Whooping Cranes, Sea Turtles Among Top 10 US Species Threatened By Fossil Fuels

Report on At Risk Species Urges Lawmakers to End Oil Subsidies, Focus on Renewables

It’s not breaking news that fossil fuel extraction is extremely destructive and puts our plant and animal kingdom at risk. But I think it’s always worthwhile to pause and take stock of exactly how much of our land, waters and wildlife we are destroying in our headlong pursuit of more and more comfortable, wired, heated, air-conditioned and mobile lives.

photo of a bird

A new report released today by the Endangered Species Coalition does just that.

Fueling Extinction: How Dirty Energy Drives Wildlife to the Brink, highlights the incredible toll the development, storage and transportation of fossil fuels has had on America’s natural world. The report focuses on ten “particularly vulnerable” animals, plants, birds and fish that are at risk of extinction due to our dependence on fossil fuels.

Coalition members, including Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sea Turtle Restoration Project, and WildEarth Guardians, nominated candidates for inclusion in the report, and submissions were then reviewed, judged, and voted on by a panel of scientists.

photo of a flowering plant

Perhaps the most telling example on the list – that spans the length and breadth of America and its coasts – is the whooping crane. The endangered bird nearly went extinct in the 1940s and it’s now under threat again from the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline (see list below for details). The pipeline would run along the entire migratory path of the existing wild flock of 437 cranes, from Canada to Texas, the report says. While President Obama rejected the pipeline yesterday, it was only on grounds that the proposal couldn’t be adequately reviewed within the short deadline set by Congress. Which means, of course, that there’s the possibility that the project could be approved later.

Other at risk species listed in the report include bowhead whales in Alaska, the Wyoming Pocket Gopher (only about 40 of these rare animals exist today) and Graham’s Penstemon, a delicate flower found in areas being explored for shale oil mining in Utah.

photo of a fish in an underwater habitat

The report urges lawmakers to end subsidies to oil and gas industries and focus on renewable energy. (It notes that taxpayers will be handing out almost $100 billion to oil and gas companies in the coming decades).

“Oil companies have generated billions of dollars in profits, and paid their senior executives $220 million in 2010 alone. Yet ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP combined have reduced their U.S. workforce by 11,200 employees since 2005,” the report says. “The American people are clearly getting the short end of the stick from the fossil fuel industry, both in terms of jobs and in preserving our natural heritage.”

photo of an oil-covered sea turtle

Agreed. But then renewable energy sources come with their own bag of problems. What with all these reports about wind turbines killing birds and bats, tidal power turbines affecting marine life and solar farms harming desert tortoises.

“We definitely need to figure out how to use renewable energy sources properly and sustainably,” replied Leda Huta, executive director of Endangered Species Coalition, when I quizzed her about this over the phone. “But fossil fuels are inherently dirty while with renewables it is possible to harness energy in sound ways. I’m not saying that we are doing it properly yet, but we can find ways to mitigate impacts on wildlife. With fossil fuels we don’t have that chance.”

Well, other than suggesting we all go live like we did in pre-historic times when fire was our only energy source, I can’t find a better answer than that.

Top 10 Species Threatened by Fossil Fuel Development

  • Bowhead Whale (endangered): Threatened by potential oil spills, noise from offshore oil drilling, and deadly collisions with ships.
  • Dunes Sagebrush Lizard: A candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act due to impacts from oil and gas drilling on the Permian Basin in western Texas. The lizard exists on a tiny range within the Basin’s vast oil reserves.
  • Graham’s Penstemon: This delicate flower lives only over shale oil reserves being explored for mining in Utah. Mining shale oil through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires massive amounts of water, and that puts the flowers at risk of either being starved of water or drowned under new reservoirs.
  • photo of a birdGreater Sage Grouse.: Coalbed methane gas development in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin has coincided with a 79 percent decline in the greater sage-grouse population. Cause – habitat loss and fragmentation due to roads, pipelines, power lines and human activity.
  • Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle: Most seriously endangered of all sea turtles, due to lingering impacts of the BP oil disaster on Gulf waters, which are the sole breeding ground and key feeding grounds of the turtle. The spill affected 809 Kemp’s ridleys. Of those 609 were killed.
  • Kentucky Arrow Darter: Toxic waste from mountaintop coal mining is poisoning streams and killing the rare Kentucky arrow darter fish (and contaminating the drinking water of downstream communities). The arrow darter has been wiped out from more than half of its range.
  • Spectacled Eider: The Alaskan habitat range of this threatened sea duck species has been drastically reduced due to oil and gas development and climate change. The spectacled Eider’s western Alaskan population dropped by 96 percent between 1957 and 1992. Aircraft and vessel traffic and seismic survey acoustic activities can all negatively impact the bird’s habitat and cause death.
  • Tan Riffleshell: This endangered mollusk plays a critical role in the health of Appalachian river habitats by filtering pollutants and restoring nutrients to the water. Acid mine drainage, sediments from coal mining, and coal ash landfills are contaminating the mussel’s habitat and breeding areas.
  • Whooping Crane: photo of a gopher in a burrowThis endangered bird overcame near extinction in the 1940s, but the existing wild flock of 437 cranes now faces a new challenge. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would run alongside the crane’s entire migratory path from Canada to Texas, and the inevitable toxic waste ponds, collisions and electrocutions from power lines, along with potential oil spills, would decimate the vulnerable remaining population. Although President Obama rejected the pipeline this week, Republicans in Congress are expected to fight that decision.
  • Wyoming Pocket Gopher: It’s estimated that fewer than 40 of these rare animals exist today in their sole range in Wyoming’s Sweetwater and Carbon counties. Truck and vehicle traffic associated with increasing oil and gas activities result in habitat loss and fragmentation, cutting off potential mating opportunities and endangering their survival.
  • Advocates’ Choice: The Polar Bear: The polar bears’ survival is totally dependent upon sea ice, which is rapidly melting. They are further threatened by the risk of an oil spill. Activities like seismic testing, icebreaking, and vessel movement also negatively impact polar bears and their food sources.

(Please roll over photos for caption and photo credits)

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The Latest

Trump Guts Migratory Bird Protections as Part of Final Favors to Industry

Environmental groups hope courts will strike down reckless attack on one of America’s oldest and most important conservation laws.

Maureen Nandini Mitra

Lion Shaped Mountain: Festum Fatuorum

A random chain of events, and the chimpanzees’ reactions to these events, help create the ecosystem around them. The same is true of monkeys, of termites, of moths, and of humans. It is as simple and complicated as that.

Andrew Halloran

The Most Important Environmental Stories of 2020

A pandemic, climate chaos, a racial reckoning, and a divisive election, this year packed a punch that we are still reeling from.

Journal Staff

US is Ill-Prepared to Safely Manage its Nuclear Waste from Climate Threats

More than 150 sites across the country have to be managed for radioactive waste for centuries or millennia. But there’s no plan in place for how this will be done, says GAO report.

Charles Pekow

‘This Winter, Our Hearts are Burning Embers’

At the farmers' protest sites in northern India, at the end of each day, protestors staying in makeshift camps prepare for the long night and fight ahead in a spirit of camaraderie and renewed resolve.

Shadab Farooq PARI

Experiments in Coexistence

In southwest Oregon, ranchers, agencies, and conservation groups are working together to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts.

Juliet Grable