(CN) — After a legal fight brought by environmental advocates, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday that it might be necessary to protect a tiny, rare species of oilfield-dwelling lizard under the Endangered Species Act.
The fate of the dunes sagebrush lizard has been the subject of heated debate for years, with environmental groups warning about threats to the lizard’s habitat in the oilfields of West Texas and southeastern New Mexico and oil companies pushing back over concerns that new land use rules could hinder their operations.
On Wednesday, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would launch a full review of a proposal from advocacy groups to classify the lizard as either endangered or threatened, after an initial review found that the groups had presented “substantial scientific or commercial information” that the lizard may need federal protections because of threats from oil and gas activity and climate change.
The initial review was prompted by a settlement in a lawsuit brought by Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity over the government’s previous delays in taking up the proposal.
“We’re delighted that the service recognizes that the species may still require protection,” Jason Rylander, an attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, said in an interview.
It’s undisputed that the lizard’s habitat has been harmed in recent years by industry activity in the sprawling Permian Basin oil patch, which was booming before a collapse in oil prices in March.
The lizard likes to live near short, shrubby trees that grow across the region’s sand dunes, but those dunes have also been primate targets for companies that mine the sand for use in fracking. Research has shown that the lizard’s population numbers are harmed when their habitat is “fragmented” by oilfield roads and well sites.
Listing the lizard as endangered or threatened could lead to fines if oil and gas companies kill the animals or disturb their habitat, while companies could also become obligated to consult with wildlife officials before launching new projects in areas where the lizard lives.
A threatened listing would be the less restrictive of the two options: companies would have more negotiating power with officials in deciding just how much special protection the lizards deserve.
Still, the prospect of any stronger federal protection is far from certain. The Fish and Wildlife Service noted Wednesday that the idea would face a “much higher” standard under the full year-long review.
“Because the threshold for review is low, we anticipated and welcome a review of the science,” Cory Pomeroy, vice president and general counsel for the trade group Texas Oil and Gas Association, said by email.
Meanwhile, the wildlife service also said Wednesday it would simultaneously launch a review of a newly proposed voluntary conservation plan for the lizard that, if enacted, could allow oil and gas companies and private landowners to avoid stricter land use rules, even if the lizard were ultimately protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The service said the voluntary approach could “reduce the need to list the species.”
The plan, submitted to the service by a company with seemingly little online presence called Canyon Environmental, mentions being developed by “various stakeholders including representatives from the sand mining industry.”
Oil industry trade groups have promoted the voluntary approach while characterizing the push for stricter regulations as a campaign aimed more at shutting down fossil fuels than protecting the lizards.
In 2016, researchers at Texas A&M University published a lengthy “best practices” guide outlining methods for oil and gas companies to reduce their impact on the lizard’s habitat, but it’s unclear exactly how effective such measures have been.
A previous voluntary conservation plan put forward by Texas in 2012 was abandoned in 2018 after it failed to achieve its goals, as the Texas Tribune reported at the time, largely because of a massive boom in sand mining operations across West Texas that wasn’t anticipated in the original plan.
“Species enhancement has continued with voluntary conservation on the ground,” said Pomeroy, the trade group representative. “And with the possibility of additional options for voluntary conservation, we believe the species will continue to benefit.”
When asked for data to support that claim, a spokesperson for the trade group said the statement was based on “feedback and input” from an endangered species committee within the organization that has been “actively monitoring the issue.”
Environmental advocates have insisted that serious threats to the lizard remain, especially if oil and gas production rebounds once the world moves past the disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Federal protection is all that stands between the dunes sagebrush lizard and extinction,” Michael Robinson, an advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.
Rylander, the environmental attorney, said that while he had not had time to review the new voluntary conservation proposal in full, his group would continue to push for the lizard to be listed as endangered or threatened regardless of whether the conservation plan is adopted.
“My concern is that, as before, the service is going to agree to a rough and inadequate plan and deny listing on the basis of that plan,” he said. “And that will lead to yet another round of litigation and worse outcomes for the dunes sagebrush lizard.”