More than 100 species in Texas could be classified as endangered by the federal government in the coming years, potentially choking development for oil and gas companies in the state. And so some of the biggest players in the energy industry —including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Chesapeake Energy, BP and Sandridge Energy — are looking to take a major role in protecting such animals, whether or not they are listed as endangered.
Critics say that putting oil and gas companies in charge is not in the best interest of threatened species, but proponents say that the industry is promoting a market-based strategy that will provide strong environmental returns.
Lobbyists for the Texas Oil and Gas Association have set up a non-profit organization that is overseeing a plan to conserve habitat for the dunes sagebrush lizard, a habitant of West Texas’ oil-rich Permian Basin that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list as endangered last year. And an ExxonMobil lobbyist recently incorporated a foundation to oversee a conservation plan for the lesser prairie chicken, also prevalent in the Permian Basin; the agency will decide whether to list the bird for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act by next March.
Both plans are loosely based on the concept of a “wildlife habitat exchange,” in which oil and gas companies that disturb habitat would pay landowners to set aside a certain amount of their own acreage for habitat conservation. Proponents of the idea — including the Environmental Defense Fund and the environmental consulting firm Natural Resources Solutions, which helped write the plans — say it is the best hope for protecting animals without crippling economic development in Texas, and they hope to apply it to other threatened species.
Wildlife advocates and some public officials say that although the concept of a habitat exchange has promise, it is doomed to fail in Texas if it’s controlled by the industries that could damage habitat the most.
“You’re not only allowing the fox to guard the henhouse, but also to build it,” said Jake Li, a policy adviser for the Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife, which recently sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its decision not to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as endangered. “So who gets to look inside?”
The answer so far isn’t clear. State Comptroller Susan Combs’ office, which oversees the management of threatened species habitat in Texas, isn’t saying which oil companies have participated in the conservation plan for the dunes sagebrush lizard, how much they are paying or how exactly the money is being used to help the animals.
Noah Greenwald, an endangered species expert with the Washington-based Center for Biological Diversity said that the overlying concern is that such conservation plans “would be profit-driven, not science-driven.”
But the Environmental Defense Fund, a key author of the plan for the prairie chicken, says it can be successful.
“We are a strong believer in the ability of the market to deal with environmental concerns to maximizing environmental benefits for least cost,” said David Wolfe, conservation director for Environmental Defense Fund. “Competition can get us down to low-cost, environmental returns.”
Such programs would also greatly benefit the state’s farmers and ranchers, Wolfe said. Payments through a federal program that has doled out billions to Texas farmers have been declining. “So this is a new opportunity for them to grow habitat and make some income from that,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said that the conservation program for the prairie chicken would be transparent and include a diverse oversight committee. Federal and state agencies, as well as other stakeholder groups, would have access to documents that the public might be barred from seeing because of private landowner confidentiality laws.
But specific details of a plan on how a wildlife habitat exchange would work for the lesser prairie chicken in the Permian Basin have not been released.
That is unusual for a conservation effort that would ultimately be overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, should it decide to list the species next March.
“I’ve never heard of that happening,” said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s executive director from 1990 to 2001. “And I’ve been in government for a long time.”
Texas Parks and Wildlife and its sister agencies in four other states have worked for years on a separate conservation plan for the lesser prairie chicken that also involves paying landowners to restore habitat, though not in a completely free-market system.
Katharine Armstrong, whose firm Natural Resources Solutions played a key role in authoring the oil companies’ plans for both the dunes sagebrush lizard and the lesser prairie chicken, said their prairie chicken conservation plan would become public in the next 30 days. A related pilot project across the chicken’s multi-state habitat would be completed soon.
“We don’t have the metrics yet,” Armstrong said. “If you release that plan without [metrics], can you imagine the heyday the naysayers were to have with that? They know it would be a problem. So we’re not going to fall for that. We are going to submit our plan when we have all the science completed.”
Alongside her environmental consulting work, Armstrong is also a lobbyist for the Texas Oil and Gas Association.
“Is it weird for oil and gas to do conservation?” said Armstrong, who is a former Texas Parks and Wildlife chairwoman. “Well, no, I don’t think it is. I think it’s a very healthy thing. … Yes, of course, there’s some self-interest all around. But there are incentives to do this.”
In the mid-2000s, she and Steve Manning, now her colleague at Natural Resources Solutions, worked on a three-year wildlife habitat exchange pilot program for the golden-cheeked warbler in Central Texas. Fort Hood was faced with the prospect of having some of its operations impacted in order to protect the bird, which has been listed as endangered.
The Texas Watershed Management Foundation, led by Manning, Armstrong and Combs (who is no longer on the board), has administered the exchange. About $2 million went to landowners surrounding Fort Hood who participated, and those still in 25-year contracts to restore warbler habitat on their land will receive $700 to $800 an acre over that period, Manning said.
The results have drawn praise from observers including Defenders of Wildlife experts, though it was limited in scope.
But suspicions remain about who is in charge.
“Clearly, somebody’s designed a system with winners and losers,” said state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who tried unsuccessfully in the past legislative session to put endangered species conservation in the hands of a broader group of state officials. Seliger’s district is in the Permian Basin, where independent oil companies believe the energy giants, like ExxonMobil and Chevron, are trying to push them out with a free-market system that drives up the price of needed landowners’ credits. Manning says the cost of credits will come down in a free market as they did in the case of the golden-cheeked warbler.
Such concerns haven’t stopped proponents of the exchanges from applying the plan to other threatened animals.
“We’ve turned endangered species into a commodity,” said Gene Richardson, an associate director at the Texas Farm Bureau, an agricultural lobbying organization that has supported the warbler, lizard and prairie chicken plans. “If we build a framework, we can just plug in one species after another and tweak it around the edges to make it fit. That’s what we’d like to do.”