Oil and Gas Development Could Pose a Risk to Struggling Pennsylvania Bats

A coalition of nine oil and gas companies is asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a 50-year permit that would allow the killing or disturbing of five bat species in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. The permit, which is covered under the Endangered Species Act, is called an incidental take permit because the impacts are incidental to carrying out a legal activity.

For example, wind farms sometimes have to acquire incidental take permits because wind turbines can inadvertently kill threatened or endangered species of birds. Oil and gas companies would need the special permit for projects like pipeline construction, which could impact bat habitat.

The permit would include the endangered Indiana bat, threatened northern long-eared bat, as well as the eastern small-footed bat, little brown bat and tri-colored bat. All five of these bat species have been in sharp decline because of a fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome.

LISTEN: Protecting Bats from the Impacts of Oil and Gas Drilling

“The issuance of the permit cannot significantly depreciate the recovery of the species in the wild,” says Pamela Shellenberger, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pennsylvania Field Office. Her agency will look at how things like tree removal and noise and vibrations from machinery could impact bat populations. They will also be making sure the permitted activities don’t harm places where bats create maternity colonies and hibernate. Their environmental impact statement won’t be completed until late next year.

As part of the permit request, the companies are required to create a habitat conservation plan. According to a statement released by EQT, one of the coalition members, their plan will “minimize and mitigate any potential adverse impacts to the species.” At a public meeting hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington County, consultants working on behalf of the coalition revealed the plan includes carving out areas where oil and gas activities would not occur, as well as a provision for white-nose syndrome research.

DSCN9475

Several species of Pennsylvania bats, including the little brown bat (pictured here), have experienced steep declines, mostly due to a fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Pam Shellenberger says the benefit for companies is knowing the expectations ahead of time so they can better plan for the future. She says a longer-term approach also might help Fish and Wildlife strengthen conservation efforts for the bat species.

“Right now, it could be death by a thousand cuts where we’re looking at each project piece by piece,” Shellenberger says. She says this is permit, which covers the entirety of Pennsylvania and Ohio, is one of the largest such requests in the Northeast—both in area size and length of time.

Jane Davenport, a senior staff attorney for the group Defenders of Wildlife, says though it’s early in the process and she hasn’t seen the draft habitat conservation plan, these bat species are already on the brink of extinction. For that reason, she thinks a 50-year timeframe isn’t justified for such a broad permit.

“It’s way too big a bite at the apple,” Davenport says.

She says we can’t afford to underestimate the impacts that ongoing habitat fragmentation from shale gas development—such as cutting down trees to build pipelines—could have on the survival and recovery of forest-dependent bats.

Public comments are being taken until December 27 on this initial phase of the permitting process.

###

Photo (top): Ann Froschauer / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service