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A West Texas Lizard vs. Oil and Gas Production (Controversial government evidence with consequences)

Most People have never heard of the dunes sagebrush lizard, but it may soon hit them where it hurts: the wallet.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to classify the lizard as an endangered species. This could stop production of more than 1,000 oil wells and reduce annual oil production by at least 7 million barrels.  The resulting burdens and lost opportunities for America’s working families would be outrageous on their own, but they are especially outrageous in this case given how paltry the evidence is underlying the federal government’s proposed action.  

The agency considers five factors in designating a species as endangered. These include whether the habitat is threatened, overutilization of the species, disease, inadequacy of existing regulation mechanisms, and natural or manmade factors that hinder the existence of the species.

Out of these five factors, the agency primarily focuses on how the habitat of the lizard is threatened and manmade causes, particularly from oil and gas production.

This lizard‘s habitat is in the shinnery oak dune system, which consists of short shrubs and sandy dunes. That system is found in southeastern New Mexico and west Texas, where there is at least 140,000 acres of habitable private land that covers four counties in Texas. 

Their proposal is based on a publication by the agency in 1982 that classified the lizard as a Category 2 species and suggested a review of its classification in the future. The agency defines a Category 2 species as

those taxa for which information in the Service’s possession indicated that a proposed rule was possibly appropriate, but for which sufficient data on biological vulnerability and threats were not available to support a proposed rule.

Site surveys were taken between 2006 and 2007 to complete the review. Twenty-seven sites in west Texas were chosen, 19 of which were historical localities and the other eight were considered to be hospitable locations. Since the lizard was found in only three sites, the agency used this as evidence to make the case it is rare. In addition, it took 68 to 115 minutes to find the lizard and the agency considers anything longer than 60 minutes to be a rare species.

The evidence the agency uses to list a species as endangered adheres to the “best available science” that is required by the Endangered Species Act.  In this case, the best available science is arbitrary and not extensive. Moreover, the areas chosen in west Texas were based on surveys of federally owned land that was part of the shinnery oak dune system in New Mexico, and not necessarily on evidence that the lizard lived in those locations. 

Since some of the areas surveyed were locations where oil and gas were being produced, the agency states that “the lizard faces immediate and significant threats due to oil and gas activities, and herbicide treatments.” They then conclude that “we have determined that designation of the critical habitat for the dunes sagebrush lizard is prudent but not determinable at this time.”    

According to the Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, the government’s evidence that the lizard is threatened is faulty. Many more natural factors should be considered and possibly a broader area should be included in future surveys. Other factors should also be considered, such as the economic costs of listing the lizard as an endangered species.

In order to conserve the habitat for any endangered species, the agency provides a list of actions that may jeopardize the species’ habitat.  Several of these directly relate to oil production. If the lizard is put on the endangered species list, oil production could be restricted.

Considering that Texas produces 20% of the nation’s oil supply, restrictions would reduce supply and put upward pressure on fuel prices. While this may please some in the Obama Administration – President Obama explicitly favors renewable energy sources at the expense of fossil fuels – it would hurt the Texas’ economy and make cash strapped Americans worse off from higher gasoline and food prices.

From the efforts by U.S. Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Representative Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, to have this proposal reviewed before economic damage occurs, there has been a promise to review the proposal by the new Director Dan Ashe. We all seek to prevent species from extinction, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should base their claims on more than mere speculation when they take actions that could cost thousands of jobs and disrupt the livelihood of millions.

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Vance Ginn earned a BBA in Economics and Accounting and minored in Political Science and Mathematics at Texas Tech University. Currently, he is working on his doctorate in economics where he also teaches.

5 comments

1 Jon Boone { 08.05.11 at 8:19 am }

“We all seek to prevent species from extinction, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should base their claims on more than mere speculation when they take actions that could cost thousands of jobs and disrupt the livelihood of millions.”

This is both a complex and complicated issue. Modernity exits in large part because of affordable oil and gas. But one of the chief benefits of modernity is that it has afforded our species new knowledge about how our actions impose on the rest of the world. And, in my view, this knowledge imposes responsibilities for stewardship that go beyond pocketbook issues–or at least asks whether the shoe here should be on the other foot. Before undertaking the extraction and refinement of all that oil and gas–and risking billions of dollars in investment, perhaps it is in the interests of a better world if the captains of those industries, using the best available science, would demonstrate that their actions would not harm any species in the targeted area whose population numbers made it highly vulnerable to extinction. And if they did not, the criminal penalties would be substantial–not just a tax deductible fine paid by their customers.

2 ttanton { 08.05.11 at 8:30 am }

What this action demonstrates is the utter bias from USFWS. On the one hand, they employ sketchy science to (potentially) shut down oil/gas extraction, yet ignore sound science in driving forward with a wind corridor EXACTLY IN THE PATH of the endangered whooping crane (see my earlier post http://www.masterresource.org/2011/07/wind-turbines-whooping-cranes/ ) So much for “equal protection under the law.”

3 Jon Boone { 08.05.11 at 9:10 am }

Tom Tanton does indeed point out the double standard–and the hypocrisy. However, all human activities, not just power production, should be motivated–and constrained–by a biodiversity ethic.

4 Paddy { 08.05.11 at 1:44 pm }

There is a long history of this type of agenda driven fraudulent research by US F&W to support listing per the Endangered Species Act, including: the snail darter (the species was abundant, but biologists never looked for them); northern spotted owl (endangered by predation by barred owl rather than habitat loss); marbeled murrelet (they are ever where); and the polar bear (listing based upon questionable sighting of 4 dead bears and rampant speculation about cause and consequences).

The ESA should be repealed. It is used to promote proxies in order to stop existing and prospective land uses. The worst outrages to date is shutting off irrigation water for vast farm areas in SE Oregon and the Central Valley in CA in order to protect useless species of fish.

ESA is really a bad law that rarely achieves its purpose of protecting species from extinction. Those who play God with nature forget that “extinction is evolution in action”.

5 Now is not the time to hamper oil production (not that there is ever a good time to do so) | JunkScience Sidebar { 08.08.11 at 1:37 am }

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