Little bats that are being decimated by a big disease in 28 states are now protected by the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species, a decision that could impact oil and gas operations.
The oil and gas industry has decried the possible effects that protecting the northern long-eared bat, effective May 4, under the act could have on their operations, while pointing out that other industries are not facing the same restrictions.
The Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) has stated that because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enacted the listing in response to a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome, and not habitat change, drillers should not be subjected to increased restrictions for new projects.
The disease, which can often be identified in advanced stages by a white fungus on the bats’ bodies, has decimated about 5.7 million northern long-eared bats since 2006. The wildlife service said in its ruling that the disease is “the predominant threat to the species.”
However, not all industrial activities in the wild are under the same restrictions.
The ruling also said that accidentally harming or killing the bats is prohibited, except during activities like removing small numbers of trees, managing forests and performing maintenance on transportation and utility right-of-ways. This exemption, known as a 4(d) rule, is an interim decision that benefits industries like the timber industry, but not natural gas drillers wishing to establish new well pads.
“Inexplicably, oil and natural gas activities did not make the exempt list, even though the service acknowledged that oil and natural gas activity does not significantly affect the bat’s population levels,” said Neal Kirby, a spokesman for the IPAA.
The ruling could impose new restrictions on oil and gas companies as they build new well pads in the Marcellus shale region.
Typically, companies constructing well pads in the state must complete a Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory Environmental Review, an online tool that will tell them if there are threatened or endangered species in the area where they want to begin a project.
“The review is already a part of the permitting process, so … now when you pull a review, the possibility is on the table that the northern long-eared bat could turn up,” said Amanda Witman, information specialist for the Department of Environmental Protection.
If the northern long-eared bat appears in proposed project areas, the wildlife service must approve protective measures before the DEP grants a permit to the company. Other agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission also may review projects depending upon the habitats that the project affects.
If the results return a listed species, the wildlife service can issue an incidental take permit, in which the service allows accidental killing when the company has developed a plan to implement as many actions as possible to avoid killing the bats, according to Lora Zimmerman, project leader and supervisor for the wildlife service’s Pennsylvania field office in State College.
The IPAA did not have data on how much the decision would cost the oil and gas industry in terms of time or money for new permitting requirements or alternate construction plans to account for the bats. However, it said that the ruling could hinder operations because additional time may be needed to obtain permits for accidental harm, and production could be delayed.
Many oil and gas companies are still looking at what adjustments they may need to make for the bats.
EQT spokesperson Linda Robertson, speaking for a company that could be affected, wrote in an email: “EQT is still assessing the listing of the northern long-eared bat to determine what, if any, effect it will have on pending and future projects.”
Ms. Robertson said that EQT may need to make adjustments to its construction schedule to comply with requirements, but would need to wait for a final management plan for the bats from the wildlife service before knowing what adjustments to make. EQT has not publicly opposed the listing.
The wildlife service traditionally reviews submitted projects, containing biological impacts, within 30 days after they are submitted, although the agency currently says on its website that reviews will take at least 60 days due to a hiring freeze. Ms. Zimmerman said that the wildlife service is working to streamline or automate more responses.
Although the Marcellus Shale runs through the northern tier and southwestern portion of the state, pipeline and related midstream projects across the state have the potential to affect the bats as well. Companies wishing to expand pipeline right-of-ways are not required to have permits for accidental harm under the 4(d) rule.
The wildlife service stated in its final ruling on April 2 that clearing forest for well pads and other infrastructure used in gas production, like roads and pipelines, could decrease suitable habitat for the bats. The service noted that 60,000 well sites could be built by 2030. More than 2,000 of the sites have already been drilled or permitted. Models show that the bats could tolerate habitat loss, about 20 to 30 percent of all known roosts, before effects are seen, according to the ruling.
Drillers can often avoid harming the bats by removing trees when they move into hibernation, Ms. Zimmerman said. The wildlife service is often in discussion with companies planning projects for months or years, depending on the size of the project, according to Ms. Zimmerman. In discussions, the wildlife service can provide advice, like where bats’ trees can be avoided during project construction.
The bats would be particularly vulnerable to habitat removal in June and July. During these months, mothers give birth to one pup, the only one for the year. The pups cannot fly during those months, and could be killed during tree removal, such as when a new well site is cleared, according to the ruling.
Other species, among many, that drillers account for include the threatened Allegheny woodrat and the timber rattlesnake. The timber rattlesnake is not listed in Pennsylvania, but is endangered in surrounding New Jersey and Ohio and threatened in New York.
The wildlife service initially proposed that the northern long-eared bat be listed as endangered in October 2013, but later revised the proposed listing to threatened. The threatened listing means that the service believes the species will soon be at the brink of extinction, while an endangered listing means that a species is already at the brink.
This article was written by Braden Kelner from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.