Small lizard sparks big debate in Texas, New Mexico oil patch

Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- Frustration is swelling among residents and lawmakers in one of the most productive oil and natural gas basins in the nation, and it’s all because federal wildlife managers have proposed endangered species protections for a small lizard.

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed by environmentalists in recent years seeking to protect hundreds of species. Most get little attention as they work their way through the court system and through the offices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The case of the dunes sagebrush lizard is unfolding much differently across southeastern New Mexico and West Texas, where refineries, drilling rigs and pump jacks are as common as skyscrapers in the big city.

From Midland, Texas, to Artesia, N.M., hundreds of people have turned out in recent weeks for town hall gatherings, rallies and public meetings to oppose the listing. The latest rally was planned for Thursday night in Roswell.

“We’re not going to stand idly by and watch the economies of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas be devastated,” U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “I think people are just ready to march in the streets. They’re ready to say enough is enough. We can’t manage the entire country for a single species at a time.”

The fear for Pearce, some of his Texas colleagues and oil and gas industry groups is that listing the lizard would take thousands of acres in the Permian Basin out of production. They say that could lead to lost jobs, fewer royalties and tax revenues, higher prices at the gas pump and less energy security as the nation looks to wean itself from foreign oil supplies.

The Permian Basin produces nearly 20 percent of the nation’s crude oil and the region’s reserves are second only to those in Alaska.

The Permian Basin Petroleum Association, the largest regional oil and gas group in the United States, is leading the effort to defeat the proposed listing.

“We’re just sort of scratching our heads here. We’ve looked at the science and we feel that there hasn’t been very much analysis done,” said Ben Shepperd, president of the association.

Shepperd said his group would prefer that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service encourage conservation agreements between the federal government and landowners that are aimed at preserving the lizard’s habitat while still allowing activity on the landscape.

A handful of oil companies and New Mexico ranchers have signed on to cooperative conservation agreements in New Mexico, and Shepperd said there are operators in Texas who want to do the same.

“We’re willing to help do more research. We’re willing to help fund more research,” he said. “We need more time to see which conservation efforts are most effective.”

At less than 3 inches long, the light brown lizard lives in a small area of shinnery oak dunes in northeastern Chaves County, Roosevelt County, eastern Eddy and southern Lea counties in New Mexico and in a narrow band in Gaines, Ward, Winkler and Andrews counties in Texas.

Wildlife officials say has been affected by habitat loss and fragmentation from oil and gas development due to the removal of shinnery oak and the building of roads and pads, pipelines and power lines.

The federal agency placed the lizard on the candidate list for endangered species protection in October 2001.

Environmentalists say the lizard’s situation is dire and that scientists had warned more than a decade ago that it may be too late to save the lizard from extinction.

“They require a very specific, very rare habitat type and their range has been reduced by 40 percent. This is a species that warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act,” said Mark Salvo of the group WildEarth Guardians.

Neither environmentalists nor federal wildlife managers have population estimates for the lizard, but they point to distribution studies that show about a quarter of sites where the lizard was once found are no longer occupied.

Critics contend the studies have been limited, leaving many areas in Texas unsurveyed.

Pearce also challenged claims by the Fish and Wildlife Service this week that a listing would not jeopardize oil and gas jobs. The agency has not done an economic analysis related to the proposal.

Agency officials said a listing would not halt ranching or oil and gas production. It would require the Bureau of Land Management, which controls most of the land in question, to consult with Fish and Wildlife to ensure activities would not affect the lizard or its habitat.

Pearce said residents in New Mexico and West Texas are aware of the battles in the Pacific Northwest over the spotted owl and those sparked in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Valley over the delta smelt.

“They’re saying: ‘No, not here, not this time.’ We’re not going to stand for it,” Pearce said.

In addition to the rallies, critics have been using social media to gather support and local governments have passed resolutions opposing the listing.

Environmentalists accuse Pearce and other lawmakers of inciting the public and they deny they’re using the lizard to shut down oil and gas development.

“That is not our goal. We seek to protect the lizard,” Salvo said. “A listing would not have adverse effects on the oil and gas industry in the Permian Basin, but people fearing for their employment or their communities will pick up on rhetoric like Rep. Pearce’s and it’s difficult to cut through that chatter and to present the facts.”

Pearce and others argue that more facts are needed before limitations are placed on the basin.

“People are economically stressed. The country is economically stressed and we’re counting scales under a lizard’s arm to see if it’s the one that needs to be listed and we’re parsing words on whether or not it’s going to hurt the economy. Everyone knows it has the potential to be devastating to the economy,” Pearce said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is giving the public a few more weeks to submit comments on the proposed listing. A final decision is expected in December.

“The politics of all of this won’t affect the decision of whether or not to list,” agency spokesman Tom Buckley said. “It will solely be made on the biological information and what we might receive during the comment period.”