Endangered species in Eagle Ford Shale gets help from UT group

Few people have heard of the spot-tailed earless lizard, once common in South Texas.

But the rare lizard’s likely habitat includes large swaths of the Eagle Ford Shale, the prolific oil and gas field south of San Antonio. A 2010 petition by an environmental group to list the spot-tailed earless lizard as a federally protected species is hanging in limbo.

“Basically the proverbial you-know-what is going to hit the fan if they propose to list it,” said Melinda Taylor, executive director of the Center for Global Energy, International Arbitration and Environmental Law at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife in 2011 said there was substantial information that listing the spot-tailed earless lizard as endangered or threatened may be warranted. It’s the first step in what can be a years-long process to list a species – but it doesn’t mean that the lizard ultimately will receive any kind of listing to try to ensure it’s survival.

Meanwhile, the Eagle Ford is rapidly approaching the 1 million barrels-per-day mark for crude oil production.

Much of the public attention to potential endangered species in Texas has zeroed in on a bird – the lesser prairie chicken. Its habitat includes West Texas’ Permian Basin, the nation’s largest oil and gas field.

Industry and agencies in five states worked for years to set aside hundreds of thousands of acres of ranchland for the lesser prairie-chicken, a colorful grassland grouse. Nearly 25,000 comments were submitted to Fish and Wildlife about the lesser prairie chicken, which was listed this year as threatened.

By comparison, the spot-tailed earless lizard has gone largely unnoticed. In 2011 during the comment period, the service received 15 letters – including one letter submitted twice – about the lizard.

“It’s been something of a sleeping issue,” said Austin attorney Alan Glen, who specializes in environmental law. “People have not been focused on it, but the economics are enormous. It would be as big a deal as the prairie chicken. The concern is that at some point the Fish and Wildlife Service could list it as threatened or endangered. It clearly would conflict with the Eagle Ford Shale.”

The first problem, though, is finding it.

Basic questions remain unanswered. Where is it? What happened to it? Why did it mostly vanish?