A three-inch lizard that thrives in desert conditions could shut down oil and gas operations in portions of Southeast New Mexico and in West Texas, including the state’s top two oil producing counties.

Called the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard, it is being considered for inclusion on the federal Endangered Species listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A public rally to oppose this move is being sponsored by the Permian Basin Petroleum Association on Tuesday, April 26 at Midland Center beginning at 5 p.m. Congressman Mike Conaway will speak, as will Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson; other public officials have been invited.

“We are very concerned about the Fish and Wildlife Service listing,” said Ben Shepperd, president of the PBPA, noting the service also has proposed listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken next year. “The wolf at the door is the lizard; we’re concerned listing it would shut down drilling activity for a minimum of two years and as many as five years while the service determines what habitat is needed for the lizard. That means no drilling, no seismic surveys, no roads built, no electric lines.”

The move would impact activity in Andrews, Crane, Gaines, Ward and Winkler counties in Texas and Chaves, Eddy, Lea and Roosevelt counties in New Mexico.

Not only would the move impact oil and gas operations but agriculture, Shepperd noted, shutting down agricultural activities like grazing and farming — “anything that disturbs the habitat.”

While the industry is perfectly willing to undertake conservation measures to protect the lizard’s habitat, he said, naming it an endangered species “would shut down activity and be devastating not only to Permian Basin economies but to the national economy. We are the one bright spot month after month; in our economic turnaround, the main driver is the oil and gas industry.”

The concern is, he said, that the Fish and Wildlife Service lacks enough data to conclude that the tiny lizard is endangered and is basing its action on flawed methodology. “They didn’t spend enough time looking for them or the right technique to find them,” he said.

In New Mexico, where the lizard can be found on both private and public lands, Shepperd said a number of companies have entered into voluntary agreements to help conserve the lizard’s habitat, mitigate threats to the lizard and remediate any damage while continuing to operate. He said he wants the same to happen in Texas. The association favors such joint agreements between the federal government and landowners to protect the lizard’s habitat while allowing drilling operations to continue responsibly.

“The point is, we think the best way is for land owners and industry actually on the ground where the lizards are, who know how to protect the lizard, to be in charge instead of the feds putting up ‘Do Not Enter’ signs on every gatepost,” Shepperd said.

A sign of hope is that four counties — Lea, Andrews, Ward and Winkler, and the town of Monahans, have passed resolutions demanding to have standing during the comment phase, which ends May 16. Under the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA, Shepperd said, the federal government is required to work with
local governmental entities when they make such a request.

“This will enable them to bring in the economic impact,” he said. “We feel like the counties demanding to be part of the process should require the Fish and Wildlife Service to work with them to develop a reasonable conservation process that we all can live with.”

He said he hopes those attending Tuesday’s rally “will be inspired and better prepared to testify at the public hearing” being held by the Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday, April 27.
The public hearing will also be at Midland Center, beginning at
6:30 p.m.

The public comment period is scheduled to close May 16, 2011,
and the earliest date the Fish and Wildlife Service will make a
final listing decision is, as of now, December 15, 2011.

Mella McEwen can be reached at mmcewen@mrt.com.

Public Rally

What: PBPA is sponsoring a public rally against the endangered

Where: Midland Center, 105 N. Main

When: Tuesday, April 26 at 5 p.m.

Public Hearing: A public hearing will be held at Midland Center
at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 27