By Mitch Jones
Yesterday, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) announced its decision to list the lesser prairie chicken as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. The decision was in recognition of the increasing threat to the species from the ongoing drought in the Southwestern United States—and the main threat of habit loss and fragmentation—much from oil and gas development. In 2013, the lesser prairie chicken population fell more than 50 percent from 2012, leaving fewer than 18,000 of the birds living in its historic range.
While it is certainly good news—long overdue good news—that the FWS has listed the lesser prairie chicken, there’s a big caveat. Included in the listing is a loophole allowing oil and gas industry to “avoid further regulation” of their activities, so long as they enroll in the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ (WAFWA’s) range-wide conservation plan. In other words, the oil and gas industry has an out from regulation if they make a financial contribution to “offset” the damage down to the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat.
Such plans are growing increasingly popular and are part of the broader push to financialize nature. Known as Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES), the idea seems simple enough. Supporters argue that paying a landowner to preserve a particular natural feature—in this instance rangeland, but it could be forest or wet land—offsets damage done by industry in other areas. Through PES, a gas company wanting to drill can continue to do so and will be allowed to kill—or “take”—lesser prairie chickens so long as it pays into the plan. It’s species extinction on the installment plan.
Such plans really just undercut strong protections for endangered and threatened species. But even with this giant loophole, it could have been worse. A consortium of industry and nonprofit groups, lead by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), has been pushing a “habitat credit exchange.” While somewhat similar to the plan adopted by the FWS, the habitat exchanges would go much further in pushing the financialization of nature. Instead of merely establishing a means for landowners to be paid to offset industrial destruction and disruption of lesser prairie chicken habitat, the exchange would allow for trading of conservation credits, and for the eventual price fluctuation that comes with commodity exchanges, as well as the temptation to hedge and speculate on those changes in price.
Instead of allowing oil and gas companies to pay-to-endanger threatened species, the Fish & Wildlife Service should enforce strict rules to preserve habitat and protect those species.