May 31, 2011— -- The sand dune lizard is a small reptile that has become the scourge of the Texas Oil industry, not because it is dangerous but because the threatened species could put land ripe for oil exploration off limits.
"As far as I am concerned, it is Godzilla," Texas land commissioner Jerry Paterson told ABC News. "[It's] the biggest threat facing the oil business in memory," said Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association. They believe the small tan-colored, insectivorous lizard could cost the oil industry and surrounding communities thousands of jobs.
About 63,000 Americans work in the oil and gas well industry as of September 2009, the most recent period available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages program. Most of those jobs are in Texas.
The federal government said the sand lizard is on the verge of extinction, and is expected to place it on the endangered species list soon.
If the species makes the list, its 800,000 acre habitat in the shinnery oak sand dune communities of southeastern New Mexico and southwestern Texas would receive protected status. That habitat happens to be right in the heart of Texas oil country.
"If the lizard is put on the endangered species list, then [rigs] would [be] shutdown," Leslyn Wallace, a land manager at RSP Permian, told ABC News. That would cost many Texans their jobs.
The lizards are not omnipresent. Most residents who spoke with ABC News said they had never set eyes on the creatures.
But there's little doubt the sand lizard is losing its habitat to oil rigs.
"They are in much lower numbers in areas that are fragmented by oil and gas development," Dan Leavitt, a herpetologist at Texas A&M University, told ABC News.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told ABC News the economic impact wouldn't be as dramatic as the oil industry says, but whether it lists lizard as endangered depends solely on the fate of the lizard, not its economic impact.
"The law says we need to look at the science," Michelle Shaughnessy, assistant regional director at the Fish and Wildlife Service, told ABC News.
In a region where virtually every job is tied to oil, that is not reassuring for residents.
ABC News' Robin Gradison contributed to this story.