The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Melissa Thrailkill, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 436-9682, ext. 313
Kristina Johnson, Sierra Club, (415) 977-5619
Peter Nelson, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-0202
Erik Molvar, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, (307) 742-7978
Elise Jones, Colorado Environmental Coalition, 303-405-6704

Groups Fight to Protect Fish, Wildlife, and Wilderness Areas From Last-Minute Bush Regs

Oil-shale Leasing Program Jeopardizes Existence of Threatened and Endangered Species


A coalition of conservation groups is fighting to protect millions of acres of western wildlife and habitat from midnight regulations finalized by the Bush administration that would open public lands to oil-shale exploration, leasing, and development.

Today the Center for Biological Diversity, The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Red Rock Forests, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Wilderness Workshop, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Center for Native Ecosystems, Colorado Environmental Coalition, and Western Colorado Congress formally notified the Bush administration of their intent to file federal lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act over the administration's rush to create a commercial oil-shale industry in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. In the letters notifying the administration of the impending lawsuit, the groups inform the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, that its refusal to consider the effects commercial oil-shale development will have on endangered and threatened species is in violation of the Endangered Species Act. The agency has 60 days to respond to the letters.

The letters separately challenge two final decisions issued by the BLM in November. One involves that agency's issuance of final regulations setting out the terms for a commercial oil-shale industry in the Rocky Mountain West. The other involves the BLM's finalization of land-management plans that open 2 million acres of public lands in this region to oil-shale and tar-sands leasing. The amendments to 12 resource-management plans, coupled with the finalization of the regulations, open the door for the development of a huge and destructive web of industrial facilities on some of America's wildest lands.

"In its rush to pave the way for oil-shale development before leaving office, the Bush administration broke the law once again by refusing to protect the West's endangered wildlife," said Melissa Thrailkill, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "These latest unlawful, midnight-hour approvals need to be rescinded immediately. Dirty energy development will have enormous and damaging effects on the waters, wildlife, and lands of the West, and will also have a massive global warming impact that is simply unacceptable."

Oil-shale development will destroy habitat, cause air pollution, and deplete and pollute scarce water resources in the arid West. To turn oil-shale into a usable fuel source, the rock, or shale, must be strip-mined and baked off-site or cooked in place underground to release a substance that can be turned into oil.

The production of this resource will require huge amounts of electricity, including the construction of as many as 10 new polluting power plants in the three states, leading to dramatic increases in emissions of greenhouse pollutants that cause global warming. The massive global warming impact from oil-shale production would push species threatened by global warming -- including the polar bear, ribbon seal, Pacific walrus, American pika, and ocean corals -- further toward the brink of extinction.

Oil-shale production will also require vast amounts of water from the already overtaxed Colorado River basin; the BLM estimates it will require three barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil. This would strain the Colorado River basin, jeopardizing four endangered fish species in Colorado, as well as the water supply on which residents and agriculture depend.

"Global climate change is already threatening the water supplies that are critical for millions of people and wildlife," said Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "The greenhouse gas emissions from oil-shale development would perpetuate this problem at the same time it sucks the Colorado River Basin dry."

"In addition to threatening our water resources, oil-shale development could destroy some of the best hunting, fish habitat, and recreation in the Rockies," said Lawson LeGate, a Salt Lake City-based Sierra Club representative. "We can't allow this lame-duck administration to create a wildlife dead zone as it leaves town."

In addition to affecting fish species, this development will also have a negative impact on birds, such as the Mexican spotted owl, as well as the black-footed ferret and greater sage grouse - species state and federal agencies have spent years trying to recover. Numerous plant species that grow only in shale soils (such as the Clay-reed mustard and Dudley Bluff twinpod) are also threatened by oil-shale production. The development will also threaten sensitive and unique lands in the region.

"In Wyoming, the oil-shale leasing decision threatens Adobe Town, the state's most spectacular wilderness. In fact, the state of Wyoming designated this area as 'Very Rare or Uncommon' to shield it from oil-shale extraction and other types of mining," said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. "Pair this with the potential destruction of key sage grouse strongholds and it becomes clear that oil-shale development would be a disaster for Wyoming."

Despite these environmental harms, the Bush administration hastily moved forward in issuing the final regulations and land use amendments. With these final decisions, leases could be issued before the Bush administration leaves office.

"Not only are these actions patently unlawful under the Endangered Species Act, but aggressive oil-shale development on public lands moves us in the wrong direction as we step up to meet significant challenges posed by global warming," said Robert Irvin, senior vice president for conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife. "Fish and wildlife are already struggling to cope with the stresses of climate change; instead of exacerbating the situation through the risky development of oil shale, federal agencies should be focused on developing sustainable and integrated solutions to energy, climate, and wildlife problems."

Conservation groups are not alone in voicing worry over the impacts of oil-shale development on wildlife, rivers, and public lands. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the states of Colorado and Wyoming and wildlife management agencies, have all raised concerns about impacts to the States' natural resources. The Denver Water Board, which provides drinking water to millions of Denver-area residents, also told BLM that development of oil shale could undermine the Board's attempt to balance needs of Front Range water users and imperiled wildlife that rely on Colorado's rivers.

Documents obtained by the groups through the Freedom of Information Act show that the Fish and Wildlife Service raised concerns to the administration about the dangers that such development will have on threatened and endangered wildlife. The documents show that from very early on, the BLM was made aware of the impacts -- which are, in some cases, devastating for species -- but chose to turn a blind eye to its legal duties, as well as requests by the Service, to adopt necessary conservation measures.

In short, the documents demonstrate that Fish and Wildlife Service officials believed that:

  • Depletion of water resources from commercial oil-shale development would put species in "jeopardy, with a capital 'J'."
  • No action was the only environmentally sound option; and
  • Even with conservation measures, it would be difficult to conclude that development would have no impact on species.

"Rather than consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a more environmentally sound program, the BLM did everything it could do to evade the law," Thrailkill said. "Commercial oil-shale development could help lead us to catastrophic climate change, driving thousands of plants and animals around the world extinct. It's clear that moving forward without fully analyzing and addressing the harmful impacts of this energy development will lead us further down the path of no return."