Lizard Protection Bill Caught in Oil Politics

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs and major oil and gas interests are fighting hard to stop reforms of the species protection program that was used in the oil-rich Permian Basin to keep the feds from listing a lizard as endangered, several top Republicans say.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, all say Combs and the Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA) have been lobbying heavily to water down the legislation, which is now designed to impact future species that warrant federal protection.

“Exxon, TXOGA and the comptroller have been lobbying aggressively not to just change the bill but to kill the bill,” Bonnen said. “I don’t know why the comptroller isn’t more reasonable and willing to work on what’s an intelligent and reasonable bill to deal with a monumentally important issue for the state of Texas.” 

As a result of all of the lobbying, Seliger said he significantly watered down his bill so he could get it out of committee. Part of the compromise, he said, was leaving the comptroller in charge of protection of the dunes sagebrush lizard. He said he will offer a floor substitute of the bill, which remains a legislative work in progress, when it comes up for a vote in the Senate. That is likely to happen Wednesday.

Combs and representatives of TXOGA, who met last week with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst about the bill, have sent word that they’re engaged in discussions about it. Exxon is considered to be the most influential member of TXOGA.

“TXOGA is in the process of reviewing the committee substitute for HB 3509,” TXOGA lobbyist and vice president Deb Hastings said last week. “Our primary concern with this legislation is that it could eliminate the process that successfully kept the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard from being listed.” 

Combs spokeswoman Lauren Willis said Combs is working to help pass something. 

“The comptroller is working with Senate leadership to ensure a bill is passed that doesn't jeopardize the listing of the dunes sagebrush lizard and protects and preserves the vital Texas economy,” she said.

Combs was given control over the state’s response to endangered species under an amendment that was slipped on to the “fiscal matters” bill in the 2011 special session. It was tacked on by then-state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, who said the amendment was pushed by TXOGA.

The day-to-day implementation of the threatened lizard has fallen to the Texas Habitat Conservation Foundation, which was set up and overseen by Hastings and two other TXOGA lobbyists in consultation with the comptroller. Under the plan, private landowners, including oil and ranching interests, enter into voluntary conservation agreements as part of a state-federal deal to keep Uncle Sam from listing the lizard as an endangered species.

Chisum, an oil and gas lobbyist himself, was recently picked by TXOGA to succeed a TXOGA lobbyist as chairman of the non-profit habitat foundation, according to TXOGA.

As part of the program, participants who destroy lizard habitat can buy land mitigation credits to offset the losses. But the identify of the landowners and the people or companies who own the mitigation land remains secret. Seliger is trying to change that.

“Whenever an organization is determined to keep things under wraps there’s got to be a reason because there are no national defense issues involved,” Seliger said. “It’s very intentionally being kept under wraps.”

Seliger said he is concerned that the current system will pit rival business interests against each other — namely major oil companies against independent producers. If, for example, a major oil company like Exxon owned mitigation land and an independent oil company needed some to offset the destruction of habitat, it could give one group an advantage over the other.

“There is nothing about this effort that should create winners and losers,” Seliger said. He wants to ensure that future species protection efforts don't allow for rival business interests earn profits of each other.

Exxon did not respond to questions about its views of the legislation or whether it was selling surface land as mitigation credits in the Permian Basin, a region that has been described as the nation’s largest oil producer.

Patterson — a consistent critic of Combs, who is a potential rival for statewide office in 2014 — said Exxon and the comptroller are leading the charge against the bill.

“Exxon Mobil is driving the train on this,” Patterson said. “It’s Exxon driven. It’s comptroller driven.”

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