Endangered Species Act litigation has been a favored subject of House Natural Resources Committee chairmen for years, and Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) is no exception.
But Hastings may be unique in scheduling a hearing on ESA litigation so soon after the committee heard witnesses hold forth on that very subject.
In December, the committee held a hearing, ”The Endangered Species Act: How Litigation is Costing Jobs and Impeding True Recovery Efforts.”
He’ll take another look on June 19, at a hearing entitled “Taxpayer-Funded Litigation: Benefitting Lawyers and Harming Species, Jobs and Schools.”
A committee spokesperson said no more details — such as a witness list — are available, but we’re guessing that Hastings will grill Interior Department and Fish and Wildlife Service officials in an attempt to find out exactly how much is spent dealing with litigation — not just in attorney fees, but in complying with court orders and settlements. In March, he sent a letter to Assistant Attorney General for Environment and Natural Resources Ignacia Moreno asking for information on ESA cases handled by DOJ since 2009.
Then at the end of May, Hastings fired off some more letters, to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, Bonneville Power Administration CEO Steve Wright, and Moreno, requesting details on four cases costing the government more than $7 million in attorney fees, as well as on the settlements between FWS and WildEarth Guardians, and FWS and the Center for Biological Diversity, that involve close to 800 species.
The officials were asked to provide answers by June 14. That information — or however much of it they can provide — is likely to be a bone of contention at the upcoming hearing.
Both the Fish and Wildlife Service and critics of the ESA have claimed that lawsuits brought by environmental groups sap agency resources that could be used to focus on species recovery and listings.
Environmentalists, however, argue that without the lawsuits, species that deserve federal protection would not get it. It was hoped that the FWS-WEG-CBD settlements reached last year would reduce the time agency biologists and others spend dealing with litigation.
Virtually all attorney fees awarded in ESA cases lost or settled by the government come from the Treasury Department’s Judgment Fund. Only in special circumstances is the money deducted from the agency’s program budget. A GAO report released in April found that between March 2001 and September 2010, more than $21 million was paid in attorney fees involving ESA cases.