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The Case of the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard: A Candidate Species Denied

On June 12, 2012, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided that the dunes sagebrush lizard, a candidate species for over a decade, no longer warranted listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Yet only 18 months earlier, it concluded that the species warranted listing as “endangered.”  This abrupt reversal was based largely on two candidate conservation agreements for the species, one for New Mexico and another for Texas.

Photo courtesy of  -  N.M. Game and Fish Dep't

Photo courtesy of – N.M. Game and Fish Dep’t

In a report released yesterday, we describe for the first time serious problems with the Service relying on the Texas agreement to support its decision.  Some of these problems include the following:

  • The Service is unable to determine what conservation measures participants will actually implement under the Texas agreement. This is the result of several compounding factors, including the vagueness of the agreement and the Service never having reviewed or approved any of the certificates of inclusion that describe what conservation measures participants committed to implementing (the New Mexico agreement, fortunately, does not have any of these problems).
  • The confidentiality provisions of Texas law, as currently interpreted by the Texas Comptroller’s Office and the Texas Office of the Attorney General, will prevent the Service from reviewing any part of the original certificates of inclusion, unless participants voluntarily disclose their certificate (which only one participant has done).
  • The Service’s decision relies largely on the claim that the Texas agreement limits habitat loss to only one percent within the first three years of implementing the agreement.  We discovered that this limit cannot be ensured because the Service has not enrolled enough habitat (99 percent) under the Texas agreement. In fact, the Service was about 76,550 acres short of this goal as of May 2012.

We also recommend eight specific improvements to ESA policy to address these and other problems, so that they are not repeated in future listing decisions for candidate species.  Some of these improvements can be implemented before the Service ever decides whether to list a candidate species.  For example, the Service should create policy clarifying that the conservation goals for candidate species are identical to those for recovering listed species.  Other improvements can be implemented as part of the listing decision.  For example, the Service should more clearly explain why a candidate species no longer warrants listing based on both its biological status and the threats it faces.  With listing decisions for high-profile species like the lesser prairie chicken and greater sage grouse around the corner, these recommendations are very timely.

Dunes sagebrush lizard

Posted in Fossil Fuels, Imperiled Wildlife, Southwest0 Comments


Minnows in the Marsh: The Gulf’s Canary in the Coal Mine?

Several weeks ago, researchers published a seminal study on how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has harmed fish in coastal marshes.  To date, most studies on wildlife affected by the spill focus on acute and direct effects.  But equally important are sub-lethal effects, such as impaired reproduction and embryonic development, which are far more difficult to observe.  Indeed, sub-lethal effects are “critically important for predicting longterm population-level impacts of oil pollution,” according to the researchers.


The study tracked the effects of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on Gulf killifish (Fundulus grandis) during the first 4 months of the spill.  At one of the study sites, researchers found that although sampled water and fish tissue did not show abnormally high levels of oil, there were “significant biological effects” on the fish and an increased risk of health problems.  For example, juvenile fish had genetic evidence of exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can lead to cardiac impairment in adulthood.  The researchers also found that the spill contaminated marshes at a time coinciding with “the spawning season for many marsh animals, including killifish, and reproductive effects are predictive of long-term population-level impacts from oil spills.”

This study has several important implications.  It shows that although seafood from the Gulf of Mexico may be safe for human consumption, affected wildlife may continue to suffer population declines.  As a result, it could be a long time before the public is “made whole” again following an oil spill, as required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.  Last year, we had questioned whether the government was properly assessing how the spill may have harmed many coastal marsh species.  In particular, we saw no evidence that the protocols created to assess natural resource damages resulting from the spill were comprehensive enough to cover the Saltmarsh topminnow (Fundulus jenkinsi), a species endemic to Gulf marshes and now being considered for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, in part because of the spill.  It’s easy to lose sight of these inconspicuous, non-iconic animals, which is why this recent study is especially important.

Another underappreciated aspect of the Gulf spill is that if it results in species being listed under the Endangered Species Act, the public and other business will bear the cost of listing and recovering the species, as well as complying with the restrictions of the act generally.  This cost should be shifted to the companies responsible for the spill as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

Journal reference:
Andrew Whitehead, Benjamin Dubansky, Charlotte Bodinier, Tzintzuni I. Garcia, Scott Miles, Chet Pilley, Vandana Raghunathan, Jennifer L. Roach, Nan Walker, Ronald B. Walter, Charles D. Rice, and Fernando Galvez. Science Applications in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Special Feature: Genomic and physiological footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on resident marsh fishes. PNAS, September 26, 2011 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1109545108

Gulf Killifish. Credit: USGS

Saltmarsh Topminnow. Credit: Joseph R. Tomelleri

Posted in Fossil Fuels, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Bureau of Land Management stands up for environmental review

Recently a judge in Wyoming, citing procedural flaws, blocked the BLM’s attempts to reform the way categorical exclusions (CXs) have been abused to rush oil and gas drilling on BLM administered lands.  Rep. Rush Holt (D, NJ) and other members of Congress maintain that the procedure was, in fact, not flawed and have urged the Department of Justice to appeal the ruling.  In the meantime, the BLM has responded to that ruling by initiating a public rulemaking process to remedy the procedural flaws.  While it is unclear at this early stage what exactly the proposed rule will include, BLM deserves applause for continued efforts to respond to major abuses in the use of CXs, as pointed out in a 2009 GAO report (stating that 85% of CXs were applied illegally).

The rulemaking is great news for wildlife and the many other natural resources put at risk by poorly planned oil and gas drilling throughout the west.  Historically, CXs have been used for smaller non-controversial projects where environmental review at a larger scale was already completed and was sufficient to make an informed decision regarding the impacts of the project.  CX policy put in place under the Bush Administration, however, abused the tool, allowing full field oil and gas development to proceed unfettered without consideration of impacts or development of mitigation measures for wildlife habitat, connectivity, endangered species, and other resources.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R, CO), chair of the subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources in the House of Representatives, held a hearing last week covering the CX issue.  Unsurprisingly, the oil and gas industry continues to claim that environmental review is a superfluous burden rather than a process to ensure that energy development doesn’t run counter to the nation’s longstanding policy of multiple-use of public lands.

The fact is that industry attacks on environmental review don’t hold up: under the Obama CX policy, oil and gas drilling is back to pre-recession levels and nearing a 20 year high in the U.S., all while oil and gas companies hold more than 6,500 unused permits to drill and millions of acres in leased areas they have yet to pursue development on.  Rep. Raul Grijalva (D, NM) has said that big oil companies “shouldn’t get to call the shots when it comes to public lands,” has applauded the BLM for moving forward with reforms to CX policy, and has called for additional GAO research.  Rep. Diana DeGette (D, CO) was quick to point out that the BP oil spill disaster occurred at a well approved using a CX to bypass environmental review.

BLM’s new rulemaking should find a balance by providing for complete site level review to protect public resources when heavy duty development is proposed, while allowing truly duplicative reviews to be bypassed and encouraging efficiency through processes like Master Leasing Plans.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public Lands0 Comments

Attacks on oil and gas leasing reforms continue

Attacks on oil and gas leasing reforms continue

Prairie dogs are among the wildlife species impacted by oil and gas drilling in the Western U.S. (Photo: Michelle Thomas).

The Obama administration initiated reforms to make the oil and gas leasing process on public lands work better for industry, government, taxpayers, and wildlife.  The reforms have received praise and  demonstrated results – environmental groups have filed fewer objections to leases in response to this more transparent process.  The reforms have also ensured full environmental reviews that examine the risks to wildlife and provide for mitigation measures whenever potential impacts are present or when previous environmental analysis has not been completed on a site.

Energy industry groups, however, have challenged the reforms from the beginning.  Reversing the reforms would mean a return to a closed system in which companies select public land acres they want to lease for drilling and proceed to development with almost no transparency, out of reach from members of the public that want to ensure wildlife, water, air quality and other concerns are fully incorporated into decision making.

Last week, at the request of an energy industry trade group, a Federal Judge in Wyoming vacated a segment of these leasing reforms.  The Western Energy Alliance sued the Department of the Interior over Secretary Salazar’s Instruction Memorandum 2010-118 clarifying the use of categorical exclusions (CX’s), which exempt certain activities from environmental review.  This memorandum is important because it responds to deep concerns about the misuse of categorical exclusions to fast-track oil and gas development projects on public lands without adequate environmental or public review.  IM 2010-118 resolved long-standing issues (highlighted by the GAO) by making the following changes:

1.      BLM would evaluate whether “extraordinary circumstances” were present that precluded use of the CXs to skip environmental review;

2.      BLM would require environmental analysis prior to permitting new drilling at a site where drilling had occurred, but might not have been analyzed before;

3.      BLM would require specific analysis of place-based development before permitting new drilling at a site that was part of a larger field (previously not required).

The judge’s decision to vacate these three targeted reforms found that the BLM’s process for changing its position on CXs was not correct – it did not find that the changes themselves were illegal or wrong.  Industry spokespeople, however, have already tried to use this ruling as proof that leasing reforms should be thrown out or ignored.  This is an incorrect interpretation of this narrow ruling.

The ruling expressed no opinion on the merits of the agency’s policies to ensure that oil and gas drilling will not proceed without necessary environmental analysis. The court’s decision means BLM cannot rely on its 2010 guidance right now, but it does not require BLM to return to a practice of endangering our wildlife and natural resources to permit drilling without any common sense limitations. The BLM retains ultimate discretion over both deciding what lands should be leased for drilling and if, how, and when they should be drilled – and the agency can and should continue to exercise its authority wisely.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public Lands0 Comments

oil and gas drilling

The push to “un-reform” oil and gas leasing reform

After taking office the Obama administration took common sense steps to reverse the Bush administration’s unbalanced approach to developing oil and gas on our public lands.  The administration rightly recognized that a “drill baby drill” policy posed a significant threat to wildlife, water, wild places and western values, and was leading to more and more conflict over every lease.  In an effort to reduce the conflict in the leasing process and balance out resource considerations, the Department of Interior provided a number of reforms through Instruction Memoranda.  Reforms from these memos require the Bureau of Land Management to do things like:

  • Standardize oil and gas lease stipulations that protect wildlife and other resources by setting a baseline of protections that have to be incorporated into any drilling project
  • Incorporate new adaptive management features that allow adjustments to be made as more information is gained on how drilling is impacting the natural environment
  • Establish local “Master Leasing Plans” throughout the west to facilitate thorough environmental review of potential drilling impacts BEFORE offering leases in areas with high energy potential and high risk of environmental conflicts
  • Get rid of policies that previously reduced the amount of environmental review required for oil and gas leasing

BLM’s fact sheet on the reforms is here and a chart comparing the old and the new is here.

These reforms were an important step in streamlining and modernizing the process by fully taking into account all resources affected by leasing and by pushing leases into lower conflict areas.  However, as is the case with many of the common sense policy changes initiated on our public lands, these reforms are under attack in this Congress.  Despite the fact that recent reports show onshore oil and gas drilling at a twenty year high even with these reforms in place, a bill introduced in the Senate would reverse the administration’s reform agenda along with a number of other important progressive actions taken by the Obama administration to improve oil and gas leasing.

In addition to the bill, a recent letter from Republican Senators attacked the BLMs leasing reforms.  In response to this letter, former head of the BLM Mike Dombeck said: “It is disappointing to see members of Congress, presumably at the request of industry, attempting to roll back such common sense policies on the land that belongs to ‘we the people.’”

A halt to the Master Leasing Plans (MLPs) currently under development, in particular, would be a huge loss.  These innovative plans provide a new and powerful opportunity to avoid and minimize wildlife and other environmental conflicts that could result from poorly planned oil and gas leasing before a project is sited and investments are made.  This type of “smart from the start” planning results in a win-win because it has the potential to resolve conflicts prior to the siting and development of oil and natural gas wells, thus avoiding costly controversies that always seems to end up in court.  A law that gets rid the MLP process would stop this good policy in its tracks.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public Lands, Smart from the Start1 Comment

A Response to “The Deadly Wind beneath Their Wings”

The Heritage Foundation’s disingenuous attempt to use the death of Golden Eagles from wind turbines as a rationale for ending federal supports for clean energy development is just that.  While wind energy projects have impacted wildlife, and the loss of eagles and other sensitive species is cause for concern, the wind energy industry has recognized the need to address these concerns and has provided leadership in this regard.

To promote better understanding of the potential impacts of wind energy on wildlife, several wind energy companies joined with leading conservation organizations to establish the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI).  AWWI provides a forum for addressing wind-wildlife impacts, for conducting research, and for finding solutions to wind energy and wildlife conflicts.  In addition, wind energy representatives joined with conservationists as a part of a Federal Advisory Committee established by the Bush administration to recommend means to further efforts to develop wind energy in wildlife-friendly ways.  The report of this advisory committee, delivered to the Secretary of the Interior last year, is providing the basis for new guidelines for developing wind energy in ways that minimize and mitigate its effects on birds, bats, and other wildlife.

To use the impacts of wind projects on wildlife as a basis for challenging environmental community support for green energy ignores both the efforts made to minimize the impacts of clean energy development on wildlife and the value to wildlife and natural resources that clean energy development will provide.  A recent report by the Interagency Panel on Climate Change made clear that the greatest threat to biodiversity is global warming and its consequences. With the Congress unable or unwilling to institute legislative measures to curb green house gas emissions to spur investment in clean energy, federal support for clean energy is the only alternative in lieu of the creation of  markets that stimulate clean energy investment.

In contrast to clean energy and the efforts of the wind industry to reduce its impacts on wildlife,  Congress has shown consistent support for oil and gas companies. Last year, for example, it gave nearly $4 billion to the oil industry in tax breaks and incentives despite the widely recognized consequences of oil and gas development for our climate and wildlife, wild lands, and natural resources.   In contrast, there’s never been this same long-term commitment to renewable energy.

Short-term stimulus funding provided a needed boost for clean energy research and development. But compared to the permanent “incentives” for oil and gas development, the time-limited support for renewable energy projects is totally inadequate.  To suggest it is not warranted while ignoring the generous, permanent subsidies for oil and gas exploration and development is ludicrous.  Grants and loan guarantees for renewable energy projects will run out again the end of this year.  Only the Congress can fix this problem, as the administration has correctly encouraged them to do.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Imperiled Wildlife, In the Field, Public Lands, renewable energy, Renewables0 Comments

Defenders fights coal to protect wildlife and the Powder River Basin

Defenders fights coal to protect wildlife and the Powder River Basin

Thunder Basin National Grassland

The Thunder Basin National Grassland (photo from the U.S. Forest Service)

There are many environmental impacts from coal production and use, from safety threats to miners, to the landscape-level impacts of mountaintop removal and strip mining, to the resulting carbon emissions that cause global climate change.  Wildlife is one of them.

Coal mining occurs on our public lands throughout the country, especially in the West.  Some mines literally consume thousands of acres of land and require a great deal of infrastructure and resource consumption (especially and most notably, water).  These land uses destroy habitat, kill individual plants and animals, drive away local populations of wildlife, and force wildlife to compete with each other for less space and less food.  These mines also create huge barriers between areas of healthy habitat, leading to a loss of connectivity that prevents wildlife from moving through the landscape in search of food and mates.

Unfortunately, even as the public and Defenders urge our leaders toward a clean energy future, the threat of mining is far from over.  Secretary Salazar recently announced that the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management would seek to expand coal leasing in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana with the addition of at least 2.35 billion tons of coal available for mining.

As part of our ongoing work on coal mining in the Powder River Basin, Defenders recently worked with a  coalition of local, regional, and national groups to develop comments on several large coal leases that will have large-scale impacts on the Thunder Basin National Grassland (TBNG).  These leases—collectively called the “Wright Area Coal Lease”—would result in the strip mining and otherwise degradation or destruction of more than 29,000 acres, 11,677 of which are on the TBNG.  The areas at risk, though close to coal mines that have already been developed, support a thriving grassland ecosystem, home to species like prairie dogs, mule deer, antelope, mountain plover, sage-grouse, and various raptors.  Sagebrush and grassland ecosystems like this are incredibly sensitive and can take hundreds of years to recover from disturbance, sometimes failing to ever reach their original state again—an unfortunate reality acknowledged by the agencies analyzing this lease.

Defenders’ contribution to the coalition comments on the leases focused on the need for the Forest Service (the agency in charge of our National Grasslands, in addition to National Forests) to follow its own policy to protect wildlife.  This policy requires the Forest Service to “[e]nsure that exploration, development, and production of mineral and energy resources are conducted in an environmentally sound manner and that these activities are integrated with the planning and management of other National Forest resources.”  This is a lofty challenge for coal mining operations that can have devastating and wide-ranging environmental effects.   Accordingly, complying with this policy would require the Forest Service either to reject the lease outright or at the very least to place limits on the lease, called stipulations, which require developers to take precautions and avoid damaging environmental resources.  Specific stipulations we requested for the Wright Area leases include avoiding sensitive species habitat and limiting activities during seasons when animals are breeding or migrating.

You can learn more from our Federal Lands program and our partners at the Powder River Basin Resource Council and WildEarth Guardians.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public Lands0 Comments

Global Warming Pollution Heads Skyward Again

If there was anything approaching a silver lining in the global economic crisis, it may have been this: that the contraction in the world’s economy saw an attendant decrease in global emissions of carbon dioxide. Could the drop in carbon emissions from 2008 to 2009 set the stage for a longer term reduction in energy use, and perhaps be the start of long term emissions reductions? Well, the answer was revealed this week, and the answer is an emphatic NO.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), an intergovernmental organization that advises major economies on energy policy issues, revealed today that worldwide carbon dioxide emissions from energy production spiked in 2010, rising to 30.6 gigatonnes (Gt), a 5% increase over the 29.3 Gt released in 2009.

A “gigatonne” – that’s a one followed by 9 zeroes — is a pretty abstract number. It’s about equal to the emissions of 200 million cars. But the implication of 30.6 Gt couldn’t be more stark: it means that the window of opportunity for limiting the rise in global temperatures to manageable levels is rapidly closing. At the most recent round of international climate change negotiations in Cancun, leaders settled on a target for maximum carbon dioxide concentration of 450 parts per million, a concentration widely believed to have reasonably high probability of limiting climate change to 2oC (3.6oF) Previously, the IEA had warned that stabilization at 450ppm would require emissions to peak at 32 Gt by 2020 and drop to 22 Gt by 2035. This new information means that either emissions need to start leveling off much sooner than 2020, or we will greatly increase our chances of much higher temperature increases – of the sort that will put millions more people at risk of sea level rise, produce heat waves that put to shame the hottest summers of the 20th century, and significantly decrease the yields of important crops.

Does this new round of bleak news mean that all hope is lost for preserving a world whose climate is like that we were born on? Of course not: it means we need to redouble our efforts to convince our leaders that emissions reductions are a worthy national goal. But we can’t just wait for Congress and international negotiations to take concrete action – everyone has a role in reducing greenhouse gas pollution.

The stalled pollution policies, though, also mean that adaptation, or preparing for climate change impacts, is increasingly important to protect our cities, our coastlines, our floodplains, and our wildlife habitats, for a world that will warm more than we would like.


EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.

IEA’s May 30 Press Release.

IEA’s 2010 World Energy Outlook Fact Sheet.

National Research Council. 2011. Warming World: Impacts by Degree.

Posted in Climate Change, Fossil Fuels0 Comments

Painting of Gradma's house

To Grandmother’s Condo We Go?

“Over the river and through the woodsPainting of Gradma's house

To Grandmother’s house we go.

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh

Through the white and drifted snow. Oh!”

This classic winter song belies our traditional demographics and settlement pattern wherein young families live in urban centers and make holiday visits to their aging parents and grandparents living in the country.

Today, those demographics are generally turned on their head.  Young families – in search of the American dream and drawn by decades of cheap houses, cheap gas and ubiquitous roads – typically settle in the suburbs and exurbs.  Cheap land allowed rampant development to push well over the river and clear cut the woods to make way for subdivisions and big box retail.

This unbridled development has wreaked havoc on our natural resources and consumed habitat at an alarming rate.  The National Resources Inventory estimates that we have now developed more than 111 million acres, and 40 million of those acres were developed between 1982 and 2007.  That means more than one-third of all land that has ever been developed in the lower 48 states was developed during the last 25 years.  That is an increase of 56 percent in just the time that MTV has been on the air.

Unbridled development is the evil stepchild of rampant road building.  Driving has grown by three times the rate of population growth over the past 15 years and is expected to grow by 40 percent by 2030. Not because driving is an American pastime, but because communities are built and not planned, leaving people with no other option but to drive everywhere. Those multi-lane highways make it possible for people to commute to well-paying jobs from further and further away where houses and yards are bigger and bigger.  More people move there, creating more pressure for more housing.  More people mean more cars. More cars mean more traffic. Traffic worsens, creating more pressure for more lanes.  Rather than solving the problem, more lanes attract yet more people, causing yet more congestion in what is called “induced traffic,” and the cycle continues.

Meanwhile, Grandmother has had enough. She has long since lost her small town and is moving back through the woods, to the other side of the river, back to the city.  Grandmother’s house is now more likely Grandmother’s condo.  Empty nesters are flocking back to urban centers where they can enjoy easy access to the culture, open spaces, a sense of community and the many services of the city in a walkable setting.  Baby boomers are giving up their station wagons for bicycles and leaving traffic behind for the comfort of transit.

In response to this new trend, many cities, like New York City are making efforts to become more “age-friendly.”  According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and age-friendly city is “an inclusive and accessible urban environment that promotes active ageing.”  WHO statistics show the global proportion of people aged 60 and over will double from 11 percent in 2006 to 22 percent by 2050.  For the first time in history, there will be more older people than children.  By 2030, the number of New Yorkers age 65 and over — a result of the baby boomers, diminished fertility and increasing longevity — is expected to reach 1.35 million, up 44 percent from 2000.  Cities have the economic and social resources to become more age-friendly and are better equipped to undertake the necessary changes for a changing society.

Maybe more people should follow Grandma’s lead.  Cities are better equipped to serve the needs of people of all ages in the most efficient, environmentally friendly way. Denser development means we leave more wild areas wild and more natural resources available to provide services like clean air and water.  As of 2007, over half of the global population now lives in cities. By 2030, about three out of every five people in the world will live in cities.

So before you move “over the river and through the woods,” remember Grandma’s wisdom.  If we want to keep healthy, functioning rivers and woods, we need fewer people moving there.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels0 Comments

National Security is Natural Security

The New York Times ran a story over the weekend called, “Why We Might Fight” about the role of the environment and natural resources in driving future conflicts.   In a series of five examples, Thom Shanker talks about how desertification, pollution, overuse of water and climate change may drive future international conflicts.  The subject has spawned new academic research programs and new non-government organizations dedicated to the development of ‘natural security’ policy.

Shanker doesn’t talk about how the same struggle for resources or against resource pollution bedevils neighbors here at home.  In Pennsylvania, residents in small towns across the state are fighting water pollution from ‘fracking’ for natural gas occurring on nearby properties.  In Nebraska, a Public Power and Irrigation District sued upstream farm water users because they were draining a downstream reservoir important in making the state’s electricity – and feeding precious water to other farms.

Posted in Fossil Fuels, Uncategorized0 Comments

National Research Council Spill Study Draws 150 Scientists

More than 150 scientists were nominated to serve in the twelve vacancies on the National Research Council’s Gulf spill committee to advise the government on the best techniques with which to value natural resources damaged by BP in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  The first public meeting of the committee is likely to occur in January or February of 2011.  NOAA and other agencies continue to make summary data available to the public on the analyses and assessments they are leading.  This diagram produced by NOAA gives a quick summary of the ongoing science to carry out the assessment of damages to America’s Gulf ecosystems.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels0 Comments

Graph showing miles of shoreline impacted by oil over time, from April 20, 2010- October 27, 2010

Months Later, Oil Still on Gulf Shores

There was a collective sigh of relief when the BP Deepwater Horizon well was finally declared dead in mid-September. Without oil spewing into the Gulf in visible black plumes it’s easy to think that the worst oil spill in U.S. history has officially ended. But it hasn’t.

The well was first temporarily capped on July 15th. However, even though the ‘tap’ was turned off, there was still so much oil circulating in the Gulf that more miles of beach and shoreline were oiled later in July.  In its report this week, the government reports that there are still nearly 600 miles of shoreline throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida that are experiencing impacts from oil.

Graph showing miles of shoreline impacted by oil over time, from April 20, 2010- October 27, 2010

Data compiled from weekly and daily updates from Restore the Gulf:

Although oil is still coming ashore, the government is making the transition from response to recovery. On September 28th, the Obama Administration released its recovery plan for the Gulf coast, focusing on ecosystem restoration, economic impacts and human health. On one hand, the plan is optimistic, focusing on the opportunity to address some long-standing environmental problems through spill-related restoration efforts. The restoration plan recognizes that for new efforts to be successful, they must address existing threats to the Gulf’s ecosystem such as coastal erosion, loss of wetlands, imperiled fisheries and climate change.

On the other hand, the report readily admits that we simply don’t know what the long-term ecological impacts of the oil spill will be, let alone the best ways to address those impacts. The amount of time needed for sensitive coastal wetlands to recover depends on a number of variables, including water depth, the damage to the underlying sediments, and the type of wetland. For example, mangrove swamps are particularly vulnerable because of their aerial root systems.

The Obama Administration’s recovery plan doesn’t attempt to resolve these uncertainties. Perhaps the real challenge that the recovery plan poses is: can we make lemonade out of this disaster and take on much needed restoration work? I’m all for making the best of a very bad situation, but we should not forget that the shores of the Gulf are still being damaged and America’s wildlife heritage is again in harm’s way with each new high tide in the Gulf.

Posted in Fossil Fuels0 Comments

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.