ENDANGERED SPECIES:

Cornyn amendment would pre-empt listing of Southwestern lizard

Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn has filed an amendment to stop the Fish and Wildlife Service from offering Endangered Species Act protections to a 3-inch lizard, saying the agency's action would cripple the oil and gas industry in West Texas.

Cornyn's move follows proposals earlier this spring by a handful of House Republicans from New Mexico and Texas to stop FWS's proposal to list the dunes sagebrush lizard and the lesser prairie chicken, which they say would imperil oil and gas development and other economic opportunities (E&ENews PM, April 21).

A spokesman for Cornyn this morning said he has not heard whether Democratic leadership will allow a vote on the measure, which was filed yesterday to S. 782, an unrelated bill to reauthorize and expand economic development programs.

Bill Snape, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said this morning that it is highly unlikely Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will allow a vote on the amendment. He said even a few Republicans likely would oppose the measure.

Cornyn yesterday said FWS does not yet fully understand the effects of natural events and human activities on the lizard's habitat, which includes much of southeastern New Mexico and a handful of West Texas counties.

"With reptilian ability, the Obama administration changes its colors on domestic energy from one day to the next based on the political environment," Cornyn said in a statement. "If the Obama administration has its way, this scaly political pawn will land on the Endangered Species List, without sufficient supporting research to back up the move, and effectively bring new and existing oil and gas production in parts of Texas and New Mexico to a screeching halt."

Cornyn also cited a May letter from the board of regents of the University of Texas System, which manages roughly 75,000 acres that could potentially become habitat for the lizard, arguing that a listing would be "at best premature and currently unsupported in law and fact."

The letter also warns that a pair of districts that could become protected habitat for the lizard produce 300 million barrels of oil a year, nearly half of the state's total production and 14 percent of total U.S. production.

But FWS has said the blunt-nosed lizard, which has bright yellow eyes and brown, camouflaged skin, faces "immediate and significant threats due to oil and gas activities, and herbicide treatments" and should be listed as endangered.

The agency and environmentalists have rejected claims by Cornyn and others that a listing would shut down oil production. In fact, the agency said the lizard's range covers roughly 600,000 acres, or less than 1 percent of all oil and gas lands in the Permian Basin, according to a report from CBD that analyzes recent leasing proposals near the lizard's range.

While Congress has never pre-empted the agency from pursuing an ESA listing, observers note that a rider attached to an April spending bill that removed federal protection for gray wolves may open the door to new attacks on the Obama administration's wildlife policy.

While FWS has not commented publicly on Cornyn's proposal, the agency's nominee for director has said listing decisions should be determined by scientists, not politicians.

"Listing decisions should be based on the science," Dan Ashe told Greenwire in May. "Is the species endangered or threatened, or is it not? If it meets the statutory criteria of endangered or threatened, it should be added to the list" (Greenwire, May 6).