Chevron And ALEC Take On The Big, Bad Lesser Prairie Chicken

12/04/2013 10:34 am ET | Updated Dec 04, 2013
  • Kate Sheppard Senior reporter and the environment and energy editor, The Huffington Post
Craig K Lorenz via Getty Images

WASHINGTON –- The American Legislative Exchange Council and Chevron are teaming up to spread awareness of what they say is a serious threat to energy development in the U.S.: the lesser prairie chicken.

Chevron is a sponsor of a workshop scheduled for Friday as part of ALEC's policy summit in Washington, D.C., looking at the alleged hardship the 1973 Endangered Species Act imposes on energy developers. The panel, as described in a planning document, will examine how the law "often negatively impacts and stifles energy development of all kinds."

In particular, the description of the panel singles out the lesser prairie chicken, which is being considered for protection under the law. The lesser prairie chicken is a bird species in the grouse family, native to the grasslands of Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas -- areas the energy industry is keen on developing, in particular for oil drilling. The description of the ALEC panel says it will look at how "a particular market-based plan would allow for further energy development while protecting the habitats of the lesser prairie chicken."

The Center for Media and Democracy received the planning document in response to a Freedom of Information Act request for emails and documents related to ALEC that the center made to Texas state Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), a member of ALEC's board of directors. CMD identified one of the companies that is sponsoring the panel because the file was labeled in part "Chevron." According to the document, the cost of sponsoring the panel is $25,000.

The document provides a small window into the inner workings of ALEC. The influential policy organization brings together conservative lawmakers and corporate interests, who then work together to produce model bills that can be used by state legislatures across the country. Because ALEC operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, it does not have to disclose its donors.

"Consistent with IRS code, ALEC does not disclose its donors. However, as you have obtained FOIAed documents, I can confirm that Chevron is among the many sponsors of the workshop in question," Molly Fuhs, a spokeswoman for ALEC, told The Huffington Post via email.

Fuhs said that, although Chevron is among several sponsors paying for the panel, ALEC's legislative members requested that the panel be included in the conference schedule. "ALEC legislative members requested a discussion on the issue referenced, and in turn, ALEC legislative members approached a variety of companies to seek sponsorship. While ALEC does work with public and private members to craft the general focus of each workshop, ALEC staff and member legislators maintain supervisory control," Fuhs said. "Essentially no discussions take place at ALEC that are not requested and governed by legislators."

"The panel is a good opportunity to educate interested parties on the ESA and discuss how this important federal issue could potentially impact the states," said Justin Higgs, a spokesman for Chevron. He also said that the topic was broader than just the lesser prairie chicken. "The panel is designed to be a broad discussion on the ESA, not one that is focused on any specific species."

ALEC's critics say that this is a good example of how ALEC operates. "It provides its corporate sponsors with the opportunity to reach state legislators from every state in the country," said Nick Surgey, director of research at the Center for Media and Democracy.

So what do Chevron and ALEC's members have against the lesser prairie chicken?

The bird is known for its brown- and white-striped feathers and the males' unique mating dance. The chicken is a draw for birders, and it even has its own annual festival in Oklahoma. But the bird's population has been on the decline for years, due to habitat destruction and drought. A study released in September found that the bird population had declined from 34,440 in 2012 to 17,616 in 2013. Environmental groups have sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to push the agency to add the chicken to the list of protected species under the Endangered Species Act. The government is expected to make a final decision on the lesser prairie chicken by March 2014.

The possible designation is what has piqued the interest of energy companies like Chevron. They're worried that listing the bird as threatened or endangered might impede their ability to drill for oil in places that are considered protected habitat. Chevron and other oil companies have been pushing for an alternative to a listing under the federal law, and have instead proposed a voluntary, state-level conservation effort. Chevron was also among the companies involved in developing a proposal for a voluntary habitat exchange in Texas. The proposal would allow companies to drill in one area in exchange for making efforts to conserve bird habitat in another area. Chevron told the Wall Street Journal that it likes this option because it "allows creative solutions that benefit both landowners and the lesser prairie chicken." The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies offered up a formal plan to that effect, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has endorsed.

But wildlife advocates say that the plan would not do enough to protect the lesser prairie chicken. "[The plan] essentially locks the lesser prairie chicken into small, postage-stamp size areas of habitat that are too small to support reproductive populations, and it will effectively preclude their recovery," said Jay Lininger, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

At this point, Lininger said, it seems likely that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will go forward with the proposed state-level conservation plan and won't formally list the bird. He compared the lesser prairie chicken's plight to that of the dunes sagebrush lizard, another recent case in the same region. Oil and gas interests fought to keep the lizard species off the endangered list and won.

"The Obama administration routinely bends to industry pressure," Lininger said. "Whenever it has the chance to do the right thing, it bends over and gives industry its way, especially on endangered species issues."

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