Machines harvest frac sand at the Black Mountain Sand company’s mine in Kermit, Texas. (Photo by Natalie Krebs)
Out in the sand dunes of west Texas, a tiny lizard has been wrapped up in a big controversy for years. The four-inch long dunes sagebrush lizard calls the middle of the Permian Basin home, but conservationists have long feared the oil boom there would be detrimental to the lizard’s rare habitat. But in the past year, a new threat has emerged.
The process of hydraulic fracking relies on the use of a very specific type of sand called frac sand. And the recent increase in mining for it is the new threat facing the dunes sagebrush lizard. This has left conservationists scrambling to find new ways to protect them.
On a windy afternoon, the Black Mountain Sand Company, located about 10 miles west of Kermit – about 45 miles west of Odessa – is busy harvesting, cleaning and drying frac sand. It ships this sand across the Permian Basin.
“Every day, trucks will pick up 13,000 tons. Each truck can carry about 23 tons,” says Hayden Gillespie, the company’s chief commercial officer.
Just east of the company’s four-month-old mine is 640 acres of untouched sand dunes that are full of green vegetation. Gillespie says this is the home of the dunes sagebrush lizard.
“All those dune complexes you can see, that’s what we’re avoiding,” says Gillespie.
The little guys love the plant life and sandy hills, but the Permian Basin energy industry also loves that sand.
Companies estimate using local frac sand can be up to 50 percent cheaper than importing it from the Midwest, and businesses are being built on this growing market. Since last year, more than a dozen mining companies have announced plans to open sand mines across the Permian Basin.
That boom has conservationists sounding the alarms.
“It’s a really new threat and it just sort of came in all at once and really has the potential to wipe out a lot of lizard habitat, if not controlled,” says Ya-Wei Li of the Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington D.C.-based conservation group.
His group, along with The Center for Biological Diversity, filed a petition this week requesting that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service add the dunes sagebrush lizard to the endangered species list. This could allow the feds to place regulations on landowners to protect the lizard’s habitat.
Li and the Defenders of Wildlife estimate frac sand mining has disturbed more than 1,000 acres of the lizard’s habitat in Texas in just the past year.
“If habitat development continues at that pace,” Li says, “the threat from sandmining is going to overshadow the threats from oil and gas development.”
The dunes sagebrush lizard was almost listed as endangered in 2010. But, instead, the Texas Comptroller’s Office, which is in charge of overseeing the state’s endangered species, worked with the oil and gas industry to come up with a voluntary conservation plan. Li says that didn’t satisfy conservation groups.
“You have to trust someone’s word of mouth on that issue and that can be a real problem,” he says.
Since Texas law doesn’t require companies to release much conservation data, the state and feds have had to rely on self-reported data.
A state study last year found that more than 2,300 acres of the lizard’s habitat had been destroyed since the voluntary conservation plan went into effect. This is above the state’s initial estimates.
Robert Gulley oversees endangered species conservation for the Texas Comptroller’s Office. Earlier this year, the office announced it’s completely rewriting the dunes sagebrush lizard conservation agreement.
“We realized that the better thing to do rather than try to make sure all the puzzle pieces would fit at the end, is just kind of to step back and start from scratch,” he says.
Gulley says the goal of the new agreement is to get so many landowners to cooperate that the feds don’t put the lizard on the endangered species list. He says landowners may be willing to cooperate because they worry an endangered species listing could devalue their land.
“We’re going to try to work to bring many people into the program because the more people we bring into the program, the more protection that the lizard is afforded,” says Gulley.
Gulley says so far eight of the 17 frac sand mining companies have agreed to avoid the lizard’s habitat. Black Mountain Sand is one of them. Gillespie says his company has chosen to avoid mining the lizard’s habitat entirely.
“We own it. We could mine it. There are good reserves there, but that’s deemed habitat so we stay out of it,” Gillespie says.
For Black Mountain Sand, that means foregoing mining on 15 percent of their land. Gillespie says not everyone is taking his company’s approach. He’s seen some conducting their own impact studies on the lizard’s habitat.
“They want to prove that it’s not, and while that may be a worthwhile study for them, the easier option was to stay completely clear of it for us,” he says.
For the state’s part, the comptroller’s office hired a Texas State biologist to use satellite images to update the six-year-old dunes sagebrush lizard habitat maps. The entire plan is set to be finished by the end of the summer.
In the meantime, the feds will be reviewing the petition to put the lizard on the endangered species list and deciding on any future protections.