The Endangered Art of Compromise
12:00 am
Mon June 4, 2012

Lesser Prairie Chicken: Conservation Agreements

So far in our series, we’ve looked at some of the difficulties in recovering a species. But one of the emerging strengths of the Endangered Species Act is in its ability to spark compromise before a species ever makes it onto the list. And in the case of the Lesser Prairie Chicken and Dunes Sagebrush lizard, just the threat of a listing has been enough to make for some unlikely allies in Southeastern New Mexico.

Due to a recent legal settlement, an endangered species listing for the lesser prairie chicken and the dunes sagebrush lizard could be imminent...and depending on who you talk to...that listing could have a serious impact on drilling in the Permian basin.

Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Donna Hummel explains why…

“It’s sort of the bigger hand of government directing how [industry] will be able to function. Those that have not signed onto a conservation agreement then would have to deal with the entire process of the endangered species act and how they deal with listings. And that does involve section 7 consultation. It takes time to do consultation. And time with many industries means money.”

According to New Mexico Oil and Gas Association President Steve Henke, that hammer hanging over the head of industry has been enough to inspire oil and gas companies to sign up for something called a candidate conservation agreement

“There was some sense of urgency when the courts decided the time period for this listing decision. The industry got very active in terms of recruiting members who had leases in these core habitats to sign up.”

While signing up is voluntary, doing so, does have some benefits. According to Henke, this is where the compromise part comes in.

“The oil and gas industry looked at the candidate conservation agreements as an opportunity to take out an insurance policy, if you will…that is, if we abide by the suite of conservation measures, then there are assurances that we’ll be allowed to continue our oil and gas operations, even if the species are listed.”

Participating companies must follow strict conservation measures and pay a substantial enrollment fee, which has already put more than 1 million dollars toward research into lizard and chicken friendly efforts like directional drilling (or drilling at an angle to avoid the animal’s habitat), concentrating facilities in one corridor, and hydrogen sulfide testing.

And in return they get what is called assurances, that they will most likely not be subjected to any additional conservation restrictions if the animals get listed.

Henke adds that while compliance is more expensive than doing nothing, he says, "The predictability of future operational certainty is very valuable for the industry.”

Now, conservation agreements have been used before in the U-S to protect a candidate species, but this one is different. It happens to be one of the largest in the country, covering more than 2.5 million acres of land in New Mexico, and it involved more input from industry early on in the process.

Doug Lynn, the executive director of the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management, the third party group and intermediary for the conservation agreement working mostly with the oil industry calls it “a benchmark example of what cooperation can do”.

“At first they were opposed to the conservation efforts, but as time went on and they started getting comfortable and finding out that the conservation groups and the regulatory groups weren’t out to shut them down, they were out to find solutions, then the oil and gas companies stepped up. They stepped up and had some great ideas.”

In fact, the BLM says the process has been so successful, that it’s now being looked at as a model for other states and other species.

But not everyone is so excited about it.

Jay Lininger with the Center for Biological Diversity says the conservation agreement lacks the teeth to really make a difference, and federal protection is still needed.

“The conservation agreement is a really positive contribution to the animal’s survival; however, in the absence of a federal listing, it’s just not enough to prevent its extinction.”

He says the main problem is that the agreements are voluntary, so rules are still needed to restrict the actions of companies that don’t sign up.

And environmentalists are also skeptical of industry’s motivation to keep these animals off the endangered species list, because the priority for them, it seems, is still profit… not recovery.

But while we may never agree on the best way to protect these species, at least now conservation is a common goal.