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On lizards, foxes, henhouses, and oil wells

Let me just preface this by saying that I don’t give a damn about lizards, and that I give several damns about growing the Texas economy.

But wouldn’t it be nice if we had the economic growth DNA around here which didn’t pit the environment against the economy, as if we can only choose one?

I offer as Exhibit A this piece from the Tribune‘s Jay Root.

The lizard in question – the one I don’t give a damn about – is the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard, out in West Texas.


Lizard I don’t give a damn about

See, the Feds were thinking about putting the species on the endangered species list. Mainly because it’s endangered. The Feds are funny that way. The lizards (which I don’t care about) probably didn’t get endangered without help. Its habitat is being seriously encroached upon, undoubtedly by the one industry that encroaches upon stuff out there – oil and gas exploration and production. That’s also the industry that in one way or another feeds and clothes just about everybody out there. It’s the biggest economic engine in the region; it is not an unimportant enterprise.

The Feds backed off. Why? I’m glad you asked. Here’s what they said:

June 2012
WASHINGTON – As a result of unprecedented commitments to voluntary conservation agreements now in place in New Mexico and Texas that provide for the long-term conservation of the dunes sagebrush lizard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the species does not need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. [emphasis added]

So what is that “unprecedented commitment to voluntary conservation” in Texas? I’m glad you asked that too, and it brings us back to Root’s piece.

Then-state representative Warren Chisum slipped an amendment into a bill that put this issue in the lap of state Comptroller Susan Combs, instead of the usual biologists over at the Parks and Wildlife Department – you know, the people who do this kind of thing for a living. Combs then allowed a non-profit foundation to take the lead in doing stuff to protect the lizard I care nothing about. The foundation, turns out, is funded and run by the oil and gas industry itself, and is headed up by an oil and gas lobbyist.

What is the name of this oil and gas lobbyist in charge of saving the lizard I care nothing about? I’m particularly glad you asked that. It’s Warren Chisum. Yes, the former state representative, now an oil and gas lobbyist, who kept this matter out of the hands of the biologists at Parks and Wildlife in the first place.

And what specifically is Mr. Chisum – that legendary pioneer of lizard-protection – doing to protect this lizard? We don’t really know, but rest assured, Mr. Chisum is on the job and in charge:

Chisum said they should have a say in how it’s implemented.

“It’s our money,” he said.

Well, I feel better already. I’m sure those lizards are sleeping well these days.

Did I mention that I really don’t give a damn about a lizard? I do, however, give a damn about people in government who turn the keys to the henhouse over to the foxes, claim the problem’s solved, trash the Feds for even wanting to have the discussion, and continue to do whatever-it-is-they’re-doing-to-the-environment without any oversight, protections, or transparency.

Fact is, business interests like this are cowards with a can’t-do attitude. In a situation like this, we don’t have to choose between the environment and the economy. I bet there are a bunch of ways to continue to grow the oil and gas industry in West Texas, while also making sure the lizard I don’t care anything about doesn’t disappear. But we don’t know how best to protect this species, while at the same time allowing for an essential economic engine to continue doing what they do, because Warren Chisum kept this situation away from the biologists at Parks and Wildlife who could have researched it and come up with solutions.

Today’s lizard is tomorrow’s…something. And at the end of all those somethings-that-ain’t-lizards, at stake is eventually the air our children breathe an the water they drink.

And that’s more important than a lizard, and exponentially more important than Warren Chisum’s oil and gas lobby contracts.

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Yet another measure in which Texas is falling behind

Certain kinds of sports.

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