbitsfoot mussel on front line in battle pitting drillers, enviros

By   /   September 16, 2013  /   9 Comments

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.

NOT A ROCK: It might not look like much, but the Rabbitsfoot Mussel is a protected species in Pennsylvania. Developers and gas drillers want to change that.

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.

MARCELLUS SHALE: Rich in natural gas, the Marcellus shale extends beneath a wide swath of northern and western Pennsylvania.

“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 will examine the proposal Tuesday during a 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.

Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com.  Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

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Eric is a reporter for Watchdog.org and former bureau chief for Pennsylvania Independent. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he enjoys great weather and low taxes while writing about state governments, pensions, labor issues and economic/civil liberty. Previously, he worked for more than three years in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, covering Pennsylvania state politics and occasionally sneaking across the border to Delaware to buy six-packs of beer. He has also lived (in order of desirability) in Brussels, Belgium, Pennsburg, Pa., Fairfield, Conn., and Rochester, N.Y. His work has appeared in Reason Magazine, National Review Online, The Freeman Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Examiner and elsewhere. He received a bachelor's degree from Fairfield University in 2009, but he refuses to hang on his wall until his student loans are fully paid off sometime in the mid-2020s. When he steps away from the computer, he enjoys drinking craft beers in classy bars, cheering for an eclectic mix of favorite sports teams (mostly based in Philadelphia) and traveling to new places.

  • Christian J Heinbockel

    The least understandable part of this controversy is the idea of keeping this list secret. A developer invests in a parcel of land with the intention of building a residential area and not until the bulldozers show up is he informed of the endangered species his enterprise may affect. The same rationale is used for the oil & gas industry, after they have invested sums of money in exploration and planning perhaps even to the point of preparing the well site and moving equipment to it are they informed of any affected endangered species. It also seems likely that the state gov’t has also collected fees for permitting and payroll taxes from the people who were employed in the previously mentioned activities.
    Based on face value this does not seem to be an equitable implementation of existing regulations and should be reevaluated at all levels.
    If all current regulations had been in place 250 years ago the borders of our country would be within 100 miles of the Atlantic Ocean and no structure would be higher than a tepee.

  • Steve From Pittsburgh

    Well.. think about this… so, a gas company wants to go drill somewhere… now, they know that place has endangered species… they “hire” someone to take care of them… boom.. no more worries… go drill.
    That’s the point of it being secret!

  • edward j wolfe

    That cool ,but it’s O K to kill lots of birds with wind turbines !

  • Montanan and Free

    Surprise, surprise! Environmentalist hate the Oil & Gas world so much that any excuse is a good one, but, does their commitment extend to living in a world without gas or crude oil? Not likely!
    I would like to have the carbon footprint of Al Gore!

  • justagoodoleboy

    Regardless of taking sides, the oil and gas industry has no regard for the environment. The only thing that matters to them is money.

  • Salt Springs Lake PA

    E There are maybe 2 dozen of these wells within 5 miles of my PA place. I wondered why they liked to pads on top of hills, just to have to drill deeper?, now I see it keeps them away from certain protected habitats. I am amazed at how invisible these wells are in the area especially once finished and producing.
    I keep hearing how they are destroying the environment and polluting the water, but I don’t see it. I sometimes see a drill rig rise above the tree line in the distance for a month or so and then its gone. I do see a lot of water trucks on the nicely paved roads they paid for.

  • Frank Castle

    So transplant the mussels to a “nursery pond” set up,to preserve them, and when the drilling etc is completed. PUT EM BACK! Geez…

  • Frank Castle

    So, have you given up YOUR use of oil and gas? Or are you a mouthy fraud?

  • justagoodoleboy

    I guess you missed the first four words of my post.

    Reading comprehension eluded you.