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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Endangered Lizard Threatens Oil and Gas Development in the Permian Basin


  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the dunes sagebrush lizard as endangered, threatening oil and gas development in the Permian Basin.
  • The oil and gas industry argues they've made conservation efforts and the lizard's habitat is minimal in the basin.
  • Environmentalists see the listing as a win but worry about delayed protection and future development restrictions.



A rare lizard that lives in Texas and New Mexico has become the latest potential threat to oil and gas production growth in the Permian.

The dunes sagebrush lizard was granted endangered status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week, prompting an outcry from the industry, which warned the change in the lizard's status would be detrimental to its activity in the most prolific shale play in the country.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the dunes sagebrush lizard occurs in about 4% of the lands that comprise the Permian Basin. The service also acknowledged that many oil and gas operators are already taking part in voluntary conservation efforts to preserve the species' habitat. Yet now, these appear to have been deemed insufficient, prompting a sharp response from the industry.

"We are extremely disappointed in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) decision to again list the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard as Endangered in the Permian Basin," the president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association told energy analyst and consultant David Blackmon for a story published in Forbes.

"In spite of the successful conservation efforts on the ground for over a decade and that less than two years ago approving a conservation plan for the Lizard that all parties agreed would conserve habitat," he added.

The president of the U.S. Oil and Gas Association was even blunter, telling Blackmon that "Anti-energy activists have been desperate to shut down drilling in the Permian Basin for years," despite voluntary efforts and investments on the part of oil and gas operators in the area to save the rare species.

"Texas oil and gas operators spent tens of millions of dollars in voluntary conservation efforts to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard. Environmental groups meanwhile added nothing to the conservation efforts but petitions and lawsuits," Tim Stewart said.

At first glance, the reaction of the oil and gas industry may seem excessive in the context of how little of the Permian the dunes sagebrush lizard actually inhabits. But this perception may be wrong, with the Fish and Wildlife Service noting that oil and gas activity is the prime suspect for the species' "functional extinction" across almost half of its habitat.

There is also a recent example of how environmentalists can interfere with the energy industry's activities: the suspension of new liquefied natural gas export terminals that President Biden signed earlier this year was the direct result of activist pressure.

"Even if there were no further expansion of the oil and gas or sand mining industry, the existing footprint of these operations will continue to negatively affect the dunes sagebrush lizard into the future," the Fish and Wildlife Service said in its announcement and it is little wonder that the industry took this as ominous.

Even more ominously for oil and gas operators, the USFWS may yet add to its decision a designation of critical habitat for the dunes sagebrush lizard. That would be a move that, Blackmon warns, "could become extremely limiting to any future development of the massive oil and natural gas resources known to exist beneath the region."

While the energy industry fumes at the decision, environmentalists were understandably happy. "The dunes sagebrush lizard spent far too long languishing in a Pandora's box of political and administrative back and forth even as its population was in free-fall towards extinction," a regional director for Defenders of Wildlife said, as quoted by the AP.

"I'm relieved the precious dunes sagebrush lizard is finally on the path to protection," Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said, as quoted by Forbes. "I'm saddened and disgusted, however, that the Service allowed the lizard's habitat to be destroyed for decades."

What follows next would become clear in two months. One thing is for sure, however. Activists will likely become bolder like they did after the LNG approval suspension. They have now focused their efforts on making sure the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission enforces new air pollution rules approved by the EPA earlier this year.

According to these rules, the maximum level of fine particulate matter in the air is now 9 micrograms per cubic meter, down from 12 micrograms previously—and FERC already tapped one LNG producer as its first target. Venture Global was recently served with a request to provide proof its particulate matter emissions were below 9 micrograms per cubic meter.

"FERC is going to have to take this issue seriously and is going to have to analyze whether these projects are in the public interest given this new reality," a Sierra Club attorney told the Financial Times.


"We plan to hold FERC's feet to the fire to ensure that it follows through and satisfies its legal obligations," Tom Gosselin also said.

One question that might be worth asking is when conservationists would become this vocal about the fate of bats and birds of prey that are being killed by onshore wind turbines and the whale deaths linked to offshore wind development.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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