HARRISBURG - A bill that would shift final decisions on designating Pennsylvania's endangered species from the state's wildlife and fish agencies to a panel of five political appointees advanced a step in the state House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, said after the 16-8 House Game and Fisheries Committee vote that the chamber's Republican majority leaders have given him no assurances it will get a floor vote.
The bill is pitting conservationists, sportsmen and the state's wildlife and fish agencies against developers and the natural gas industry.
Pyle accused the state Game Commission and Fish and Boat Commission of flouting the law in the designation of some endangered species, such as freshwater mussels. The accompanying protections are hurting commercial enterprise in his home county, he said, from quarries to companies that might dredge sand and gravel from the Allegheny River.
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.
The committee chairman, Rep. Martin Causer, R-Annin Township, said during debate that the bill would expose the wildlife and fish agencies to the same regulatory review process to which every other executive-branch agency is subject.
"It's a system of checks and balances," Causer said.
The five-member Independent Regulatory Review Commission has one appointee from the governor and each of the four legislative caucus leaders. The bill would allow the commission to reject endangered species decisions with a majority vote.
Opponents say the bill would take the final decision away from biologists and force their recommendations to go before a panel that is vulnerable to political influence and lobbying.
Rep. Keith Gillespie, R-York, called it "extremely dangerous" to expose the decision-making process to a panel of people who are not scientists.
"They do not have the know-how to make what are literally life and death decisions," Gillespie said.
Rep. Jesse White, D-McDonald, accused the bill's supporters of "politicizing science."
Pyle said the regulatory review commission would take no more than 30 days. The commission says its mission is to make certain that an executive branch agency's proposed regulations are legal, reasonable and clear and to weigh its impact on the economy, public health and safety.