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Texas rancher sues ConocoPhillips in bid to protect endangered cat

The rancher claims his goal is not to stop ConocoPhillips from drilling for oil on his land, but to force it to pick a different site away from an area where jaguarundis have been spotted.

VICTORIA, Texas (CN) — A fifth-generation Texas ranch owner sued ConocoPhillips on Thursday, demanding an injunction to stop it from drilling oil wells he claims will destroy the habitat of endangered jaguarundi.

Lloyd Michael Hamilton owns the 530-acre Hamilton Valley View Ranch near Cuero, a small town 90 miles southeast of San Antonio, where he and nine other people have seen several jaguarundis, distinguishable by the different colors of their coats.

While Hamilton holds title to surface estate of the ranch, ConocoPhillips has rights to drill for oil there as holder of a mineral lease.

Hamilton sued ConocoPhillips and its subsidiary Burlington Resources Oil & Gas Co. LP in federal court, alleging they violated the Endangered Species Act by leveling a hill on the ranch for a drilling pad, and seeking an injunction to stop it from moving ahead with oil-extraction development plans he says will further violate the ESA.

“Defendants intend to use a drill pad of six to twelve acres in size, an access road bulldozed through ‘ideal habitat,’ and construct a pipeline and a power line corridor, on plaintiff’s land,” the complaint states.

“Further, they intend to drill six to twelve oil and gas wells, then use high pressure equipment to ‘frac’ the wells, build production facilities including a several mile long pipeline and possibly a compressor station to pressurize the natural gas in order to put it into a pipeline proposed to be built,” it continues.

Hamilton says his goal is not to stop ConocoPhillips and Burlington Resources from producing oil and gas on the ranch, but to force them to pick a different site away from an area where jaguarundis have been spotted.

Closely related to cougars but only the size of large house cats, jaguarundis resemble otters on account of their short legs and long tails. Their range extends from Argentina to South Texas and they prey on rabbits, small birds and rodents.

The population at issue in the lawsuit, the Gulf Coast jaguarundi, was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1975 and is considered endangered wherever it is found in Texas, according to the lawsuit.

Hamilton claims the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service informed ConocoPhillips as early as July 2020 there were credible reports of jaguarundis on his ranch, and advised it to avoid the cats’ habitat and submit a habitat conservation plan.

But the agency’s pleas fell on deaf ears, Hamilton contends.

“Defendants knowingly and intentionally disregarded this information and these requests and proceeded to bring in heavy earth-moving equipment and began to construct a massive drill pad by removing and leveling a substantial portion of a hill,” the lawsuit states.

Hamilton did manage to pause the project by obtaining a temporary restraining order after suing ConocoPhillips in DeWitt County state court in September 2020. But the case was resolved in favor of the company when jury unanimously ruled against Hamilton in April 2021.

Hamilton’s claims in that case hinged on the “accommodation doctrine,” Texas Supreme Court precedent that holds an oil-and-gas lessee has an implied right to use the land as reasonably necessary to extract minerals, but must exercise that right with due regard for the landowner’s rights — in this context with regard to Hamilton’s rights to use the surface estate for jaguarundi.

Focusing his federal lawsuit solely on protecting jaguarundi, Hamilton seeks civil penalties of up to $54,167 per day, payable to the federal government, for ConocoPhillips' past violations of the Endangered Species Act, which he says the company committed by leveling the hilltop for a drilling pad.

He also wants an injunction to stop ConocoPhillips from moving ahead with its development plans at its preferred site and force it to adopt “’best management practices’ to control sound and light, risks from traffic, and other protections in areas within at least 0.6 miles with an additional buffer” of any area jaguarundis have been seen on his ranch.

Hamilton is represented by Austin, Texas attorney Jeffery Mundy and Charles Irvine with the Houston firm Irvine & Conner.

In a lengthy emailed statement, ConocoPhillips pushed back on Hamilton's claims it blew off USFW's concerns.

"In July 2020, we received information of an unconfirmed sighting of jaguarundi near a future pad site in DeWitt County, Texas. In an abundance of caution, we hired a third-party consultant to conduct a Threatened and Endangered Species survey, which determined no evidence of presence, nor observation of jaguarundi," it wrote. "During construction of the pad, the company observed many of the voluntary best management practices as outlined by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and maintained open communication and collaboration with the USFWS and the landowner."

ConocoPhillips said Hamilton filed his federal lawsuit Thursday after their post-trial mediation in the state court litigation proved unsuccessful.

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