No matter how we try to minimize fossil fuel impacts, we can't avoid the fact that these substances are inherently dirty. Oil, gas and coal are at their core, toxic substances. And as a result they are dangerous to humans and wildlife.
The ten species most threatened by fossil fuels were recently highlighted in a new report titled, Fueling Extinction: How Dirty Energy Drives Wildlife to the Brink. The Endangered Species Coalition, in partnership with seven conservation groups, released the report on January 19th. A panel of scientists selected species nominated by the conservation groups.
The tragic BP Horizon disaster killed humans and wildlife, such as the Kemp's ridley sea turtle -- nominated by Sea Turtle Restoration Project. The Kemp's ridley is the most endangered sea turtle and only breeds in Gulf waters. More than 800 Kemp's ridleys were impacted by the disaster, and of those 609 were killed. And this turtle's numbers had already been recovering from the 1979 Ixtoc 1 oil spill in the Gulf when the population plummeted to fewer than 500 nesting individuals.
More stories of danger and tragedy, due to our country's heavy reliance on fossil fuels, are contained in the Top Ten report.
The Whooping crane, nominated by the Center for Biological Diversity, was nearly extinct when recovery efforts began. Making its comeback, it has been spared for now from the Keystone pipeline. But, if the project were resurrected, the pipeline would increase toxic waste ponds in the crane's nesting grounds and would travel along the crane's migration route, bringing with it the potential of oil spills. Power lines -- the largest known cause of death for migrating whooping cranes -- supplying the pipelines would cause collisions and electrocutions.
The Bowhead whale, a gentle giant of the Arctic -- nominated by the Alaska Wilderness League -- has been a recovery success story. But, a large oil spill could set that recovery success back by decades.
Out West, a delicate flower nominated by Rocky Mountain Wild, the Graham's Penstemon, has the misfortune of living solely on oil shale outcroppings -- targeted for oil shale mining. If the mining takes off, the flower will have nowhere to go.
In the Southwest, the Dunes Sagebrush lizard, nominated by WildEarth Guardians, has been subject to strident political attacks about its potential impacts to oil and gas development, if it were to be listed as an endangered species. In fact, the lizard doesn't harm fossil fuel development. It is the other way around. The Permian Basin is the largest onshore oil field in the United States with tens of thousands of oil and gas wells already drilled. Lizard habitat takes up only a tiny fraction -- 2%. And, FWS has stated numerous times that its listing would have minimal impact on oil and gas development.
And, in Appalachia species like the Kentucky Arrow Darter and the Tan Riffleshell are threatened by coal development. As a freshwater mussel, the Tan Riffelshell, nominated by Defenders of Wildlife, is incredibly important to humans as a filter that cleans water. But, wastes from the coal mining industry and other threats are destroying its habitat so that only one known reproducing population is found along a two-kilometer stretch of a tributary to Virginia's Clinch River.
Energy conservation doesn't harm anyone, except perhaps oil, gas and coal executives. And, while wind and solar power plants must be sited properly for wildlife, they're not inherently toxic. In addition to having the potential of being environmentally sound, these technologies also have the added advantage that they generally don't kill people.
Moving to an energy-efficient and renewable energy economy shouldn't be a particularly difficult decision. But, polluting industries and the politicians that they give money to have blocked a whole-scale shift in our energy economy for decades.
Of course, each of us can individually reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by driving less, operating fuel-efficient cars and using efficient light bulbs. But, for the kind of change to take place that wildlife really need, our government agencies and industries must significantly shift direction and set us on a course for a clean and safe energy economy.
Thankfully, we may be on the cusp of change. The technology for a clean, safe energy-efficient and renewable energy economy is already within reach. If we get serious about it, it will reduce our dependence on dirty fossil fuels and reduce the risks to wildlife on the brink of extinction.