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Wildflower vs. Oil Shale

Uintah Basin: Endangered List

By Eric S. Peterson
Posted // June 15,2011 -

A Denver court recently decided that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service would have to reconsider placing Graham’s Penstemon—a small purple wildflower that grows on the oil-shale fields of the Uintah Basin—on the Federal Endangered Species List. For environmentalists as well as oil and gas developers, the court case has been closely watched, as federal protection for the flower easily could spell extinction for oil-shale development plans in the area.

The vicious legal battle for listing the species for protection is political, environmental advocates have said—and not scientific, as it should have been. Colorado District Judge Walker Miller agreed in a June 9 decision, which stated that the 2006 decision by the FWS to not list the plant was flawed in that the agency “disregarded the best available information regarding the threat to the plant of oil and gas development, livestock grazing and off-road vehicles.”

How it was that the agency could not have foreseen the perfect storm threatening to eliminate the small flower that grows on the harsh lands of the basin is a matter of differing opinion.
In 2006, FWS responded to a petition to consider the flower as a candidate for protection and was given the go-ahead for a yearlong study to make a final recommendation. According to environmentalists, FWS was bombarded that year by the federal Bureau of Land Management with pressure to squash the plant’s chances of being listed. Records obtained by Earth Justice, the counsel for plaintiffs the Utah Native Plant Center, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other parties suing the Interior department in the case, discovered that some BLM field offices in Vernal had a Penstemon “Strikeforce” team, determined to present all evidence necessary to make sure the wildflower would not get in the way of energy development in the Basin.

In one March 1, 2006, e-mail, one of the BLM’s own scientists expressed concern to his superiors that there was no way the evidence would show oil and gas development wouldn’t threaten the plant species, stating that he was “at a loss in how to address the fact that the entire area may be blanketed by oil and gas proposals.”

“In our opinion, that was a really politically motivated action,” says Meg Parish, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “It had a lot more to do with wanting to keep as much area open to oil and gas development than what was really best for Graham’s Penstemon.”

In May 2010, at the University of Utah Unconventional Fuels Conference, oil-shale companies tentatively announced that the technology to develop oil shale was ready to launch. One Utah company expects to build a mine in the basin in 2012 and hopes to produce oil from the rock by 2014, assuming they receive the necessary permits—and Graham’s Penstemon doesn’t get in the way.

When it comes to oil-shale development and endangered-species protection, the argument is about where the Penstemon sinks its roots—right on the surface of the basin’s oil-shale fields. FWS Branch Manager Bekee Hotze says that, quite simply, oil-shale development and the flower don’t mix—at least, “not on the same piece of dirt, they don’t.” Since the flower is endemic to the region and prospective oil-shale development would require a type of surface-level strip mining, the flower species would not survive on surfaces where development is planned.

Hotze says her agency acknowledges there were a lot of factors at play in 2006, the first time they deliberated the flower’s fate. One factor that weighed against giving the plant protected status was a conservation agreement that had been crafted between the BLM and state and county agencies and other parties meant to protect the plant species. She also says her agency did not consider oil shale as a legitimate technology at the time and also did not realize how contiguous the flower population was across the basin.

Hotze does acknowledge that politics were part of the equation, though. She notes with disappointment that the BLM added to the chorus of voices saying that substantive oil-shale technological developments were unpredictable and shouldn’t weigh in favor of the flower’s being listed for protection. Then, after FWS removed the flower as a candidate for protection, the BLM published an environmental-impact study laying groundwork for oil-shale development in the basin. “That didn’t help, either,” Hotze says.

In 2007, however, a crucial change occured: Former FWS Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald resigned after an investigation discovered she had interfered in designations to the Endangered Species Act, with allegations of her even reversing scientific findings to defeat species protection.

“Ever since [she resigned], there has been a concerted effort to base all our decisions on science,” Hotze says.

Others are still not so optimistic. Tony Frates of the Utah Native Plant Society notes that a recent lawsuit was joined by environmental advocates of WildEarth Guardians to protect another Penstemon species, Gibbon’s Penstemon, a rare flower that grows in areas of Wyoming as well as in isolated locations in Utah’s Daggett County. Similar to its cousin, Graham’s Penstemon, the Gibbon’s variety has also received initial assessments by FWS that say it could be endangered by energy development.

“The problem is we’re seeing the same kind of policies implemented even now,” Frates says. “I’d like to say this is all the Bush administration’s fault—not being proactive with environmental protections—but the current administration hasn’t been [proactive], either.”

While Denver Judge Walker’s decision has given Graham’s Penstemon a fighting chance, there’s still the issue of funding the final study. Currently, the FWS branch can’t do another study until there is sufficient funding to support a review of new surveys in the basin that need to be done since the last study period in 2006.

Even with the small flower quaking in the shadow of new development, Parish, for one, is still celebrating.

“It’s a great day for the Graham’s Penstemon,” Parish says. “And we are really optimistic that Fish and Wildlife are going to look at the science and do the right thing and list Graham’s Penstemon as threatened.” Parish hopes the decision will be made within the year. 

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Post a comment
Posted // June 29,2011 at 20:13 The issue of tar sand development in the Uintah Basin is much larger
than endangered flora. This is an issue of grave environmental
destruction, the release of poisoness chemicals into our local
environment, and a mass release of carbon in the mere production of this oil, let alone the carbon release in it's eventual consumption.
Look to the tar sand development in Canada for the gravity of environmental destruction. Remember too that human populations are not removed from the environment, and suffer the damages of water and air polution in effects like rising cancer rates.
Outside of the environmental destruction inherent to this process, it is massively inefficent, requiring an input of one barrel of oil for an output of
two barrels. This is a waste of time and energy! Wake. Up.


Posted // June 19,2011 at 12:02

Yet another idiotic campaign to save some obscure species. If an environmentalist were in prison the guards would have to put them on suicide watch permanently because apparently they would rather die than offend anything non-human.

They don't make sense. Everything changes over time. "Preservation" is a contradiction in nature. Not a single species (other than ours) practices this abnormal philosophy. Get over it and let's just live. Humankind is not interested in self-destruction and will always find ways to survive and progress without destroying the world.

Take pictures of the flower and go ahead and drill. Not one person, bug or microorganism is going to suffer as a result of losing this plant.


Posted // June 20,2011 at 15:34 - Pithy, incisive come back. Oooo such venom. Still waiting for some sign of intelligence.. Those pretty little flowers have got to be so proud.


Posted // June 20,2011 at 14:31 - So, does this mean you won't be drilling a hole in your head?


Posted // June 20,2011 at 12:04 - You're too sad for words. I'll pray for you anyway but I'm not sure it'll do much good. You seem to be so full of self-loathing, hatred and probably suicidal. I don't hate you and I don't even object to your existence. There is plenty of room for all of us. too bad, it would have been more fun to have a civil discussion.


Posted // June 20,2011 at 11:58 - Blah blah blah, fool. You morons are easier to snag by the fin than salmon during mating season. If you weren't so stupid, you'd have recognized from my post that I couldn't care less about what you think or have to say. I meant what I wrote and feel that you, should you wish to contribute, could take your own advice and drill a hole in your own head (but take a picture first!). I'm off to play, but not with so-called liberals or even so-called conservatives like yourself - you're the same dumb animal to me. Have a nice day. Signed, annonowmouse.


Posted // June 20,2011 at 11:28 - Dear Anon, First, I'm not surprised you wish to remain anonymous. I'm a little surprised you could even spell the word. Second, you didn't really say anything useful so can't respond to your specific objections. Three, extraction of resources such as oil-shale and others is only a temporary inconvenience - I do at least understand that they will be depleted eventually - wow, shock, horror, imagine that. Last, but not least, the world is not a static entity and has and will continue to change ad infinitum. That FACT is something folks like you do not seem to grasp. So much for evolution! you go off and play with the other liberal nut-jobs and leave the rest of us to deal with real life.


Posted // June 20,2011 at 08:56 - What you don't know (because you are blinded by your own stupidity) is that you and everybody like you are quickly becoming the "obscure species". Your useless mind-set is obscure, your so-called values are obscure, your vision for the future is nonexistent. With any luck, you and yours will be extinct soon. The sooner the better.


Posted // June 17,2011 at 22:16

Brilliant. Let's make sure to protect an obscure plant that absolutely nobody outside of botanists has ever heard of, and a plant that less than 1/1000th of a % of America has ever or will ever see in person, at the cost of utilizing one of the largest unconventional oil resources on the planet. Nevermind that 300 million people are directly affected by oil and that affects jobs, standard of living, national security and so forth--just so long as we preserve that obscure plant for the hiker to enjoy one day out of the he takes his SUV to drive up to the Uintahs to enjoy that day of hikinhg. But when oil prices rise, he won't care to spend the additional money on fuel to drive up there to hike anymore. Brilliant. Yes, let's save this plant because surely this plant is something that affects every American's life on a daily basis. Surely this plant will console the nation when we face oil problems. Surely a plant with no intrinsic value should be placed above that of millions of barrels of oil (the Green River formation has 1.5 trillion barrels of oil).


Posted // June 20,2011 at 08:49 - And by contrast, let's kill off inconveniently-located species to develop something as obscure and resource-sucking as oil shale petroleum so people can gas up their SUV's and drive to a lcoation where the plant species USED to be. But we'll have plenty of gas to visit a desolated planet. At some point, it all runs out. Conservatives complain that our current budgeting process isn't fair for future generations because "we're mortgaging their futures and it isn;t fair!" What about eliminating species so we can hurry and burn up more non-renewable energy sources? Why look for long-term solutions when there's a book of matches with three matches left? We haven't used them all yet.


Posted // June 15,2011 at 15:23

With luck, the USA should be facing $15 /gallon gasolene, and $0.50 /kwh electicity costs... this will of course do wonders for the USA econoy and standard of living ! Smart people them yanks! Duh! (only europe can trump their ingnorance)