The oil patch breathed a collective sigh of relief on June 13 when the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would withdraw its proposal to list the dunes sagebrush lizard (which inhabits parts of eastern New Mexico and Texas’s Permian Basin) as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (the ESA). A threatened or endangered listing could have put the clamps on oil and gas exploration and production in west Texas and eastern New Mexico, along with the booming local economies that depend on those industries. According to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, “voluntary conservation efforts of Texas and New Medico, oil and gas operators, private landowners and other stakeholders” led to the decision not to list the species.

When it was first announced that the dunes sagebrush lizard was being considered for the listing, the Texas legislature acted. Senate Bill 1 of the 82nd Legislature in 2011 authorized Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Suaan Combsto coordinate the development of voluntary endangered species conservation plans while balancing economic needs of the state. The lizard (classified as an official species only in 1992) was the first to be addressed under that authority. Under Senate Bill 1, the Comptroller, in coordination with the Southwest Region of FWS, came up with a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) for the dunes sagebrush lizard.

In nutshell, the CCAA establishes incentives for private landowners and lessees (primarily, oil and gas producers) to preserve the lizard’s primary habitat – the shinnery oak sand dune. In turn, those landowners and lessees will enter into conservation agreements with FWS that provide that, as long as certain preservation measures are carried out on their property, they will not be forced to do anything else if the lizard is ever listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA.

The primary conservation activity FWS wants from oil and gas producers is a commitment not to “blow out” the shinnery oak sand dune in the Permian Basin. According to FWS, directional drilling technology now makes it possible to economically extract oil and gas from formations under shinnery oak sand dunes from drill sites located elsewhere.

If you think you’ve heard the last of the dunes sagebrush lizard, think again. The FWS has said that it would “absolutely” consider renewing its proposal to list the lizard as threatened or endangered if FWS determines the Texas CCAA is not accomplishing its goals. While the Texas CCAA and the individual landowner and lessee agreements are designed to protect landowners and mineral producers when and if that listing occurs, there is no guarantee the CCAA (which is a complex 179 page plan) will be properly enforced.