Ya-Wei Li, Policy Advisor for Endangered Species Conservation has just reported on a study exposing many questionable aspects to the Texas Lizard “Conservation” Plan.
Crane County, Texas is a land peppered with oil and gas wells, connected by arteries of pipelines and dirt roads. It’s one of the top counties for oil and gas production in Texas. It’s also where the dunes sagebrush lizard is trying to persist amidst all the mayhem. Last June, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided that it no longer needed to list the lizard under the Endangered Species Act, partly because it had signed a conservation plan (called the Texas Habitat Conservation Plan) for the lizard with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.
The plan can’t protect the lizard because it doesn’t describe how landowners will protect the species from oil and gas development, off-road vehicle use and other activities that can squish lizards. Without this information, the Service has absolutely no idea whether the plan will live up to its promises.
The Comptroller certainly believes it will. Ever since it signed the plan in April 2012, it’s been reporting every month to the Service that not a single acre of enrolled habitat has been disturbed. That’s right, nothing across over 138,640 acres in some of the most productive oil and gas counties in Texas.
Sound too good to be true? Ya-Wei and Andy thought so too, and launched their own investigation. They compared aerial images taken immediately after an area was enrolled in the Texas plan, with images taken four and then thirteen months later. What they discovered were multiple instances of habitat destruction that the Comptroller was required to report to the Service, but never did. We’re talking about new oil drilling pads, dirt roads and land clearings.
And as it turns out, this so-called “conservation” foundation is directed solely by lobbyists for the Texas Oil and Gas Association! Legally, every time oil and gas developers disturb lizard habitat, they are required to pay a fee under the Texas plan to offset the impacts of their development activity. If no disturbance is reported, then there are no fees to pay. It’s hard not to suspect a conflict of interest here. Fortunately, tools like GIS mapping allow researchers to shed light on some of the darkest corners of how states try to avoid listing an endangered species.