How Oil and Gas Producers are Working to Protect the Prairie Chicken

Wed, May 31, 2023

Protecting and restoring the natural ecosystems of the Lone Star State is a top priority for Texas oil and gas producers.  By working alongside state regulators, the industry continues to develop critical energy resources while simultaneously supporting the wildlife of the great plains – including the lesser prairie chicken.

In November 2022, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed two distinct population segments of the lesser prairie-chicken as endangered or threatened.

The lesser prairie-chicken, a species of prairie grouse, resides in the southwest panhandle of Texas and eastern New Mexico. FWS claims that within these areas, the species faces numerous threats mainly due to oil and gas activity.

“Petroleum and natural gas production has occurred over much of the estimated historical and current range of the lesser prairie-chicken,” FWS said. “In Texas, for example, active oil and gas wells in the lesser prairie-chicken occupied range have increased by more than 80% over the previous decade.”

An endangered species designation triggers strict conservation rules to protect the animal and its habitat. Existing oil and gas projects could be grandfathered in, but new projects could be blocked or require additional review.

“The U. S. oil and natural gas industry has been heavily engaged in conservation efforts and has contributed 10s of millions of dollars to protect habitat of the Lesser Prairie Chicken. Thanks to this ongoing commitment, population of this species has increased, not contracted,” said Ed Longanecker, President of The Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association (TIPRO). “Unfortunately, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to ignore these efforts and tangible results in order to advance an agenda that will have a detrimental effect on the oil and natural gas industry and our nation’s energy security.”

David Yoskowitz, director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, also disagreed with the FWS’ decision: "We believe that the listing decision jeopardizes years of voluntary conservation efforts by landowners and industry."

The industry has been a longtime partner in protecting the lesser prairie-chicken. For more than two decades, the industry and government agencies have made strides in conservation. From donating acres of land to robust conservation plans, Texas producers have stepped up to ensure energy security and a sustainable environment for the lesser prairie-chicken.

For a decade, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which includes the Texas Department of Fish and Wildlife, has also worked to conserve the lesser prairie-chicken. Their plan requires oil and gas companies to invest in conservation efforts to offset potential impacts from their operations. 

Following the FWS announcement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit against the agency along with the Department of the Interior in March to challenge the federal government’s authority to regulate Texas’ natural resources.

“Under President Joe Biden, the executive branch has instituted a number of arbitrary policy changes intended to reduce states’ autonomy and undermine energy development. This rule is no different,” said Attorney General Paxton. “The Lesser Prairie-Chicken’s change in classification puts many of Texas’s conservation efforts at risk, all while bringing immeasurable harm to Texans’ property rights.”

Ben Shepperd, President of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association stated, “We think significant portions of oil and gas could be shuddered or negatively impacted, dramatically impacted, in such a way that it would disrupt the state of Texas’ economy, and frankly our national security and our energy security."

The Permian Basin Petroleum Association, alongside the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, has also filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior, asking the court to vacate the FWS endangered listing decision.

While lesser prairie-chickens remain classified as endangered, roadblocks for oil and gas development in Texas are of great concern. For example, the Railroad Commission of Texas claims that FWS’ designation limits their ability to plug wells and would increase expenses on overall operations. The Texas General Land Office is also in jeopardy. When implemented, the federal regulation will limit the Office’s ability to lease state lands for energy production which directly finances the a fund for Texas public schools.

Texans are proud of their state and its natural beauty. Oil and gas producers acknowledge their responsibility to develop energy while protecting local ecosystems. However, their goals cannot be met without the support of federal agencies. A sustainable Texas requires a collaborative effort that includes oil and gas to drive meaningful solutions for the industry and the environment.