Click here to watch Ranking Member Capito’s opening remarks from the committee hearing.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee held a hearing on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Proposed 2023 budget with USFWS Director Martha Williams.

Below is the opening statement of Ranking Member Capito, as prepared for delivery.

“Thank you, Chairman Carper, and thank you, Director Williams, for being with us today and for your recent visit to West Virginia—and your future visit, we hope. I appreciate your coming before the committee today.

“This hearing is particularly important as the committee continues to oversee the implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

“Last year, I was proud to work with Chairman Carper and my colleagues on the committee in developing and reporting surface transportation and drinking and wastewater legislation unanimously, which were then included as part of the IIJA.

“If implemented as Congress intended, the IIJA will facilitate the construction of much-needed energy, industrial, and transportation projects across the country. 

“The service must play a key role in ensuring that projects are built in a timely manner.

“One of the well-known, long-standing roadblocks to efficient permitting is the Section 7 consultation process under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“That process requires federal agencies to consult with the service on projects that ‘may affect listed species or designated critical habitat.’

“The process is a perennial source of delay for projects in my home state of West Virginia. I’m sure you might have had some experience in Montana as well.

“The service has attributed the Section 7 review and consultation backlog solely to funding and staffing shortages. 

“I am not convinced that this is the reason for these delays based on conversations my staff and I have had with West Virginia agencies.

“For example, for the past 11 years, the West Virginia Department of Highways has fully funded a position at that field office, and is still experiencing delays and a lack of technical assistance from the field office.

“Additionally, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is being told that they need to fund four positions in order to have their projects reviewed, with no guarantee of how much time those consultants would actually spend on West Virginia projects.

“Meanwhile, in addition to the positions the service is requiring our state agencies to fund, the administration’s budget asks for more than 1,000 additional—that’s on top of what the states would pay for—Full Time Employees (FTE) compared to last year.

“In order to evaluate that request, we need to review the staff the service currently has, the number of biologists on that staff that conduct consultations, how those staff are distributed across the regional offices, and whether the leaders at the service have directed them to clear the existing backlog as an administration priority. 

“I look forward to discussing those issues with you today.

“I also welcome your thoughts on another longstanding issue with the Section 7 consultation process. And that’s the never-ending litigation process.

“For example, the Mountain Valley Pipeline has now had two rounds of biological opinions stayed or remanded by the Fourth Circuit.

“If we are going to build out natural gas and hydrogen pipeline infrastructure to lower energy prices for our citizens—particularly those in the northeast—and support our allies as they delink their fuel supplies from Russia and China, we must have a consultation process that works and biological opinions that stand up in court.

“Working with you, Director Williams, I hope we can identify efficiency improvements to that process, and ways to make these documents stronger against attacks.

“As the former director of a state wildlife agency yourself, you also bring firsthand knowledge of how much expertise state fish and wildlife departments have on the species within their borders.

“I wonder if some of these issues with the quality of the biological opinions can be resolved by a more concerted partnership with our states through improved data sharing, increased cooperation, or even delegation of review and consultation authority to the state experts on the ground.

“Instead of focusing on improvements, so far, the administration has taken actions that will introduce more delays.

“I raised this issue with CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory at last week’s hearing as well.

“The Biden administration’s changes to the regulations for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and Endangered Species Act, will also make it harder to permit and build infrastructure and energy projects, including those authorized in the IIJA.

“An issue that particularly impacts West Virginia is the service’s decision to up-list the Northern Long-Eared Bat from threatened to endangered.

“In the listing re-designation, the service admits that bat populations are declining due to effects separate and apart from development of infrastructure like roads and transmission lines, namely an invasive communicable disease known as white nose syndrome that is spread among the bats primarily when they hibernate in caves.

“That means that broad restrictions to development across large swathes of the country, intended to protect the bats as a result of their endangered listing, will not meaningfully help prevent or mitigate disease in the animals.

“While the endangered label on the bat will not help its future unless the service provides states and projects sponsors alternative pathways to mitigating white nose syndrome, this decision will have far reaching implications on our ability as a state to move forward with critical projects that will afford West Virginians economic opportunities.

“I suggest we work together on a better path that actually protects species as well as Americans’ livelihoods.

“And I thank you, Mr. Chair, for the opportunity.” 

# # #