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.
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.