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There's Good Reason to be Bugged by GAO Report

There's Good Reason to be Bugged by GAO Report

American burying beetle

Friday, January 27, 2017 | by The Oklahoman Editorial Board

AN agreement reached two years ago between the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alleviated construction-related headaches involving an endangered insect, but some problems have arisen. U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, is right to pursue them.

Lankford this week noted a Government Accountability Office report that found little accountability regarding how funds are being used to conserve the habitat of the American burying beetle. Those funds — millions of dollars — are coming from ODOT, state and county governments, and oil and gas companies whose construction projects cross paths with the beetle, whose habitat covers much of eastern Oklahoma.

Under the 2015 agreement, projects in those areas were required to buy credits to offset the impact on the beetle's habitat. The credits are monetary compensation paid to conservation banks, which are used to preserve and restore the beetle's population.

Entities at times have also been allowed to make “in lieu” payments to third-party conservation groups that plan to buy and manage habitats for the beetles. In its report, the GAO said “missing data and other errors” made it impossible for investigators to track how some of the in lieu payments were used.

This matters because it involves serious money. A spokesman for ODOT said the agency has spent about $7 million to reserve the mediation credits it thinks it will need through 2025.

Indeed, there is a long list of construction projects in Oklahoma and elsewhere that have been held up to accommodate threatened and endangered species. In spring 2015 in Ottawa County, work to replace a 114-year-old, single-lane bridge was halted until the rare Madtom catfish finished spawning in the river below.

The website onegreenplanet.org highlights four cases where tiny animals held up giant projects. Among them:

The 2012 discovery of a Braken Bat Cave meshweaver spider stopped a $15 million highway underpass project in San Antonio. The underpass ultimately was redesigned as an overpass, with a much higher price tag.

In West Virginia, a federal court stopped construction of a 122-turbine wind farm and limited operation of nearly completed turbines because the project threatened the Indiana Bat, an endangered species. “While green energy is great, it's less impressive if it hurts animals,” the website said.

Groups like One Green Planet delight in these sorts of “success” stories. But if environmental groups are going to insist that governments and construction companies pay the piper in order to do business near threatened or endangered species, then they must ensure that those payments are used properly.

Roughly five years ago, an Oklahoma City energy company spent $6 million to find, trap and relocate one dozen American burying beetles located along a pipeline route in Osage County. The ability to purchase conservation credits is a marked improvement over those days, when companies were required themselves to relocate endangered insects in affected areas. Yet the GAO report raises concerns about the new arrangement that need to be addressed.

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