PITTSBURGH (AP) – As gas drilling booms in Pennsylvania, major industry groups are backing efforts to change the state’s endangered and threatened species laws, alterations that environmentalists say could have far-reaching effects on wildlife.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association, and the Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania outlined their support in an Aug. 26 letter obtained by The Associated Press. The industry said the proposed legislation provides for “more efficient and effective resource development” as well as “transparency and accountability.”

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Legislation in the state House and Senate would put some limits on the exclusive authority that the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission currently have to list birds, animals, fish and other species, and to grant special consideration to special Wild trout Streams.

The bills would instead give the state Independent Regulatory Review Commission a major role in the listing process.

George Jugovic, a lawyer with the environmental group Penn Future, said the existing system is working well, and that the political independence of the Game and Fish commissions makes them better able to protect at-risk species. In contrast, the Regulatory Review Commission members are political appointees.

The legislation “is a bad idea wrapped in a number of bad ideas,” Jugovic said.

The state programs are separate from federal endangered species listings and are often used to manage species that are threatened in a particular region but perhaps not nationally. Pennsylvania lists about 88 birds, fish, amphibians and other animals as endangered or threatened. For example, the black-crowned night heron is listed as endangered in Pennsylvania, but not nationally.

In practical terms, developers and oil and gas companies face additional restrictions when a parcel of land is listed as habitat for a threatened or endangered species.

Kathryn Klaber, the CEO of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, noted in an email that “every industry that moves dirt” must go through a comprehensive habitat review process prior to development, including coordination with multiple states agencies.

The state Fish and Boat Commission has serious concerns about the proposed changes.

Executive director John Arway told legislators last month that the proposed changes have “the very real potential to severely compromise” the state’s ability to protect species. The legislation requires a re-evaluation of the status for all species on the list within two years. Arway said that “will be virtually impossible, which means many species will go unprotected.”

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Arway said that since the legislation would only protect federally listed endangered species, other fish and animals “may disappear from Pennsylvania’s waters, wetlands and landscape.”

Jugovic said the proposed changes could make it nearly impossible to list new species, make it easier to develop sensitive areas and threaten federal conservation grants.

Rep. Martin Causer, a Turtlepoint Republican and chair of a key committee, told the AP that many legislators feel the process of listing threatened and endangered species “needs to be looked at.”

Causer said one of his key concerns is that there needs to be more opportunity for public comment in the process.

“I think there will have to be amendments to the bills,” Causer added, based on a public hearing that was held last month. He said another hearing is scheduled for Sept. 17 in Indiana, Pa., and he’s interested in hearing more comments from sportsmen and environmental groups about their concerns.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition provided a copy of the joint industry letter to the AP, but it’s not clear how much of a role Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration has in the proposal.

Patrick Henderson, Corbett’s energy executive, declined to say whether his office has lobbied for the proposed changes.

The gas-rich Marcellus Shale has led to a drilling boom in Pennsylvania over the last five years, with thousands of new wells and hundreds of miles of new pipelines. That’s brought jobs and billions of dollars in royalty payments to landowners, but also concerns over environmental impacts. The shale formation also extends under Ohio, West Virginia and New York.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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