Sadly most New Mexicans do not know how critical the oil and gas industry is to the economic health of our state. Currently 16 percent of the state’s revenue comes directly from the oil and gas business. Another 11 percent comes from interest on the permanent fund, which is filled with moneys from oil and gas sales.
These figures do not include corporate income tax from oil companies, sales tax on equipment purchases for the oil fields, or income tax on the 23,000 individuals directly employed in the oil and gas industry. Whether we like it or not, this state’s economic health is dependent upon oil and gas operations more than any other activity.
Today this critical revenue source is in jeopardy because there is a concerted effort to have the sand dune lizard (Sceloporus arnicolus) listed as an endangered species. This lizard has a very limited habitat. Unfortunately for New Mexico, the habitat is smack-dab in the middle of the oil operations of Southeastern New Mexico.
While I do not believe an endangered species listing for the sand dune lizard will immediately doom oil and gas operations, there will be an impact, and in these troubled economic times when there is little margin for error, the effect will ripple through all state services. With such serious consequences, it is critical that this issue be examined carefully and seriously.
Petition for endangered species listing
In 2002 the Center for Biological Diversity, a powerful nonprofit advocacy group, filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service demanding that the sand dune lizard be listed as an endangered species. The scientific basis for the petition was a series of studies conducted by the University of New Mexico biology department in the mid 1990s.
The final report, dated 1998, asserts that the lizard is threatened by cattle ranching activity and oil and gas development. The threat from cattle ranching was due to the destruction of the lizard’s crucial habitat, the shinnery oak. Ranchers had been spraying to eliminate the shinnery oak because, during certain times of the year, this plant is toxic to cattle.
This practice, which began in the 1970s, has been stopped on federal lands for well over a decade.
Oil and gas operations continue, and the claim is made that these activities pose the gravest threat to the lizard. This claim is boldly set forth in the petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, and apparently supported by the UNM research. The petition includes comments like “Past and ongoing oil and gas development has already resulted in substantial losses of habitat for and reductions in abundance of the sand dune lizard,” and “The sand dune lizard is at immediate risk of extinction.”
A glaring contradiction
However, the research concedes that oil and gas operations have occurred in this area for five decades, yet the lizard continues to thrive. Interestingly the UNM report notes there is a significant difference in lizard population between areas where oil wells exist and where they are absent. When I dug deeply into the 1998 UNM report, I confirmed that is correct.
Curiously, the data reveals the population levels for areas with wells in 1997 were higher than the population levels in 1996 for areas where wells were absent. The population increased 2.4 times for the area with wells between 1996 and 1997, yet only increased by only 1.6 times in those areas where wells were absent. I could find no explanation for this glaring contradiction of the advocate’s petition.
This fact alone, independent of the half century of co-existence by the lizard and oil operations, is reason enough to stop the listing of the sand dune lizard until further independent, professional, thorough and peer-reviewed research is conducted. We need much more data before any decision should be reached.
The stakes are too high to endanger the economic life of our state. We simply cannot afford to jump to conclusions in this matter. Not at this time.
Kintigh is a Republican House member from Roswell.