Frac sand miners urged to join lizard conservation scheme

Published: Friday, 25 August 2017

Texas state government warns that destruction of the habitat "has already begun".

Oil companies and the Texas state government are urging frac sand miners in the Permian Basin to sign up to a scheme protecting the dune sagebrush lizard.

When the dune sagebrush lizard (DSL), a tiny reptile which lives in the shinnery oak shrubs of Texas and New Mexico, was considered for inclusion on the US federal government’s endangered list back in 2011, there were fears it could bring stringent controls on the region’s energy sector, in order to protect habitat.

The issue was put to rest with a voluntary deal to restrict development on the lizard’s habitat, in order to stave off the more comprehensive and legally enforceable restrictions that would result from an official classification as endangered.

But the Texas Conservation Plan (TCP) has been put into jeopardy by the increased arrival of frac sand miners, who are buying up land in areas classified as DSL habitat, raising fears the US Fish and Wildlife Agency may once again look to classify the lizard as endangered.

Destruction of habitat has begun

In a letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service on 10 August, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts (CPA) said it has urged frac sand miners to avoid impacting the habitat of the DSL, warning that "the destruction of that habitat has already begun".

"In response to a marked increase in the demand for frac sand, mining companies recently began purchasing or leasing large tracts of land in the Permian Basin in Texas for frac sand mining operations," the CPS said, noting that activity has been concentrated in areas designated as DSL habitat in the conservation plan.

"Mining companies are focused on this area because it is located in close proximity to extensive oil and gas development, which represents the market for frac sand," the authority said.

The CPA, which has no authority to stop the development of frac sand operations by companies that are not signed up to the TCP, said it has communicated with multiple frac sand miners regarding their potential impact on DSL habitats.

The Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Permian Basin Petroleum Association have also expressed concern over potential encroachment on habitat, and urged frac sand miners to comply with the TCP.

Black Mountain joins TCP

The CPA reports that two companies have already agree to make changes to their project plans, to accommodate the TCP. Black Mountain Sand LLC and Vista Sand have changed their proposals, to avoid mining in DSL habitat or the designate buffer zone surrounding it.

On 22 August, Black Mountain Sand announced that it had been listed as participant in the TCP by the CPA and the Federal US Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Black Mountain recognised early the importance of this issue and how, if handled poorly, it could jeopardize not only frac sand mining activities, but also the progress made by existing Permian Basin stakeholders," the company said.

"Two other companies, Badger and Unimin, designed their operational project plans to avoid any disturbances in DSL Habitat and buffer," the comptroller said.

But the authority warned that other companies, including Hi-Crush Proppants LLC and Fairmount Santrol, have acquired properties in areas classified as having a "very high likelihood of occurrence" of DSL.

The CPA noted that frac sand companies have "been generally responsive to discussing the needs of the DSL". 

In a white paper released on 21 August, Hi-Crush stated that although its facility is located in an area classified as having a high likelihood of DSL occurrence, "we can state definitively that the diligence we have conducted on our site establishes that the areas we are mining on our site have no DSL habitat nor any DSLs".

"The site we are mining is a former dune buggy park located on an active dune complex, virtually denuded of vegetation, and unique in that the shinnery oak complexes viewed as ideal DSL habitat are non-existent on the Hi-Crush development," Hi-Crush said, adding that it supports the TCP and is in contact the CPA.

Fairmount Santrol did not respond to a request for comment. 

More like this