Category Archives: Energy Development

Sagebrush Ecosystem: Rising from an ancient sea

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Sagebrush country, it kind of makes you itchy and scratchy just looking at it. This is a place where every footstep crackles, and there are no forests to shelter under. You’d never realize that where you’re standing used to lie at the bottom of the ocean.

Look to your feet, the rocks and soil, and you’ll quickly see otherwise. Rocks crumble away revealing more fossil than straight rock. The remains of the ancients run thick through this ground, giving rise to a new ecosystem remarkable for its hardiness and coveted for its carbon.

Here, the faint lemony fragrance of the sage floats in on the breeze. Antelope bolt for the hills, and the  “drip-thoink” calls of male sage grouse echo across the dawn as they try to win the hearts, or at least  reproductive rights, of their ladies.

Nearby Craig, Colo., boasts the largest coal-fired power plant in the state with a 1,304 megawatt capacity. Open pit coal mines and natural gas development serve as a backdrop to rolling hay fields and seemingly endless expanses of sagebrush.

The sagebrush is not endless however. It’s shrinking faster than people know it exists. So here’s my attempt to give it some props. Even if it’s difficult to stand before the sagebrush sea in awe like you would Yosemite and Yellowstone, you can’t help but respect the wilderness that insists on living there.

This isn’t your fluffy, lush Walden Pond wilderness. This is your crawl from a dried up seabed, live where others can’t sort of wild. You fall asleep to shorts and t-shirt kind of weather and wake to 50mph winds and blizzard kind of havoc. But if you have the guts to stop your car and venture out for awhile, you’ll understand that this place fights for every moment of its existence, and it kicks ass.

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Elephants in the Oilfields

Forest elephants in the Mbeli River, Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Congo. (Photo/Thomas Breuer)

I never thought I’d say this, but could oil and gas development actually be good for wildlife?

If you’re an African forest elephant hanging out in the oilfields of Gabon, the answer looks to be a resounding yes. In fact, new research shows elephants might actually prefer living in active oil and gas fields over the surrounding national parks. So what do the elephants know that we don’t? The new study by the Smithsonian Institute’s Center for Conservation, Education and Sustainability takes a look at this unusual relationship.

Gabon is home to a lot of elephants, about 11,000. The central African country also boasts an incredible level of biodiversity with more than 353 species of plants and 75 species of amphibians in the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas (a network of national parks covering slightly less area than the state of Connecticut) alone. But Gabon is also rich in natural resources, including petroleum, and there are several active energy fields operating in the region, two of which, Rabi and the Gamba-Ivinga, sit between national parks in the Gamba complex.

Usually energy development of this kind conjures images of destroyed environments and absent wildlife. But in Gabon, oil and gas concessions seem to serve as a type of wildlife haven, at least for the elephants, and the study indicates that these fields could also help out the forest’s other inhabitants, including primates.

Past research shows that roads, abandoned villages and croplands likely create new and approved dining spots for elephants. But a land with lots of roads often means a land with lots of hunters, so those dining spots often go untouched by the elephants. As nature would have it, take away the hunters, and the story begins to sound a bit different.

Joseph Kolowski, a researcher with Smithsonian Institute’s and the National Zoo’s Center for Conservation, Education and Sustainability, along with a team that includes six other researchers from the center, the Wildlife Conservation Society and various universities decided to track the movements of elephants in the Gabon region to find out what was going on with elephants in the oilfields.

They fitted four elephants, two each in the Rabi and the Gamba-Ivinga oilfields, with GPS telemetry collars. Researchers tracked and correlated location points of elephants with roadways and other disturbed areas during a 20-month period in 2004 and 2005. They also looked at the movements of other elephants in the region outside the oilfields. What they found was nothing short of astounding.

Overall, the elephants collared in the oilfields showed a clear preference for staying within the boundaries of the concessions. They walked shorter home ranges, and liked to hang out near roadways. One female in particular never strayed more than 2.6 km from a road and her home-base centered on the most active area of the Rabi oilfield. It’s the first study, according to the researchers, to show elephants residing almost exclusively within an oilfield. In Rabi, for example, the two elephants tagged there, stayed within the concession 86 and 98 percent of the time.

“Why?” you might ask. True, Rabi is one of the countries largest and most active oilfields, but it’s also one of the best protected. More than 90 percent of the field’s forest remains intact. The oilfield limits road access to industry personnel and rigorously enforces a zero-hunting policy. The fact that there aren’t many people around also helps. In Gamba-Ivinga, the oilfields also limit road access and hunting, but not as strictly as in Rabi, and the oilfield also exists near a village of 9,000 people, many of which are employed by the industry.

Nevertheless, both oilfields provided new foraging opportunities and protection for the forest elephants in this study, showing that not all oilfields are bad, and that managed well, they may even offer benefits not available in the national parks. If only there weren’t more stories like this one associated with mass-scale fossil fuel extraction.

This study is available online early in the African Journal of Ecology.


Greater sage grouse worth endangered species listing, but other species come first

There’s only so much room on the endangered species list, and greater sage grouse will have to wait in line a little longer to receive protection. A report released today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declares that the bird is heading towards extinction and warrants listing, but does not take priority for designation as about 250 other species are in more immediate danger.

The announcement serves notice to land managers and the energy industry to bulk up conservation efforts for the grouse, but these efforts will take place without the backing power of listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Voluntary conservation efforts on private lands, when combined with successful state and federal strategies, hold the key to the long-term survival of the greater sage-grouse,” said Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland in a press release.

Across the West, greater sage grouse populations dwindled to about 56 percent of their former range. In places like Wyoming’s Red Desert, key habitat for the grouse and an energy development hotspot, populations dropped 90 percent in the last 50 years, according to Lorraine Keith, public affairs officer with the Rock Springs office of the Bureau of Land Management. This 90 percent drop isn’t just because of energy development, the decline started before the energy boom, said Keith. But if the trends of the last 50 years continue, many populations will disappear in the next 30 to 100 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The downside of the ruling is that precluding the grouse from listing relies on industry and state agencies to take the necessary management steps to stop the bird’s decline, a practice which so far has left sage grouse shaking in their leks. But the ruling does make conservation efforts for the bird a priority, especially if industry would like development to continue in the West.

“The sage grouse’s decline reflects the extent to which open land in the West has been developed in the last century,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in a press release. “This development has provided important benefits, but we must find common-sense ways of protecting, restoring, and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species’ survival while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources. Voluntary conservation agreements, federal financial and technical assistance and other partnership incentives can play a key role in this effort.”

Though not listed this time, the federal government has their eye on greater sage grouse. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is adding the greater sage grouse to the endangered species candidate list and will undertake annual reviews of the bird in an effort to make sure it doesn’t slip over the edge to extinction.

While not a perfect outcome for the conservation community, the ruling gives them hope for the bird. “Up to this point we’ve seen plans that predict continued sage grouse declines,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, “but hopefully this decision will be the wake-up call that’s needed to turn things around and compel corporate interests like the oil industry to start using advanced technologies to achieve major reductions in impacts on the sage grouse, other wildlife, and the American West as a whole.”


Peruvian Amazon braces for second coming of oil and gas, and it’s a big one

The second wave of oil and natural gas exploration is headed for the Peruvian Amazon, a boom so massive it threatens an unprecedented amount of rain forest in the region.

“More of the Peruvian Amazon has recently been leased to oil and gas companies than at any other time on record,” states a press release by the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona.

Exploitation of the Amazon’s natural riches is nothing new. More than a billion barrels of oil have been extracted there since the 1940s. And now an old practice returns with vigor as a new report reveals oil and gas leasing is on track to take over about 70 percent of the Peruvian Amazon, endangering biodiversity and indigenous cultures alike.

Martí Orta, a researcher with the Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals in Spain, and Matt Finer with the U.S.-based Save America’s Forests released the first ever complete history and projection of hydrocarbon exploration in the Peruvian Amazon, published this month in the journal Environmental Research Letters. They analyzed 40 years of government energy records and used Geographical Information Systems to show the overlap of energy development with protected and indigenous lands. What they found was nothing short of alarming.

Here’s a little breakdown.

The proposed development has already spurred conflict. In 2009, a deadly clash between indigenous people and government enforcement in Bagua, Peru, was largely attributed to anger over plans to lease or sell indigenous lands without the peoples’ consent.

As unsettling as the study sounds, Orta and Finer don’t just present a picture of gloom and doom for the rainforest and its inhabitants. They name a few policy and grass-roots actions to consider. In particular, Orta and Finer draw attention to the efforts of the Yasuni-ITT Initiative in Equador, which campaigns for international donations that will help stop oil exploration by purchasing protection for threatened rainforest. The authors mention a similar effort could be made for the Peruvian Amazon.

At the very least, I wouldn’t be surprised if this report is cited throughout the policy debates that I am sure will ensue.


Reclamation, restoration and mountaintop removal

My first taste of reclamation came as a grad student while on a fieldtrip along Colorado’s “Uranium Highway.” We stopped in the ghost town of Uravan, a former Uranium/Vanadium boomtown. And except for a couple buildings, everything had been torn down, the tailings ponds evaporated, land reclaimed or in the process of being so. It was then that I learned that reclamation and restoration were not the same thing. Above the once upon town sat tailings sites. Instead of a rust-colored desert environment,  meticulous patterns of white and black rock zig-zagged across the hilltop, laid out like some sort of interpretive landscape project.

Reclamation, I thought, was supposed to help clean up after we’d finished using the land. It was supposed to help return the land to itself. I’ve seen many reclaimed sites since that fieldtrip, and have yet to come across one that resembled nature’s design.

That’s not to say that reclamation is a lost cause or a sham, just that it can be better. Now scientists are trying to help make that happen with arguably one of the most destructive and controversial mining practices at work today, mountaintop removal. Sarah Hall, of Kentucky State University,  and her colleagues Christopher Barton and Carol Baskin, of the University of Kentucky, have discovered a new method of replanting mined Appalachian sites, one that gives native landscapes a leg up at renewal. (You can find their study in the online early edition of Restoration Ecology)

Mountaintop removal reclamation projects often involve planting blasted and terraced mountainsides with non-native grasses. (Early surface mine reclamation would sometimes simply abandoned the site.) Perhaps one of the more unexpected outcomes of reclamation comes from Mingo County, W. Va., where reclamation turned a blast site into what’s now known as the Twisted Gun Golf Course.

Rather than seeding mined areas with grasses, which tend to stunt recovery of native species, Hall sought to test the possibility of replanting mountaintop removal sites with the trees and forbs kin to the forests that had existed before the mines. Hall’s idea seems in hindsight to be quite obvious. Put back the original topsoil scraped away when creating the mine. This soil she found was rich with the seeds and microbial recipe that could help re-establish forest. Where Hall and her team tried the method, the plants started to grow, including arrow-leaved asters, Virginia pines and blueberry.

The method is not enough to completely recover the forest, but it’s a start, and a step up from the grassy slopes that have come to replace so many of Appalachia’s mined mountainsides. Hall’s research highlights a two-fold lesson  – we need to recognize that reclamation is not restoration, and there are practical ways to make reclamation better. Then maybe these environments that have given us so much of their riches at least have a chance to return to themselves, even if it’s just a little.


Into the Big Empty: Wyoming’s Red Desert goes live on YouTube

Journey into Wyoming’s Red Desert, a little known wilderness the size of Denali National Park that brings the steppes of Mongolia to America’s backyard. Here, energy companies vie for the desert’s riches in a world of 50,000 pronghorn, herds of wild horses and some of the most unforgiving landscapes of the West. Come learn of this place and the struggles to protect it as you travel Into the Big Empty.


Wildlife Conservation Society traps jaguars in Ecuador

A jaguar recently captured in a camera trap in Ecuador. (Photo/Santiago Espinosa)

The Amazon forests of Ecuador may be some of the most biologically rich on Earth, and thanks to the innovative technology of camera traps triggered by body heat, the Wildlife Conservation Society has captured 75 images of American jaguars in little more than a year. The photos help biologist Santiago Espinosa and his team survey wildlife populations in Yasuni National Park and Waorani Ethnic Reserve – 6,500 sqaure miles of wilderness threatened by increasing oil development, invading road systems and bushmeat trades.

Espinosa is working with indigenous Waorani groups to set up and monitor the complex camera networks. So far the traps are proving a success, giving researchers and the public a glimpse at rarely seen Amazon wildlife in their natural habitat, including white-lipped peccaries, (a type of wild pig and important prey of the jaguar), and the truly bizarre-looking short-eared dog. While there are plans to extend the range monitored by camera traps to other regions of Ecuador, you can catch up on more photos from Yasuni National Park and Waorani Ethnic Reserve for the meantime at the Wildlife Conservation Society Web site.


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