Friday, December 07, 2012

Playing Chicken in Oil-Patch Politics

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced that it will formally consider listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken—whose habitat includes some of the nation's major energy fields—as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. This clearly is another desperate ploy by the Obama administration to further its campaign against oil and gas drilling. Such egregious overreach has been a specialty of the Environmental Protection Agency in the past. The administration has now found another agency to do its bidding.

The Lesser Prairie Chicken is a ground-nesting bird native to portions of Texas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. In Texas, it is found primarily in the Texas Panhandle and the Permian Basin. Listing the bird as threatened or endangered would make drilling all but impossible in these economically thriving regions. The Permian Basin alone produces more than one million barrels of oil a day, accounting for almost 70% of Texas' total production and 20% of the nation's oil production. It also supports thousands of jobs and provides millions of dollars in state revenue.

Several groups, including the Panhandle Producers and Royalty Owners Association and the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, have drafted something called a "Candidate Conservation Agreement With Assurances" in the hope that Fish and Wildlife will approve the plan and forgo listing the bird. The agreement describes oil and gas companies' involvement in habitat-conservation efforts and ideally will be merged with similar documents being developed in other states. Operators who choose not to participate in the voluntary conservation process will be held responsible for any reduction in wildlife or habitat and could be subject to penalties or even jail.

The Lesser Prairie Chicken matter isn't the first time the federal government has tried to use the Endangered Species Act as a tool in the war on drilling. Not that it is always successful. This summer, after months of research, Fish and Wildlife conceded that listing the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard as threatened or endangered wasn't warranted. The agency reviewed some 800 written comments and 147 comments from individuals or organizations at a two-day public hearing. Only 30 supported listing the lizard.

As it happens, the habitat of the Lesser Prairie Chicken largely overlaps that of the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard. Since Texas was able to produce a plan for the lizard that would work for environmentalists and operators alike, there is reason to hope that a similar plan being drafted for the Lesser Prairie Chicken will work.

Yet another issue of concern is the funding behind these efforts to list certain animals as endangered. Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson testified to Congress in June that taxpayer money is being spent in litigation over these listings. For instance, the petition to list the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard was originally filed by a radical environmental group, the Wild Earth Guardians. Interestingly, this group collected $680,492 in tax money (as grants and the like) from Fish and Wildlife between 2007 and 2011. During that time the group sued the federal agency 76 times over alleged environmental violations.

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