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Texas could sue over lizard protection in the Permian Basin

By Adrian Hedden

Carlsbad Current-Argus

An endangered species of lizard in southeastern New Mexico could be the focus of a lawsuit filed by the U.S. state of Texas after oil and gas industry leaders said protecting the animals could harm the industry.

The dune sagebrush lizard (DSL) was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May, meaning the federal agency believed its extinction was imminent.

The move faced opposition from the oil and gas industry and its supporters in New Mexico and Texas, who feared it would block access to the Permian Basin and limit fossil fuel production.

The lizard, which is native to southeastern New Mexico and western Texas, lives in the region's sand dunes and is threatened by the mining of sand used in what is known as fracking.

On June 1, the Texas Railroad Commission recommended that the Texas District Attorney sue the Fish and Wildlife Service to reverse the listing, arguing it was part of a pattern by the federal government and President Joe Biden's administration to obstruct oil and gas development.

“The Biden administration has doubled down on its attack on the oil and gas industry with its latest action on the Endangered Species Act,” said Commission Chair Christi Craddick. “By ignoring existing conservation plans from state and industry leaders to protect the dune sagebrush lizard's potential habitat, the administration is making clear that this is nothing more than a political game.”

In New Mexico, conservation plans for the lizard and the prairie chicken, which was listed as endangered last year in the same area as the lizard, have been supported by the Carlsbad-based nonprofit Center for Excellence (CEHMM). CEHMM works with landowners, including ranchers and oil companies, and signs conservation agreements (CCAs) with candidates, adopting conservation measures on the land in exchange for avoiding additional restrictions if a final designation is made.

In its first quarter 2024 report, CEHMM reported that seven drilling platforms were removed from lizard habitat during that period. CEHMM's programs require a 30-meter buffer between oil and gas facilities and lizard habitats.

In total, 2.4 million hectares of livestock land are involved in chicken and lizard programs, the report says, and 3.5 million hectares are involved in the oil and gas industry.

“The construction of drilling platforms and roads for oil and gas production poses a serious threat to the DSL because it depends on a very specific, dynamic habitat,” the report says. “CEHMM is on the ground with registered companies to assist with proper site development in areas that are close to suitable or already used habitat.”

Meanwhile, populations of the lesser prairie chicken, which is protected using a similar approach, continue to decline, says Wayne Walker, executive director of LPC Conservation.

Walker's company acts as a “conservation bank,” paying landowners a market price for their lands to create refuges for the birds. It then sells “credits” to other users, such as energy companies or utilities, that operate alongside the animals' habitat. He said a similar approach is likely needed to save the dune sagebrush lizard.

“They haven't priced the protection of these species appropriately,” Walker said. “The price hasn't been high enough to get the right protection in the right place and with the right landowners. That's sad.”

The state of Texas, with the support of leading oil and gas companies, has also sued the federal government over the listing of the prairie chicken. The case is still pending in federal court and could lead to the listing being overturned.

As for the sagebrush litigation, Walker said litigation was part of the industry's “playbook.” He argued that such action was based on “fear-mongering” and that protecting the species would not come at the expense of the fossil fuel industry.

“I think they just don't really want to talk about what's needed,” Walker said. “They just want it to go away. Jobs are lost in the oil and gas industry when the price of oil goes down, not because of an endangered species.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 734-972-6855, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on social media platform X.