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Bill to update Endangered Species Act pleases US oil and gas producers

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Bill to update Endangered Species Act pleases US oil and gas producers

New draft legislation to update the Endangered Species Act could remove barriers to oil and gas development, but environmental groups are fighting the bill due to concerns it will make vulnerable species harder to protect.

The Endangered Species Act, or ESA, Amendments of 2018, which would reauthorize the ESA for the first time since 1992, seeks to give states a greater role in the listing process. U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, introduced the discussion draft July 2 following close consultation with the Western Governors' Association, which backs Barrasso's efforts.

Among other things, the draft bill would require the secretary of Interior to notify states and Indian tribes impacted within 15 days of receiving a petition to list a species under the act. Affected states would have the opportunity to form "recovery teams" that can propose to modify recovery goals for listed species and recommend delisting or downlisting. The number of federal representatives on those teams, including from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or National Marine Fisheries Service, cannot exceed the number of state and local representatives.

Furthermore, the discussion draft would direct the federal government to consult with any state impacted by land acquisitions under the ESA and "give great weight to any comments" those states provide. The draft legislation would also require the listing of any species to include recovery goals, habitat objectives and other criteria established by the secretary of Interior in consultation with the states affected.

Oil and gas industry groups, including the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, came out in support of the discussion draft, saying the proposal would rightly elevate the role of states and provide regulatory certainty to industry.

"The ESA has become too cumbersome and prohibitive of responsible economic activity and job creation while being ineffective at protecting and recovering species," Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma said in a letter to Barrasso. "We fully support efforts by Congress to modernize the ESA, and the introduction of the ESA amendments of 2018 helps initiate that important process."

In an interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence, Sgamma said several listed plant and animal species’ population numbers now exceed the targets in their ESA recovery plans but inadequate data collection is preventing their delisting or downlisting. The population of the hookless cactus is one such species that Sgamma said has rebounded to the point where it needs less protection but its continued listing is hindering oil and gas production in Utah.

Sgamma said Barrasso's discussion draft bill would provide for better data collection and "is a good first step" in addressing the shortcoming of the act as perceived by industry groups. Lawmakers with the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Natural Resources are also set to unveil bills to update the ESA the week of July 9-13, she added.

The National Mining Association, which represents U.S. coal producers, also praised the draft bill. The discussion draft "would significantly improve species recovery while balancing the need for land access and natural resources development," the association said in an emailed statement.

Conversely, several conservation and environmental groups said Barrasso's proposal would wrest control over the ESA process from federal wildlife officials and give more power to Western states eager to support energy development, potentially at the expense of vulnerable species.

Those groups are particularly troubled about a provision that would bar judicial review of delisting decisions for five years to give the government time to monitor the outcome of the designation, said Jordan Giaconia, a federal policy associate at the Sierra Club.

The provision "is a pretty much outright attempt to prevent the public from holding agency officials accountable," Giaconia said.

A spokesperson with the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the draft bill's prospects. Although Republicans control the Senate, House and executive branch, opponents of the proposed ESA reforms are promising a fight.

"I think the American public and a lot of our congressional champions ... are going to be ready to push back against this," Giaconia said.