Houston/ Politics & Govt
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Published on June 24, 2024
Endangered Lizard Listing Sparks Conflict Between Conservation Efforts and Permian Basin Oil IndustrySource: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The tug-of-war over the preservation of a small reptile and the economic sway of the oil and gas industry in the Permian Basin has intensified with the recent endangered-species listing of the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identification of the lizard as endangered has triggered a confrontation with those who believe the move could threaten jobs in West Texas and New Mexico's vital energy sector. Despite years of biologists' warnings about the survival of the lizard given the expansion of oil industry activities, industry leaders have pushed back, arguing the decision could decrease drilling and lead to job losses – a position echoed by Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, in a statement.

Meanwhile, the industry faces new operational hurdles—companies now have to carefully plan around the protected habitats, a reality known since at least 2017. Thomas Jacob of Rystad explains that the firms affected by this ruling had ample opportunity “The companies have been able to think through what this means for their business and how they can mitigate any issues that would arise”, as reported by the Houston Chronicle. Nonetheless, Commissioner Wayne Christian at the Texas Railroad Commission labeled the ruling as federal overreach and the state is exploring responses potentially through litigation spearheaded by Attorney General Ken Paxton.

A current source of tension is the yet-to-be-determined definition of the lizard's critical habitat, which could dictate where oil and gas operations can and cannot occur. At this point, the Fish and Wildlife Service's designation has not specified exact locations, offering a modicum of flexibility to industry operations. However, the biological significance of the lizard's preservation cannot be understated. Lee Fitzgerald, a herpetologist at Texas A&M, cautioned about habitat fragmentation's dire consequences, asserting that once the dunes are gone, they cannot be restored. In an interview with KSAT, Fitzgerald pointed out the non-monetary values of biodiversity, underlining “The lizard is just one piece of the puzzle that is disappearing.”

As regulatory discussions continue to unfold, the oil and gas sector, already subject to fluctuating market forces, now finds itself fighting to quickly adapt to this new layer of environmental regulation. Some analysts doubt that the lizard's classification will severely disrupt the entire local economy, but as Karr Ingham, a petroleum economist, "it could certainly upend the industry in a more-narrowly defined geographic region.” as per reports by the Houston Chronicle. Voluntary conservation agreements previously in place did not suffice to safeguard the lizard, leading to the current enforced protections. The industry, however, maintains that they have instituted measures to minimize impact and already participate in voluntary conservation efforts, a stance that environmentalists find debatable at best. The battle thus continues, resonating beyond the Texan deserts to the halls of legislation and courtrooms where the fate of the Dunes Sagebrush lizard hangs precariously in balance with the economic imperatives of a region reliant on the energy sector.