Judge Allows Comptroller to Intervene in Lizard Lawsuit

Comptroller Susan Combs explaining budget revenue numbers on Jan. 10, 2011.
Comptroller Susan Combs explaining budget revenue numbers on Jan. 10, 2011.

A federal judge has granted Comptroller Susan Combs the day in court she hoped for to address conservation of endangered species in Texas. 

Combs asked earlier this year to intervene in a lawsuit over the dunes sagebrush lizard, a threatened reptile that calls West Texas' oil-rich Permian Basin home. The lawsuit, which the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife filed against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June, alleges that a controversial plan Combs' office oversees to conserve the lizard's habitat is not adequate, and that the lizard should be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The federal agency declined to list the lizard as endangered in 2012, a decision based largely on Combs' conservation plan. While Texas officials applauded the decision, environmental advocates have decried Combs' plan, known as the Texas Conservation Plan, for being too secretive and for not providing enough protection for the lizard. 

Combs was not a target of the lawsuit. But U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled in late October that she could intervene in the lawsuit, along with a coalition of energy exploration companies that had also asked to intervene, including the Texas Oil and Gas Association. 

"Comptroller Combs has an interest as the chief financial officer of the state of Texas in 'regulating environmental quality and also protecting its financial and socioeconomic stake in oil, gas and agricultural production in the Permian Basin,'" Contreras wrote, quoting from Combs' own request. 

The lawsuit could have major implications for the future of endangered species conservation in Texas, and for the oil and gas industry, whose activities could be severely limited if the lizard is given federal protections. Speaking on a recent conservation panel in Washington, D.C., Combs defended her plan for the lizard, which was set up by TXOGA lobbyists. Under the plan, which Combs says could be a model for the nation, oil and gas companies that want to develop in the Permian Basin pay other landowners to conserve lizard habitat. Much of the information about where and how conservation is occurring under the plan is kept private. 

Contreras' ruling is a victory for Combs, who said in a statement: “The judge’s decision ensures that stakeholders who worked on an important lizard conservation plan have a say in the proceedings. The plan is part of our continuing efforts to help Texas strike an appropriate balance between environmental protection and economic growth.”

Defenders of Wildlife also celebrated the ruling — for an entirely different reason. 

“That Comptroller Susan Combs has been granted intervention in the case is great news; perhaps now the state will explain the violations in the conservation agreements that have resulted in harm to the lizard and damage to its habitat," said Ya-Wei Li, an attorney for the organization. 

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