This Obscure Grouse Will Make Driving More Expensive

It is amazing to think that this diminutive game bird that is about the size of a chicken and best known for a flamboyant mating dance has captured the imagination of the world’s media, and could ultimately change the control of the US Senate and potentially drive up our motoring costs.

Bowing to pressure from environmental activists who sued the US Federal Government, the administration is now considering whether to list the grouse as an endangered species next year, a move that would severely limit the economic activity that can be conducted in the natural range of the bird.

You may not be familiar with the economic activity in the area shaded in blue and green above, but once you know that it involves hunting, ranching, oh, and energy exploration, you may start to get the picture. Perhaps, just as important is the fact that Republicans need to gain a mere six seats in the Senate this November to wrestle control off the Democrats and thus be in a position to effectively shut down the Obama law-making agenda, as they will be in control of both houses.

The battle lines have been drawn and a little bird that puffs out its breasts and emits odd warbles is the focus of attention. Or is it? Politicians are arguing about job loss and creation, and are trying to keep the focus on jobs not the bird. It is widely quoted by those opposed to the listing that at least 30,000 jobs could be lost if the bird is protected and, worse, the USA will be set back in its bid to become self-reliant on its own oil with the potential of becoming a net exporter. Local politicians, including a number of Democrats, are arguing that there should be a local protection initiative, but environmentalist don’t trust them as under a local solution, landowners will be primarily responsible for the protection of the bird and, well, much of the range of the grouse is in prime hunting territory.

Tar Sands – before (left) and after (right)

The argument is probably a bit more about the complete destruction of the local ecosystem once the developers move in as the oil shale and tar sands that underlie the Montana and Utah landscape will be extracted using opencast recovery techniques. There are many environmental websites you can go to that will depict the wanton destruction of pristine landscapes, which occurs as a result of the open cast mining techniques.

One place where the battle lines seem to be deeply entrenched is in East Tavaputs, Utah. Here, local environmental groups are up against US Oil Sand Inc, which is a Canadian company that apparently employs 300,000 Americans, and both are waging a hearts-and-minds campaign via the press and internet, not to mention site invasions and other civil disorder techniques. Potentially the largest hydrocarbon sources in the Americas have been found in East Tavaputs, with reserves estimated at 4.5 billion barrels, and are similar in size and scope to the Athabasca Oil Sands a little bit further north, in Canada’s Alberta Province. Those sands make Canada the third largest oil source in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, and are thus of major global importance as our other hydrocarbon sources dry up and demand for oil pushes the price of petrol at the pump ever upwards.

Mud pie, anyone?

The hydrocarbon in the sand is very high viscosity bitumen that has to be extracted using enhanced extraction techniques, such as steam injection and gravity drainage. Recently, the use of “organic” solvents is being employed to try and mitigate the negative impact on the environment by reducing the amount of water used to produce a barrel of oil from four to one and a half barrels, and by recycling about 98% of the solvent for reuse; the remaining 2% is said to be biodegradable.

On top of this, mining companies say that they will save the soil so that the land can be rehabilitated after they leave but campaigners will unhappily show you pictures of moonscapes of land in our own backyards that is supposed to be rehabilitated, where the natural vegetation and watercourses have vanished for ever.

In a way we have come to the crux of the matter: we want jobs, we want development, we want to be warm in the winter and cool in the summer, we want the convenience of owning our own car and being able to afford the fuel we put into it and all the other accoutrements of a developed society. The question is: do we love the sage grouse enough to let it create an energy scarcity that may threaten all of that.


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