Ya-Wei Li, Policy Advisor, Endangered Species Conservation

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.

Earlier this year, we explained why the plan can’t protect the lizard. For one reason, 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? We thought so too, so we launched our own investigation.

My colleague, Andy Shepard, and I compared aerial images taken immediately after an area was enrolled in the Texas plan, with images taken four and then thirteen months later. What we 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. You can see all the before and after images in our newly-released report and supplemental presentation, which show the images in higher quality. As an example, the images below show three oil well pads, each about 400 feet wide, created after the plan went into effect.

©Defenders of Wildlife

©Defenders of Wildlife

©Defenders of Wildlife

©Defenders of Wildlife

A website that collects Texas oil and gas permitting information (www.texas-drilling.com/crane-county) places a red dot on all the areas in Crane County with recently issued oil and gas drilling permits. As expected, a dot appears over each of these well pads. Only a few hundred feet away, we found more new oil pads and roads that apparently don’t exist – at least, according to the Comptroller they don’t.

The story gets even better. You might be wondering how the Comptroller keeps track of which areas are destroyed by oil and gas development. A non-profit organization called the Texas Habitat Conservation Foundation was created to collect and report this information to the Comptroller, and to administer other crucial parts of the Texas Plan. As it turns out, however, 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.

Dune sagebrush lizard (©Mark L. Watson)

Dune sagebrush lizard (©Mark L. Watson)

Monetary suspicions aside, without knowing how much habitat is destroyed, the Service can’t effectively ensure that the lizard is protected. Under the Texas plan, habitat destruction is capped at one percent of the total habitat for the species within the first three years. If this limit is exceeded, the Service will likely have to reconsider listing the lizard. But without a system to verify the Comptroller’s claims about habitat disturbance, the Service might not know if and when this one percent limit is exceeded.

We hope our investigation sends a signal far and wide that conservation plans like this one where the Service is completely in the dark about plan compliance simply don’t work. At the most basic level, a plan shouldn’t leave the public or the Service in the dark about how it will protect a species – especially if the plan is used as an excuse to avoid listing an imperiled species. And if a plan relies on self-reporting, it shouldn’t be performed solely by lobbyists for the industry that poses the greatest threat to the species. Fortunately, tools like GIS mapping allow us to shed light on some of the darkest corners of how states try to avoid listing an endangered species.

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