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 is not 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 was not warranted. The agency reviewed some 800 written comments and heard 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.

The Wild Earth Guardians are also behind the petition to list the Spot-Tailed Earless Lizard under the Endangered Species Act. Not coincidentally, the range of this particular lizard includes portions of the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas, which is emerging as one of the top oil and gas producing regions in the country. Production in the nine-field formation is steadily increasing, reporting 310,370 barrels of oil a day in July of this year, compared with 120,532 barrels a day in July 2011.

By filing an outlandish number of lawsuits, groups like the Wild Earth Guardians are trying to overwhelm Fish and Wildlife resources and force settlements that the groups can dictate, instead of letting the courts decide. Such groups are willing to use extreme tactics to pursue their goal of shutting down the oil and gas industry with blatant disregard to how their actions will affect the economy or the power supply on which we all depend.

We must not allow the Obama administration to use the Endangered Species Act as a weapon against the oil and gas industry. The federal government needs to learn that we here in Texas best understand our unique geological, economical and regulatory environment—and to stop wasting taxpayers’ money on frivolous lawsuits. One-size-fits-all regulation doesn’t work, and thinly veiled attempts to control energy production masquerading as environmentalism don’t fool anyone.


Mr. Porter is a member of the Texas Railroad Commission, which is the state’s primary regulator of energy production and exploration.