Lizard Controversy in West Texas, New Mexico Oil Patch

Published June 13, 2011

With the price of gasoline soaring at the pump, a three-inch-long, sand-dwelling lizard threatens one of the nation’s most prolific oil-producing regions.

The dunes sagebrush lizard may soon be added to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Endangered Species List, a development that is looked upon with horror by many residents of the oil-rich Permian Basin in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico. If the lizard is added to the list, the Endangered Species Act will impose severe land-use restrictions on the 17-county Permian Basin that will curtail oil exploration and drilling.

Regional Economy Flourishing
The Permian Basin produces nearly 20 percent of all domestic crude oil, and the area is experiencing a boom that supports tens of thousands of jobs in Texas and New Mexico. While the nation suffers from a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, the jobless rate in the Permian Basin is under 5 percent.

In 2002, the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the FWS to list the lizard, arguing oil drilling on federal land in New Mexico and herbicide spraying by ranchers in Texas and New Mexico to remove shinnery oak threatened the reptile’s habitat. The lizards bury themselves in sand beneath low-lying shinnery oak to protect themselves against predators and regulate their body temperature. Ranchers prefer to remove shinnery oak because it is toxic to cattle.

FWS agreed to list the lizard in 2004, but because of a huge backlog of other species to deal with, it did not get around to formally proposing the reptile’s listing until December 2010. 

Officials at FWS expect to make a final decision on the lizard in December.

Regional Solutions Available
Regional leaders point out New Mexico already has legally binding conservation agreements between landowners and the government designed to protect the lizard’s habitat. Such agreements could also be negotiated in Texas, which could protect the lizard without subjecting the Permian Basin to the ruinous economic consequences of inflexible ESA strictures.

Battle Looms
If officials at FWS insist on going ahead with the ESA listing process, Congress might intervene. Recently, public and congressional pressure forced Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to back down from a plan to designate millions of acres of land in the West as “wild lands,” which would have put the land off-limits to timber, mineral, and energy extraction.

“There is much more at stake here than one seldom-seen lizard,” said Marita Noon, executive director of the New Mexico-based Citizen’s Alliance for Responsible Energy. “The bigger picture is about an out-of-control, centralized government making decisions that hurt the local citizenry and economy.”

“The land this lizard likes just happens to be a place rich with oil and gas that provides the majority of jobs and myriad levels of taxes and revenues that fill state coffers,” Noon observed.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.