Will Obama take on the sand dune lizards?

Laer Pearce Author, Crazifornia
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There couldn’t be a better friend to radical anti-oil environmentalists than the sand dune lizard. No, wait. Perhaps the alternative energy true believers in the federal government, from the president down, are even better friends to the radicals. We’ll know soon enough, thanks to a fight that’s pitting lizards against oil producers.

The sand dune lizard caught the eye of environmentalists because it lives exclusively in the Texas and New Mexico counties located in the Permian Basin, the most productive energy-producing land in the Lower 48. As such, it is probably the single best species to latch onto if you want to stop much of our domestic oil and natural gas production in its tracks, since there’s nothing like an endangered species listing to keep people from doing much on the listed critter’s habitat.

An environment group, Wildlife Guardians, sued the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2008 to fast-track the lizard’s listing, which had been languishing due to funding shortages. The Feds were only too happy to comply and held hearings in Texas and New Mexico last week as part of a timeline that could see the lizard listed within a year. In typical environmentalist hyperbole, the Wildlife Guardians lawsuit said, “Each month that passes without ESA protection for the sand dune lizard, this species angles farther over the cliff and closer to extinction.”

As dire and sensational as that sounds, the fact is that what’s known about the lizard is attributed almost entirely to studies done in the 1960s on federal lands — while most of the Permian Basin is in private ownership. If the impacts of oil and natural gas production are anywhere close to what Wildlife Guardians says they are, the lizard would certainly have disappeared in the 50 years since those studies were completed.

“The science is terrible,” said Permian Basin Petroleum Association spokesperson Jane Sheppard. “They have one study that says the lizards won’t cross roads and another that says their population is dropping because they’re being killed when they cross roads. Which is it?” Still, the Feds are using this dated, incomplete and conflicting science to justify moving forward with the listing.

Why would the federal government seek to shut down oil production in America’s richest source of domestic energy when gasoline is inching toward $5 a gallon? Why, for that matter, would the federal government seek to shut down home building in Southern California? As a Southern Californian, the controversy over the sand dune lizard reminds me of the Fish & Wildlife Service’s aggressive efforts to list the California gnatcatcher in the early 1990s. Declaring that songbird endangered would have caused an economic impact of up to $14 billion to the Southern California economy, which at the time was mired in a recession.

I helped a coalition of major landowners fight that listing, an experience that highlights the dim prospects facing the Permian Basin oil producers — not to mention every consumer of gasoline in the nation. If there’s one thing to be learned from the gnatcatcher battles, it’s that federal wildlife officials will not be objective; instead, they will promote shoddy science in favor of a listing and ignore competent science opposing it.

Like the sand dune lizard, the gnatcatcher presented the best opportunity to shut down an industry despised by environmentalists — land development then, oil production now. The environmentalists declared that 95 percent of gnatcatcher habitat was gone and the Feds agreed, making habitat loss the primary reason for listing the bird. The problem was neither the environmentalists nor the Feds understood fifth-grade math. Even if one accepted the highly suspect habitat loss numbers provided by the greens, plugging those numbers into the correct formula and working the math correctly revealed a habitat loss of less than 80 percent, not 95 percent. We pointed out this simple, irrefutable mathematical error on numerous occasions, but the Feds steadfastly refused to make the change.

One time, when I was at the Service’s regional office to point out this and other errors fomented by the Prozac-popping ornithologist who provided the “science” to justify the listing, I noticed a VW bus was parked in a Service employee parking space sporting a bumper sticker that said, “Developers, go build in Hell.” Despite this evident bias, we ultimately won the battle, eking out a threatened listing instead of an endangered listing, which allowed just enough flexibility to save the Southern California homebuilding industry.

The reason for our victory was unlikely and entirely unexpected: the election of Bill Clinton. It turns out the new president was looking for an “environmental train wreck” to fix so he could show he was not radical, and he and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt chose our little songbird as their train wreck. The Service was poised to move forward with a full listing, ignoring all the economic devastation that would have followed, and only the direct intervention of the administration stopped them.

The best — maybe only — bet the Texas and New Mexico oil producers have of turning back the Service in its crusade to list the sand dune lizard is a similar engagement by President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. With gas prices rising daily and a presidential election on the horizon, it could happen — but I’m not holding out much hope that Obama will suddenly start showing Clintonesque political smarts.

Laer Pearce, a veteran of three decades of California public affairs, is currently working on a book that shows how everything wrong with America comes from California.