The lizard already is “functionally extinct” across 47 percent of its range. Photo via Getty Images

Federal wildlife officials declared a rare lizard in southeastern New Mexico and West Texas an endangered species Friday, citing future energy development, sand mining and climate change as the biggest threats to its survival in one of the world’s most lucrative oil and natural gas basins.

“We have determined that the dunes sagebrush lizard is in danger of extinction throughout all of its range,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. It concluded that the lizard already is “functionally extinct” across 47 percent of its range.

Much of the the 2.5-inch-long (6.5-centimeter), spiny, light brown lizard's remaining habitat has been fragmented, preventing the species from finding mates beyond those already living close by, according to biologists.

“Even if there were no further expansion of the oil and gas or sand mining industry, the existing footprint of these operations will continue to negatively affect the dunes sagebrush lizard into the future,” the service said in its final determination, published in the Federal Register.

The decision caps two decades of legal and regulatory skirmishes between the U.S. government, conservationists and the oil and gas industry. Environmentalists cheered the move, while industry leaders condemned it as a threat to future production of the fossil fuels.

The decision provides a “lifeline for survival” for a unique species whose “only fault has been occupying a habitat that the fossil fuel industry has been wanting to claw away from it,” said Bryan Bird, the Southwest director for Defenders of Wildlife.

“The dunes sagebrush lizard spent far too long languishing in a Pandora’s box of political and administrative back and forth even as its population was in free-fall towards extinction,” Bird said in a statement.

The Permian Basin Petroleum Association and the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association expressed disappointment, saying the determination flies in the face of available science and ignores longstanding state-sponsored conservation efforts across hundreds of thousands of acres and commitment of millions of dollars in both states.

“This listing will bring no additional benefit for the species and its habitat, yet could be detrimental to those living and working in the region,” PBPA President Ben Shepperd and NMOGA President and CEO Missi Currier said in a joint statement, adding that they view it as a federal overreach that can harm communities.

Scientists say the lizards are found only in the Permian Basin, the second-smallest range of any North American lizard. The reptiles live in sand dunes and among shinnery oak, where they feed on insects and spiders and burrow into the sand for protection from extreme temperatures.

Environmentalists first petitioned for the species' protection in 2002, and in 2010 federal officials found that it was warranted. That prompted an outcry from some members of Congress and communities that rely on oil and gas development for jobs and tax revenue.

Several Republican lawmakers sent a letter to officials in the Obama administration asking to delay a final decision, and in 2012, federal officials decided against listing the dunes sagebrush lizard.

Then-U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at the time that the decision was based on the “best available science” and because of voluntary conservation agreements in place in New Mexico and Texas.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said in Friday's decision that such agreements “have provided, and continue to provide, many conservation benefits” for the lizard, but “based on the information we reviewed in our assessment, we conclude that the risk of extinction for the dunes sagebrush lizard is high despite these efforts.”

Among other things, the network of roads will continue to restrict movement and facilitate direct mortality of dunes sagebrush lizards from traffic, it added, while industrial development “will continue to have edge effects on surrounding habitat and weaken the structure of the sand dune formations.”

The Our Texas, Our Future film series illustrates the importance of native wildlife. ourtexasourfuture.com

New film series brings conservation around Texas to life

H-E-B's impact

A new five-part documentary shorts series by Texas' favorite grocery store, H-E-B, takes an in-depth exploration into the state's wildlife and parks, in the hopes of raising awareness for native conservation.

Each film in the Our Texas, Our Future series is set in a different area of Texas, from the Gulf Coast of Houston to the deserts of West Texas. Viewers will learn about Texas' misunderstood animals, witness conservation triumphs of important marine life, and celebrate in the longevity of the state's public park system.

The series was created in partnership with Fin & Fur Films, and each of the five films are narrated by Austin-based singer Shane Smith. His band, Shane Smith and the Saints, also created original music for the series.

"H-E-B has a deep commitment to support all Texans, and that includes helping to protect, conserve, and beautify our great state for people to enjoy now and for generations to come," said Leslie Sweet, H-E-B's Managing Director of Sustainability and Environmental Affairs in a release. "We’re excited to support these passionate filmmakers and their mission to tell important stories that we hope will inspire people to celebrate and protect the diverse habitats, unique wildlife, and beautiful landscapes across Texas."

A Century Celebration: Texas State Parks
Director: Ben Masters; Runtime: 9 minutes
This film celebrates the 100th anniversary of Texas State Parks through a retelling of how the public park system came to be. 1.5 million acres of public land stretches from the West Texas mountains to Piney Woods in East Texas, where about 10 million visitors trek Texas state parks every year. Watch the trailer for A Century Celebration: Texas State Parkshere.

Batsies
Director: Elizabeth Unger; Runtime: 15 minutes
San Antonio locals know all too well the history of Bracken Cave, which is home to the world's largest bat colony, comprising more than 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats. A group of Texas State University wildlife biologiststake viewers on a trip to unearth little-known facts about one of Texas' most precious creatures. Batsies details the group's fight to protect the state's bat population and explains why the mammals are so crucial to Texas' ecosystem and agriculture. Watch the trailer here.

Redfish Revival
Director: Shannon Vandivier; Runtime: 16 minutes
Redfish Revival is a deep dive into the history of Texas' redfish population, and how a group of Houston fishermen saved them from overfishing in the 1970s. The group's dedication to conservation helped bring about important legislation protecting against overfishing in the 1980s, and even led to redfish being deemed the official saltwater fish of Texas. Watch the trailer here.

Second Chance
Director: Austin Alvarado; Runtime: 22 minutes
Second Chance showcases the ongoing recovery of Texas' black bear population, which has slowly been on the rise over the last 30 years. Researchers from the Borderlands Research Institute in Alpine journey to understand how the bears are surviving in the West Texas desserts in the wake of Texas' human population expansion. Watch the trailer for Second Chance here.

Ranching with Ocelots
Director: Shannon Vandivier; Runtime: 12 minutes
Ocelots are the most endangered cat in the nation, with less than 120 in the wild today. Ranching with Ocelots investigates the relationship between the animals and two traditional Texas vaqueros – Timoteo and Miguel Rodriguez, who also appear in the film Easteños – who seek to protect them. Their ranch is home to the largest documented ocelot population in North America. Watch the trailer here.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

With its blend of biotechnology, conservation, and education, RioRaiz seeks to inspire a new generation of conservationists. Photo via RioRaiz/Instagram

Houston nonprofit commits to sustainable biodiversity efforts

impact-driven

For centuries, humans have been negatively impacting the natural world around them. A Houston organization is looking to leave an impact on the environment — but this time for the better.

Based in Houston, RioRaiz is a 501c3 nonprofit organization charting a unique course in the world of conservation and education. Founded in March of 2021, RioRaiz – meaning "root of the river" in Spanish, a nod to its deep-rooted connection with South American culture – seeks to preserve biodiversity through biotechnology and offer transformative learning experiences to contribute to a healthier planet.

Led by Jeff Carlson, the president and CEO, RioRaiz's mission is driven by three core pillars: conservation, scientific discovery, and education.

Currently, the nonprofit's efforts are focused on regions on the edge of ecological disruption, specifically the East Texas area and the Tropical Andes. In Texas, the organization aims to expand the biome of the Big Thicket National Preserve in Kountze as well as engaging locals by hosting clean-up drives. In the Andes, RioRaiz aspires to establish biological corridors between national parks and natural reserves, diminishing potential disruptions to animal migration patterns.

The timeline for these critical initiatives, Carlson said, hinges on donations.

"We have a list of priorities that is cataloged from input from our scientific collaborators, as well as our ability to deliver on our promises to our donors and supporters,” Carlson said.

Partnerships form a critical role in RioRaiz's work, notably those with academic institutions in the United States and Colombia. One of these collaborations saw Carlson spend three months in Colombia, working with the local Páez tribe, also known as the Nasa, to explore the potential of their traditional medicines for modern treatments.

"We're really excited to learn and to share our techniques and our knowledge," Carlson said, underlining the organization's commitment to partnering with traditional and indigenous knowledge sources.

With its blend of biotechnology, conservation, and education, RioRaiz seeks to inspire a new generation of conservationists. By offering an intimate virtual glimpse into the world's biomes, the nonprofit aims to instill a deep-rooted respect for nature and encourage sustainable action.

"If you expose students to these different kinds of environments at an early age, that might inspire somebody to go into conservation," Carlson said.

With a progressive effort, RioRaiz is harnessing the power of virtual reality to redefine education. The organization uses specialized filming equipment during its expeditions, capturing moments like the discovery of new species or conducting bio surveys. RioRaiz's visually compelling stories will surpass language barriers, transporting students virtually to different biomes. In time, Carlson hopes to distribute pre-loaded systems to communities with limited internet access, taking the classroom to every corner of the world. These virtual reality experiences are expected to launch within the next year.

"We want to bring the rainforest into the classroom," Carlson said.

Through its work, RioRaiz aims to demonstrate that the route to a sustainable future lies not just in face-to-face interactions, but in a global, interconnected approach to education and conservation. Its vision is clear — to grow far beyond traditional reaches, preserving biodiversity and fostering a healthier world.

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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Houston's energy industry deemed both a strength and weakness on global cities report

mixed reviews

A new analysis positions the Energy Capital of the World as an economic dynamo, albeit a flawed one.

The recently released Oxford Economics Global Cities Index, which assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the world’s 1,000 largest cities, puts Houston at No. 25.

Houston ranks well for economics (No. 15) and human capital (No. 18), but ranks poorly for governance (No. 184), environment (No. 271), and quality of life (No. 298).

New York City appears at No. 1 on the index, followed by London; San Jose, California; Tokyo; and Paris. Dallas lands at No. 18 and Austin at No. 39.

In its Global Cities Index report, Oxford Economics says Houston’s status as “an international and vertically integrated hub for the oil and gas sector makes it an economic powerhouse. Most aspects of the industry — downstream, midstream, and upstream — are managed from here, including the major fuel refining and petrochemicals sectors.”

“And although the city has notable aerospace and logistics sectors and has diversified into other areas such as biomedical research and tech, its fortunes remain very much tied to oil and gas,” the report adds. “As such, its economic stability and growth lag other leading cities in the index.”

The report points out that Houston ranks highly in the human capital category thanks to the large number of corporate headquarters in the region. The Houston area is home to the headquarters of 26 Fortune 500 companies, including ExxonMobil, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Sysco.

Another contributor to Houston’s human capital ranking, the report says, is the presence of Rice University, the University of Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“Despite this,” says the report, “it lacks the number of world-leading universities that other cities have, and only performs moderately in terms of the educational attainment of its residents.”

Slower-than-expected population growth and an aging population weaken Houston’s human capital score, the report says.

Meanwhile, Houston’s score for quality is life is hurt by a high level of income inequality, along with a low life expectancy compared with nearly half the 1,000 cities on the list, says the report.

Also in the quality-of-life bucket, the report underscores the region’s variety of arts, cultural, and recreational activities. But that’s offset by urban sprawl, traffic congestion, an underdeveloped public transportation system, decreased air quality, and high carbon emissions.

Furthermore, the report downgrades Houston’s environmental stature due to the risks of hurricanes and flooding.

“Undoubtedly, Houston is a leading business [center] that plays a key role in supporting the U.S. economy,” says the report, “but given its shortcomings in other categories, it will need to follow the path of some of its more well-rounded peers in order to move up in the rankings.”

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

New collaboration to build data center microgrid in Houston

coming soon

Two companies are teaming up to build a natural gas microgrid in Houston that will reduce emissions by 98 percent.

Provider of prime and backup power solutions RPower has teamed up with Houston’s ViVaVerse Solutions to build a 17-megawatt (MW) microgrid at the ViVa Center campus in Houston, which is expected to be commissioned by the end of the year.

The microgrid plans to employ ultra-low emissions and natural gas generators to deliver Resiliency-as-a-Service (RaaS), and this will connect to ViVaVerse's colocation data center operations during utility outages.

RPower will also deploy the microgrid across different ERCOT market programs, which will contribute to assist with essential capacity and ancillary services for the local grid. ERCOT has increased its use of renewable energy in recent years, but still has faced criticism for unstable conditions. The microgrids can potentially assist ERCOT, and also help cut back on emissions.

“RPower's pioneering microgrid will not only deliver essential N+1 resiliency to our data center operations but will also contribute to the local community by supplying necessary capacity during peak demand periods when the electric grid is strained,” Eduardo Morales, CEO of ViVaVerse Solutions and Morales Capital Group, says in a news release.

ViVaVerse Solutions will be converting the former Compaq Computer/HPE headquarters Campus into an innovative technology hub called the ViVa Center, which will host the High-Performance Computing Data Center, and spaces dedicated to mission critical infrastructure and technical facilities . The hub will host 200 data labs.

“We are thrilled to partner with ViVaVerse to deploy this `first of its kind' microgrid solution in the data center space,” Jeff Starcher, CEO of RPower, adds. “Our natural gas backup generation system delivers the same reliability and performance as traditional diesel systems, but with a 98 percent reduction in emissions. Further, the RPower system provides critical grid services and will respond to the volatility of renewable generation, further enabling the energy transition to a carbon free future.”