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A Lizard Causes Oil and Gas Industry Drama

The sand dune lizard, located in parts of West Texas and New Mexico, could potentially be interfering with the drilling of oil and gas.

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A small reptile that is about the length of a human hand is causing much controversy in the oil and gas industry.

The Dunes Sagebrush lizard, located in parts of West Texas and New Mexico, has been on and off the candidate species list since 1996, but just recently it has crawled its way to potentially staking a claim on the endangered species list. Being placed on the endangered species list could potentially interfere with oil drilling and exploration.

The discussion about the endangerment of the lizard started in 2008. In late 2010, a proposed listing was released that included the Dunes Sagebrush lizard. Since then, the Endangered Species Task Force has collected research, and a decision on the official listing of the endangerment of the lizard is expected sometime this year. If the lizard is found to be under population, the official listing will create rules and regulations to help keep the habitats of the lizard safe.

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said he will contest in federal court any decision to place if the reptile on the endangered species list. Patterson said he is concerned that placing the lizard on the list would adversely affect the revenue stream from oil and gas industries.

But the lizard has also spurred the comptroller's office to put together a Texas Conservation Plan that the oil and gas industry could voluntarily follow to ensure that the habitat of the lizard is not affected by drilling. The plan is currently in a draft stage and has been formulated as a way to protect the lizard whether or not the reptile is placed on the endangered species list. Comptroller Susan Combs' family ranch is not affected by the lizard's habitat.

“Operators who choose to participate in the plan would be required to earn ‘credits’ to operate in the habitat, by closing wells in another location or restoring a roadway, for example,” said Debbie Hastings, vice president of environmental affairs for the Texas Oil & Gas Association. “Under the plan, operators can accumulate these credits in advance of any production activity that may impact the species.”

Although Patterson said he agrees that protecting the lizard is important, he is worried that preemptively creating the Texas Conservation Plan will only spur the discussion of whether the lizard is truly endangered and hurt his efforts to keep the lizard off the endangered species list.

In April of 2011, Patterson said the Permanent University Fund and the Permanent School Fund made approximately $300 million from mineral leases to oil and gas companies. With such a large amount of revenue coming to the state just for the exploration of oil, Patterson said he is worried that placing the lizard on the endangered species list will cause oil and gas companies to pull back from drilling and oil exploration.

Patterson said he has not seen any hard evidence verifying the lizard is decreasing in population and wonders what sort of research has actually been done.

But Tom Buckley, public affairs specialist for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, said the lizards are very habitat specific and look for places that have small sand grains to burrow under and travel around. Texas A&M scientists have been conducting research on the habitat and population of the lizard.

“We have not counted how many lizards there are, but we know lizards populate this habitat. So if the habitat disappears then the lizard disappears,” Buckley said. “As we identify more habitat areas or as they naturally form, the population may grow to a certain point and the threats may be reduced.”

Buckley said the Texas Conservation Plan, that is still in a draft stage, aims to help oil and gas companies and not to hurt them.

“What these agreements do is establish procedures so the work can be continued,” he said, “while we still get the conservation impact for the lizards.”

As the Texas Conservation Plan is still in the early stages and research is still being conducted on the endangerment of the lizard, the comptroller's office and the Endangered Species Task Force are hoping to have some sort of answer to the Texas General Land Office and the public by late fall.

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