House approves bill to reform the Endangered Species Act

The US House of Representatives passed a bill that would reform the Endangered Species Act for the first time in 26 years.

The bill, HR 4315, would require publication on the internet of the basis for determining whether species are endangered or threatened. The 219 members voting for it included 14 Democrats, while the 190 opposing it included 8 Republicans.

Supporters argued changes were necessary because the 1973 law is not working. “While respecting the original intent of the ESA to conserve species, this bill would help make the law more effective for both species and people,” Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said.

“Because of the more than 500 ESA-related lawsuits that have been filed against the government during this administration alone, it has become clear that costly litigation is not only driving ESA priorities, but litigation has become an impediment to species recovery,” Hastings said in a floor statement before the vote.

Separately, Rob Bishop, who chairs the committee’s Public Lands and Environmental Subcommittee, added, “The ultimate goal is to ensure that threatened and endangered species are successfully recovered and that long-term management plans are put into place.”

Bishop said, “This legislation puts us on a path to do that. Without updates, we will maintain the status quo, which has had a success rate of just 2%. In every classroom in America, that counts as a failing grade. We have to do better.”

In addition to requiring federal agencies to make ESA decisions publicly available while respecting while respecting state data privacy laws and private property, HR 4315 would:

• Require the federal government to disclose to affected states data used prior to an ESA listing decision, and require the federal government’s “best available scientific and commercial data” to incorporate data provided by states, tribes, and local county governments.

• Require the US Fish and Wildlife Service to track, report to Congress, and make available online the federal taxpayer funds used to respond to ESA lawsuits, the number of employees dedicated to ESA litigation, and attorneys’ fees awarded in the course of ESA litigation and settlement agreements.

• Prioritize species protection and protect taxpayer dollars by placing reasonable caps on attorneys’ fees to make the ESA consistent with existing federal law. For example, the federal government limits the prevailing attorneys’ fees to $125/hr in most circumstances, including federal suits involving veterans, Social Security, and disability, supporters said. But under the ESA, attorneys are being awarded huge sums, in many cases, at a rate much as $600/hr, they indicated.

Independent Petroleum Association of America Pres. Barry Russell applauded the House’s action. “Species conservation and energy development go hand in hand,” he said. “Improving the ESA is a critical step in ensuring the continued protection of endangered and threatened species, while assuring the public that all listing decisions are made in a manner consistent with science and transparent data.”

The American Petroleum Institute, Western Energy Alliance, and US Chamber of Commerce also were among 25 organizations supporting the bill, which will be referred to the US Senate, where a companion bill has been introduced. The White House has said it would veto the measure.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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