Texas lizard added to endangered species list over the oil and gas industry’s objections

The dunes sagebrush lizard, which lives in the oil-rich Permian Basin, has been listed as endangered after a decades-long effort. (Ryan Hagerty/Usfws, Ryan Hagerty/Usfws)

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ODESSA — The dunes sagebrush lizard burrows its coarse, spiny body to cool down and sometimes conserve heat way deep beneath the sand dunes in the Mescalero-Monahans ecosystem 30 miles west of this West Texas city.

But the 2.5-inch-long lizard’s home — sandy mounds studded with low-lying shinnery oak trees — is being disrupted as the oil and gas industry expands, posing a grave threat to its survival, federal regulators and scientists said.

After four decades of warnings by biologists about the existential threat that oil and gas exploration and development poses on the reptile’s habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the rare lizard endangered last week.

Industry representatives have for years fought against the designation saying it would scare off companies interested in drilling inside the nation’s most lucrative oil and natural gas basin.

The listing requires oil and gas companies to avoid operating in areas the lizard inhabits, but the Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to determine where those areas are because it is still gathering information, according to Beth Ullenberg, a spokesperson for the Service.

Should the energy industry encroach on the lizard’s habitat, they could incur fines up to $50,000 and prison time, depending on the violation. However, Ullenberg said the agency would work with companies to avoid penalties.

In a statement, the Fish and Wildlife Service said oil and gas operators can use horizontal drilling to reach oil and gas deposits without disrupting the lizard’s habitat.

The lizard only lives in about 4% of the 86,000-square-mile Permian Basin, which spans across Texas and New Mexico, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. In Texas, the lizard has been found in Andrews, Crane, Gaines, Ward and Winkler counties.

Lee Fitzgerald, a professor at Texas A&M University who has studied the lizard since 1994, said that drilling a single oil well does not impact the lizard’s survival, but the fragmentation of its habitat by the oil and gas industry’s infrastructure — including the roads leading to drill sites — isolates the reptiles and prevents them from finding mates beyond those already living close by.

Fitzgerald compared the oil and gas infrastructure to urban sprawl.

“If you build one house, it's not a problem,” he said. “But you build 1,000 houses, and every one of them has a driveway, and every one of them has a street, connecting it to more houses then you get urban sprawl. And if you do that in the shinnery oak sand dunes then the lizards disappear.”

There are few remaining lizards and they are hard to find, making it difficult to count them accurately. According to a 2023 analysis by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the lizards are “functionally extinct” across 47% of its range.

Fitzgerald said the population estimates of the lizard don’t matter.

“The lizard is just one piece of the puzzle that is disappearing,” he said. “It's out there, it's alive. We should be proud of it, that we have it, and it's so special. So, it's more about the non-monetary values of the lizard as it is part of the big picture of biodiversity.”

Listing could cause disruption in oil production

The decision to categorize the lizard as a species in danger of extinction was unwelcome news for oil and gas industry leaders, who said federal regulators provided insufficient guidance for operators to evaluate how to decide where to build service roads and where to drill. Members of the industry also said they’re skeptical of the science supporting the designation.

“I think that the lizard is not in danger of extinction,” said Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association.

The ramifications of the listing won’t be immediate, but it could have lasting impacts on the future of oil and gas extraction, Shepperd said, adding that it could affect a company’s ability to drill without running afoul of federal requirements under the Endangered Species Act.

“Not overnight, but over the coming months, we believe that that's going to lead to a decrease in drilling. We believe it's going to lead to … job losses,” Shepperd said.

In a joint statement with the Texas Oil and Gas Association, delivered to the federal agency last year, energy industry leaders argued that oil and gas companies were already taking measures to prevent further disturbing the lizard’s habitat: a 200-meter buffer between their operations and the lizard’s home, minimizing their presence in the area and using existing service roads as opposed to building more.

Industry representatives also said that oil and gas companies had been participating in voluntary conservation agreements, a program in which companies and private landowners pledge to protect the lizard’s habitat. Environmentalists have criticized the agreements because there is no enforcement or penalties if companies do not comply — or a way to determine whether the plans are effective.

State and nationwide oil and gas associations have not ruled out litigation, Shepperd said.

Scott Lauermann, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute, said the decision could delay the permits that companies need for every phase of oil and gas exploration and extraction.

Such permits could authorize companies to build the infrastructure necessary to pump oil like oil rigs and service roads. Federal officials encouraged companies to consult the agency early in their planning.

The lizard wars

Ten generations of lizards have lived and died while a battle ensued between environmental groups, the oil and gas industry and the federal government over their protection.

Fish and Wildlife first identified the dunes sagebrush lizard as needing protection in 1982. Since then, it has been removed and added multiple times from the candidate list for endangered species, but the proposals fell through because the Fish and Wildlife Service said it could not afford to evaluate whether the lizard should have been placed on the list, said Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. The Center has petitioned and sued the Fish and Wildlife Service several times over almost two decades regarding the lizard.

In 2002, the center delivered a scientific petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service, asking the agency to add the lizard to the endangered species list. The Service did not act, citing a lack of resources, Robinson said.

The Service proposed adding the lizard to the endangered species list again in 2010 but withdrew the proposal 18 months later.

Instead, then-Texas Comptroller Susan Combs assembled voluntary conservation agreements — a pledge by landowners and operators to avoid activities like removing shinnery oak trees and building roads — to convince the federal government to avoid listing the lizard as endangered, a decision that drew praise from the oil and gas industry and rebuke from environmentalists and wildlife conservation groups.

State and federal officials argued the move would be enough to protect the lizard. More than 200 ranchers and oil and gas companies between Texas and New Mexico, federal officials said.

Shepperd said that among them were Chevron, ExxonMobil and Occidental Petroleum.

Robinson argued that the agreements shielded the oil and gas industry from making modest changes to their daily operations.

“It’s a sad case of a federal agency that has been captured by the industries they’re supposed to hold to account,” Robinson said.

In 2018, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned again for the lizard’s protection. In 2022, the Center sued the Fish and Wildlife Service again, a lawsuit that resulted in a settlement agreement, which led to another proposal to add the lizard to the endangered species list.

Ullenberg, the Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson, said that petition prompted the agency to conduct a review of the species and ultimately add it to the endangered list last week.

Robinson said it's an important first step.

“At least the government’s attention will be focused on the project of [recovering] the species, and that’s no small thing,” he said.

Disclosure: Ben Shepperd, Exxon Mobil Corporation, Permian Basin Petroleum Association and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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