A new lawsuit was filed in federal district court on October 1 against U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in an ongoing battle over the dunes sagebrush lizard. This five-inch lizard lives among the shinnery oak sand dune habitat in the Permian Basin and in much of the western United States.
The goal of the lawsuit, introduced by the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is to add the dunes sagebrush lizard to the endangered species list. The group previously petitioned in May to have the lizard listed as a “threatened” or “endangered species” and to designate protected “critical habitat.” However, FWS did not act within the 90-day timeframe, triggering the groups to file a lawsuit.
Controversy over the lizard dates back to the Bush Administration and throughout the Obama Administration. In 2012, Texas successfully implemented an approach that guarded the lizard from federal protections. The Texas Conservation Plan (TCP) for the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard, designed by then-Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, provided protections for the lizard and its habitat. The now-defunct plan allowed oil and gas companies in the region to voluntarily agree on limiting the impact of their operations in the lizard’s habitat in exchange for regulatory certainty.
The Permian Basin accounts for about one-fourth of the total oil output of the United States; substantially contributing to the U.S. overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia in production. The rapid development of the Permian Basin has been due to innovative horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Frac sand, mined from the dunes sagebrush lizard’s habitat, is used as a proppant, holding shale fractures open and allowing the release of natural gas, oil and natural gas liquids.
As producers in the Permian sought to simplify and reduce costs in logistics, they reduced their market share in sand mines located in the upper Midwest and began to mine sand from the basin. According to an in-basin frac sand provider, the demand for frac sand is expected to reach “199 billion pounds by 2022.”
As producers increasingly use in-basin sand and international demand for American liquid natural gas and crude oil grows, environmental issues surrounding the lizard in the Permian Basin could escalate.