INDIANA, Pa. -- Bald eagles, river mussels, spadefoot toads and other threatened and endangered species occupy a small but important ecological niche in Pennsylvania, but they're causing big problems for Marcellus Shale gas developers and other industries, according to many of the state senators at a hearing on proposed legislation that would make it harder to protect those species.
Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, who last year introduced Senate Bill 1047, titled the Endangered Species Coordination Act, said the legislation is all about adding "checks and balances" to the existing process of listing species and providing predictable, consistent and timely information to industries.
"No one up here," Mr. Scarnati said, referring to the panel of Senate committee members, "wants to swing the pendulum away from protecting endangered species, yet we need the jobs."
His bill seeks to curb the power of the state's fish and game authorities to protect threatened and endangered species and gives new oversight authority to legislative review committees and the Independent Regulatory Review Commission. It also would stop state agencies from considering how development proposals would impact hundreds of rare species and species of special concern when reviewing environmental permits.
And it would make it harder for the state Fish and Boat Commission to protect brook trout -- the state fish.
Sen. James Brewster, D-Monroeville, said the changes are needed. "We have to make sure that jobs and business don't become endangered, too," he said. "There's a price for progress. We have a tremendous industry with Marcellus Shale, and it's important we make way for progress."
State Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, cited the shutdown of sand and gravel dredging on the Allegheny River due to restrictions to protect endangered freshwater mussels, and said, "There's got to be balance."
Testimony at the hearing from the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry and the Pennsylvania Builders Association strongly supported the bill, which also has the endorsement of 25 industry and business trade associations and chambers of commerce in the state.
But the Senate bill and a similar measure introduced in the state House throw a much wider net over endangered and threatened species listings and protections programs than warranted, according to testimony by John Arway, executive director of the Fish and Boat Commission, and Carl Roe, executive director of the Game Commission.
Mr. Arway defended the science-based criteria used by the commission to list and de-list species and its efficiency in conducting prompt and efficient reviews of gas well and pipeline development proposals.
"To pass House Bill 1576 or Senate Bill 1047," he said in his written statement, "would be to reverse 40 years of consistent, transparent and accountable conservation."
Seven hunting, fishing and conservation groups sent an email to all the state legislators on Thursday, endorsing the long-standing scientific expertise of the fish and game commissions, questioning the politics behind the legislative proposals and urging the lawmakers to reject the proposed endangered species law changes.
About 50 people attended the hearing on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus, including 10 wearing T-shirts and holding signs with anti-Senate Bill 1047 messages.
"The politicians should not get involved," said Marianne Atkinson of DuBois. "The state's endangered species listing, the PNDI, is working and if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Sen. Richard Alloway II, R-Chambersburg, chair of the committee, noted the turnout was the largest he's had for a Senate Game and Fisheries Committee hearing and said he planned to hold at least one more and urged those interested to contact their Senate and House representatives to make their positions known.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.