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Texas Conservation Plan for The Dunes Sagebrush Lizard Under Pressure

The Law Office of C. William Smalling, P.C. Aug. 20, 2017

The Texas Comptroller’s office recently sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) stating that the Texas Conservation Plan for the dunes sagebrush lizard is being threatened by companies that mine the fine-grain sand oil producers use for hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Endangered Sagebrush Lizard

In 2010, the FWS proposed listing the lizard as an endangered species because of the loss of habitat due to sand mining to support oil and gas fracking and ranching operations in the Permian Basin. Industry groups pushed back, however, claiming that an official listing would hinder much needed oil and gas production through the use of fracking techniques in old wells. The Comptroller’s office, which has oversight of endangered species, then worked with oil industry participants to craft a voluntary plan to protect the sand lizard’s habitat.

The Perils of Frac-Sand Mining

Now, in the letter to the FWS, Robert Gulley, head of the comptroller’s Division of Economic Growth and Endangered Species Management, said that 11 “frac-sand” companies planning to mine sand in areas that are prime dune sagebrush lizard habitat pose a threat to the desert critter.

“Frac-sand operations could significantly impact the habitat, including habitat in or near areas where lizards have been found in recent surveys,” Gulley wrote. “Moreover, the destruction of that habitat has already begun.”

Gulley reportedly said mining operations pose a “significant threat” for the dunes sagebrush lizard. The planned mining projects border the habitat as the sand used in mining operations is the same in which the lizards thrive. The division head officially alerted FSW after finding that the habitat has already been disturbed. In fact, frac-sand companies that are not participants in the conservation plan have impacted 270 acres of lizard habitat since March alone, compared to 296 total acres since the plan was implemented in 2012.  

The Takeaway

Although the comptroller’s officer has the authority to stop non-participants in the Texas Conservation Plan from developing frac-sand operations, the Permian Basin is expected to meet half of the nationwide demand for sand next year.

While the FWS originally accepted the dunes sagebrush lizard protection plan in 2012, it remains to be seen whether the Comptroller’s office will be able to encourage participants and nonparticipants to account for the conservation plan in their operations. Ultimately, striking a balance between environmental protection and energy production will continue to require the expertise of experienced environmental and energy attorneys.