Reptile Roils Oil Patch: Companies Oppose Endangered-Species Tag for Lizard, but Brace for Its Listing

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Reptile Roils Oil Patch: Companies Oppose Endangered-Species Tag for Lizard, but Brace for Its Listing

Post by ToddS on Mon Jun 13, 2011 8:14 pm

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* JUNE 14, 2011

Reptile Roils Oil Patch

Companies Oppose Endangered-Species Tag for Lizard, but Brace for Its Listing


The dunes sagebrush lizard, while just five inches long, is causing a big ruckus in the oil patch.

The federal government is considering whether to put it on the endangered species list, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service arguing that oil and gas development in the Permian Basin, a rich oil-producing area in West Texas and Southeast New Mexico, is destroying parts of the lizard's home, a unique sand dune ecosystem.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The dunes sagebrush lizard

The oil industry says the listing of the Sceloporus arenicolus would bring economic ruin.

"This is the most prolific oil-producing region in onshore America," said Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, an industry group in Midland, Texas. "If you are to knock out a big portion of that, it clearly would drive prices up at the gasoline pump."

The battle over the lizard is the latest example of the industry-versus-creature conflicts generated when species are slated for the endangered or threatened list. Northwest loggers failed to stop the northern spotted owl from being designated as threatened in 1990, and California winemakers have clashed with water-management officials over conservation measures to protect certain salmon.

In the fight over the lizard, though, there is some rare cooperation between federal officials and industry: Some companies are paying for conservation efforts in advance to minimize the impact a listing would have on their businesses, even as they continue to oppose such a decision.

Politicians suggest dire consequences if the lizard is subject to the Endangered Species Act. In New Mexico, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez warned Fish and Wildlife officials in a May letter that "the future of our state's economy and livelihood of so many employers and hardworking New Mexicans are at stake."

That is overstating it, environmentalists say, pointing out that the lizard's habitat takes up just a fraction of the eight counties where the species is found. For example, the lizards occupy 600,000 acres out of the total 11 million acres in the four New Mexico counties that would be affected.

"They are totally baseless claims that are being made by politicians who feel that there's political gain," said Noah Greenwald, endangered-species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that first proposed the lizard for listing in 2002. With "reasonable precautions," said Mr. Greenwald, the lizard should be able to coexist with the oil industry.

Fish and Wildlife officials say the proposal is based on the best available science and that the agency is working with companies to avoid any interruptions.

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An endangered-species listing would force drillers to work with the agency to avoid disturbing the habitat and could expose them to penalties if lizards were killed. A decision is expected in December.

Scientists consider the lizard a "habitat specialist," an organism so adapted to its environment that it can't exist elsewhere. The creature evolved in dunes anchored by shrub-like shinnery oaks, developing larger scales over its ear openings to keep sand out and long front toes to run up steep, sandy slopes. That ecosystem has shrunk by 40% since 1982 in New Mexico, the agency calculates. The size of the lizard population isn't known.

Lee Fitzgerald, a herpetology professor at Texas A&M University who has studied the lizard since 1994, said the lizard population has declined in areas crisscrossed with roads and oil-well pads. "When you tear [the dunes] down, they are gone and so are the species that depend on them," he said.

Still, he said, identifying and avoiding the dunes shouldn't be difficult, especially given the oil industry's experience working in environmentally sensitive areas.

Some oil and gas companies, from energy giants such as Chevron Corp. to smaller independents, are pre-emptively seeking to head off any new requirements by voluntarily signing conservation agreements. Four companies have signed on and 19 others are in the process of doing so.

Under such agreements, companies commit to pay for habitat restoration—the cost is $10,000 to $20,000 for each new well—and to use techniques such as horizontal drilling to avoid the lizards. The program, run by the federal Bureau of Land Management, is only available in New Mexico, where about half the land that would be affected is managed by the agency.

Houston-based EnerVest Ltd. is signing up 17,000 of the 28,200 acres it leases in New Mexico. Solving "the problem before it becomes a problem," is how company spokesman Ron Whitmire, described the move. Still, EnerVest opposes the endangered-species listing.

Write to Ana Campoy at [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]

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“We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”

Thomas Jefferson

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