Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Resources Committee, is working on some dramatic changes to the Endangered Species Act. But can he find middle ground with House Democrats and lawmakers in the Senate? Will Pombo remain at odds with some of the major environmental groups active on ESA? How would his bill change the way new species are listed and protected? Also, Pombo describes congressional reaction to a recent Supreme Court ruling on property rights and a Chinese oil company's bid to purchase Unocal.
Brian Stempeck: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is Congressman Richard Pombo of California, chairman of the House Resources Committee. Also with us is Dan Berman, a reporter with Greenwire and E&E Daily. Congressman, thanks for being here.
Rep. Richard Pombo: Well, thank you.
Brian Stempeck: You have a draft legislation that's floating around Capitol Hill right now making some major changes to the Endangered Species Act. Give us a sense… I know that the bill’s not in final form yet, but what do you see as the main aspects of this bill as you move forward?
Rep. Richard Pombo: Oh, some of the big issues that I want to deal with and I think most of the members on the committee want to deal with is on critical habitat, the last two administrations, one a Democrat, one a Republican, and both said that under the current implementation of the act, that critical habitat does little or nothing to recover species, and yet causes a lot of the issues, a lot of the problems that we have. It eats up a lot of the money that's in their budget and it's driven by litigation. I think that's one of the major issues that we need to tackle. Another one is the level of science that is used for making decisions under the Endangered Species Act. Right now it is an extremely low bar that they have to rate everything by. What we would like to do is raise that and hopefully try to deal with science on a higher level so that it's something that we can depend on and count on, because that's what all the decisions are based on.
Brian Stempeck: Now, one of the fears that's raised by a lot of environmental groups, proponents of the changes that you’re suggesting, they feel that you want to basically get rid of the Endangered Species Act at some point, talking about maybe sunsetting the act, around 2015, far away. What is your ultimate goal, and how do you respond to those fears that you're trying to do away with this major environmental law?
Rep. Richard Pombo: I'm glad you brought that up, because, first of all we are not doing away with the Endangered Species Act. What we have tried to do is modernize the act so it takes it takes advantage of the technology and what we’ve learned over the last 30 years in the implementation of the act. We’re trying to make an act that actually works. Right now 77% of the species that are listed on the Endangered Species Act are not meeting their goals; they’re not recovering, 40% of them, they have no idea what their status is. Only 6% of the species that are on the list they consider improving, and those are numbers that came straight out of the Fish and Wildlife Service. No one can look at the act right now and say it’s a success. But in terms of the sunset of the act, yeah, I would like to have a sunset clause put into the act so that Congress is forced to come back and reauthorize the act. You know the Endangered Species Act has been unauthorized since 1992. It's been kept alive by the appropriations process for the last ten plus years. We have not responded to whatever changes there are, whatever updating should have been done to the act, and there's no incentive for the two sides to come to the table and work out what really needs to be done.
Dan Berman: So what timeline do you look for that? Would it be 10 years, 15 years, 20 years…?
Rep. Richard Pombo: If we get a ten year sunset on the act it would give us whatever changes we pass to the act right now, it would give us ten years to look at those changes and then reauthorize again. There's nothing that stops Congress from stepping in sooner and doing a reauthorization, but we would at least know that ten years from now Congress would be required to update the act. Everybody knows the Endangered Species Act is not going to go away. It is a cornerstone of a lot of our nation's environmental laws and is an extremely important law. No one is going to vote to repeal the Endangered Species Act, and they know that. That's just another one of the scare tactics that they like to throw out there.
Dan Berman: So do you say the reaction to the draft proposal came out last week is kind of overblown with a lot of criticism from the environmental committee?
Rep. Richard Pombo: Yeah, well, I mean, let's be fair about this. They were criticizing my bill before there is even at a draft or an outline out there. They were saying that we were gutting the Endangered Species Act before there was even an outline out there, and then as soon as there was an outline that was put out there, then they started saying oh, well, that just proves that he’s trying to gut the act. They’ve never even read the bill. The bill’s not even been written yet, and they're passing judgment on what it does or doesn't do.
Dan Berman: So how are you going to able to get them to the table? Over in the Senate they’ve said that kind of a key benchmark for them is to get a bill that the environmental groups can unitedly support or at least have cooperated on. How are you going to…?
Rep. Richard Pombo: And there are some environmental groups that have been quietly working with us, giving us suggestions, saying based on past bills that have passed the committee, these are things we like, these are the things we don't like.
Dan Berman: Did they say, kind of, what groups or organizations…?
Rep. Richard Pombo: No, because quite frankly as we found out in one of our hearings, a field hearing we had in Mississippi, one of the lawyers who represents environmental groups testified before the committee that he was warned by other environmental groups not to testify. And a lot of them are very reluctant to say yeah, we are working on this, and I don't want to endanger that, and them working with this, but we both know that there are several of the national environmental groups that won't support anything that we put out there. This is a major fund raising activity for them, they can send out their fund raising letters and bash Congress, and bash me in particular, and it's a great way for them to raise money. They have no interest whatsoever in fixing what's wrong with this act. As I said, it's been a failure.
Brian Stempeck: At the same time, you do need to compromise with the Senate when it comes to this one. Prior to this hearing, prior to us taping this show, the Senate had a hearing on the Endangered Species Act and Senator Chafee, who’s going to be your main counterpart in the Senate working on this, has basically said that some aspects of your bill, he's very apprehensive about that give him cause for concern. He seems to be taking a lot slower look at this process. How are you planning to find the middle ground, if not with the environmental groups, with Senator Chafee?
Rep. Richard Pombo: Well, I think the middle ground that we're finding in the House, sitting down with my counterpart, Nick Rahal, on the committee, and working through what some differences are, what some of the big issues are. If we come out of this thing with a bipartisan bill out of the house, we end up with a bill that the Senate can pass.
Brian Stempeck: And what about the timeline? I mean, you have the draft bill circulating right now. Can you nail down a time for us right now when we can expect to see a final bill come out, and see this marked up in the resources committee?
Rep. Richard Pombo: You know, right now, I'm more interested in getting a good bill that will improve the Endangered Species Act and remove some of the conflicts that we have under the current implementation. If that takes a couple extra weeks, we’re going to work through that. I would like to have a bill out as soon as possible. I think the sooner that we get it out the more chance that we've got to continue working on it. But at this point it's going to take as long as it takes to get a good bill done.
Dan Berman: I guess if we can look at some specifics… I know that your bill wants to kind of raise the bar in terms of listing new species and you've been very critical of the Fish and Wildlife Service and kind of the current recovery and species. How would listing… kind of changing the rules of listing species address the recovery rate on the other end?
Rep. Richard Pombo: Well, for one thing, I'll back you off, we are not raising the bar what we’re saying is the science that is used for determining whether or not a species is endangered or not should be raised. That does not raise the bar. Either a species is endangered or threatened or it's not. The most common reason for removing a species from the Endangered Species Act today is that they discounted or they had data error to begin with. The second most common reason for them to take a species off the list is extinction. So what they're doing right now in terms of the science is not working. What we’re trying to do is say let's go in and do field studies, let’s go in and look at what the habitat is, let's determine whether or not the species truly is endangered before we put it on the list. Once that determination has been made, let's come up with a recovery plan, let's designate a habitat, let's move forward and focus on recovery, and not focus on the bureaucracy as we are doing now.
Dan Berman: All right, so, recovery. How do you improve the recovery rates? Is it through cooperative conservation with this current Interior Department? But, you know, the rate hasn't necessarily improved. How can you get species off of the list and not have it because of data error or extinction?
Rep. Richard Pombo: About 95% of the species that are on the list right now… at least part of their habitat is on private property. We need to change the incentives that exist under the current implementation of the act. Bring private property owners in as partners in recovery and change it so they're no longer afraid that you're going to find an endangered species on their property, change those incentives. That can be done through grants, it can be done through tax credits, it can be done through cooperative agreements as the administration is trying to do right now. Bringing in states and private property owners to be part of the solution is the only way that we are going to improve recovery rates.
Dan Berman: Is there enough money to do it with, you know, paying off land owners or providing tax incentives, but won't the bill just –
Rep. Richard Pombo: We are going to have to increase the money. There's no question that there's going to have to be additional funding in the bill and I am prepared to do that and prepared to support increasing amount of money that we spend on recovery of endangered species. I'm not prepared to put more money into a failed program.
Dan Berman: Do you think you would have to make it mandatory funding? I mean, I can't imagine Congress would authorize several hundreds of millions of dollars every year on this.
Rep. Richard Pombo: Well, it all depends on what the funding source is, what some of the alternatives are. There's some real creative things that people are coming up with to try to figure out a way to fund recovery. In fact, in the farm bill, in the last farm bill, we did a lot in terms of recovery and habitat protection, and I was very involved with moving that part of the farm bill through. So I think that's a beginning of the process that we have to go through.
Brian Stempeck: One last question on ESA before I switch to some other topics. What do you see as the time line for the bill? Are you going to try and finish it this summer in the House or is it more likely this fall?
Rep. Richard Pombo: Ideally, we would have it done in the summer before the break. As we go forward with negotiations it may slip into the fall, but I think we need to get it done as quickly as we can so we can move to next step and work with the Senate.
Brian Stempeck: One of the other topics I wanted to ask you about was there was recently a Supreme Court case on property rights, a case up in Connecticut. You were one of the many lawmakers who came out against this. A lot of property rights groups say that this is basically an expansion of eminent domain. It gives state and local governments a lot more power to take property. My question for you is what can Congress really do about this? This is a major ruling from the Supreme Court. Do you have any power, does Congress have any power, is there anything you can do to try to undercut this or get around this ruling?
Rep. Richard Pombo: There are several avenues that Congress can take, and right now we're looking at all of them. One of those is what we have begun to do in terms of restricting federal funding going to cities or states that use eminent domain for economic development in this way. That is an extremely powerful tool, and if we are able to do that, and restrict the money that goes to states or counties or local government, they won't do it this way. They will look for another way of doing economic development in their communities. That is an extremely powerful tool that we can use. Congress controls the money, regardless of what either of the other two branches of government do. Obviously one is a constitutional amendment, but quite frankly I think the Constitution's pretty clear about this subject, and the Supreme Court just got it wrong.
Brian Stempeck: Do you think there's support for that though? Would there be support in the house for a constitutional amendment like you said?
Rep. Richard Pombo: Today, there would be. I mean you look at the overwhelming vote that we had condemning the decision, the overwhelming vote that we had in restricting money out of the transportation bill to any city that does this, there's obviously support in Congress. And I think that one of the interesting things about that is this is not… it has not developed into what typically the property rights battles were, East versus West, because now a lot of my colleagues that represent urban areas are looking at this and saying, “Hey wait a minute, that means they can take my house for economic development, they could take my constituents homes for economic development”. They may not have seen that when they were talking about my constituent’s farm or ranch and seeing what was happening, but now when you’re talk about their constituents losing their property rights, there's a lot of support from members who previously were not as supportive on these issues.
Dan Berman: Well, when you talk about limiting funding though, doesn't that also create a danger? I mean, the use of eminent domain is still very popular in many cities and towns think it's a very legitimate tool in some cases for highways, for economic development projects, for urban renewal. How do you balance that with the Supreme Court decision and with your attempt to protect property rights?
Rep. Richard Pombo: To be honest, I'm not a big fan of eminent domain anyway, for any reason, but I do believe that – and the Constitution allows for public purpose. If they take land for a school, if they take land for a road, if they take land for a public purpose, it allows the cities and counties and the federal government to do that. What this is saying is you can't come in and by force take my land a way for me and give it to him, because you think the city will receive more revenue by doing that. I mean, that's just plain wrong. There has to be protection for that individual. The Bill of Rights is all about protecting the individual from the majority, the weak from the strong. That's why the Bill of Rights is in the Constitution. This is a classic example of someone who doesn't have the influence and doesn't have the sway with the local government having their individual rights taken away from them and given to somebody else.
Brian Stempeck: All right, so last question for you because we’re running out of time. Another issue, different issue, same kind of topic. You've been one of the many members of Congress who has also spoken out about the decision against the merger with Unocal and CNOOC goes through. It's a major takeover bid from CNOOC, a Chinese oil company, to take over Unocal. Again, this is not usually the privy of Congress to do something like this. What power do you think Congress has beyond just the resolution that the House already passed to try and do something about this?
Rep. Richard Pombo: Well, the greatest influence I believe we have at this point, and what we should do at this point, is put pressure on the president to review the proposed deal. Right now we have a Chinese government owned oil company purchasing a major energy producer in a US company. That raises concerns for me in terms of our security in terms of production of energy and being able to meet our needs. It raises concerns in terms of national security. There are a lot of issues that this puts on the table. This isn't about, you know, two separate oil companies fighting over purchasing another oil company. This is about the Chinese government coming in and buying a US oil company. That's very different than some of the mergers and some the things we’ve seen happen over the last ten years.
Brian Stempeck: We're going to stop there because we’re out of time. Congressman, thanks for being here.
Rep. Richard Pombo: Well, thank you.
Brian Stempeck: I'd like to thank our guest today. That was Congressman Richard Pombo of the House resources committee. I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.