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Know the West

Crude tactics worked against the sage grouse


For years now, the oil and gas industry has been stirring up trouble for sage grouse. The possibility that the prairie-dwelling birds might receive Endangered Species Act protection gives oil executives high-grade anxiety. It would threaten jobs, they say. It would ruin the economy. It would reduce profits.

All the noise the industry has made finally paid off. Last Dec.16, President Obama signed a $1.1 trillion spending bill that was chockfull of unfortunate compromises, including a rider introduced by Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev. The rider effectively bars the Interior Department from listing either the greater sage grouse or its Gunnison cousins under the Endangered Species Act during the current fiscal year.

Oil and gas interests are delighted, of course, having worked hard to make this happen. For at least three years, the industry has waged a sophisticated lobbying campaign aimed at preventing federal protection of the birds. In ads and reports and TV spots, Big Oil tried to frame the sage grouse issue as an economic rather than a scientific matter, while portraying supporters of an endangered species listing as unsavory agitators. And in the months before the recent rider’s passage, the tone of this campaign intensified.

From August to October 2014, for example, the Western Energy Alliance — a consortium of major oil companies such as Halliburton and Anadarko — ran online and radio ads meant to undermine the trustworthiness of environmental groups working on the sage grouse issue. With creepy tunes blaring in the background, one video reported that “environmental activists, teamed with powerful out-of-state lawyers, are using bad science and the courts to stop responsible energy development. ...”

The ad failed to mention that the energy alliance has long relied on the courts to get its way, suing the Bureau of Land Management in 2010, to open up backlogged oil and gas leases.


Another video, featuring bucolic shots of horseback riders and mountain bikers, claimed that a federal listing would threaten “our rural Western way of life.” These scare-tactic ads ran in six states.

The Western Energy Alliance has also tried to discredit scientists working with federal agencies, claiming on its website and in published reports that “disproportionate influence from a small group of activist scientists” has tainted government studies of sage grouse. In a commissioned report, it went so far as to publish and then criticize the emails of Pat Diebert, a federal employee whose findings displeased the industry.

Supporters of this anti-grouse agenda included many other industry groups and a herd of congressmen and senators. In June, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and then-Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., now a senator, introduced a bill meant to prevent the sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act for 10 years. According to a Center for Responsive Politics database, Big Oil donated more than $600,000 to Gardner during the 2014 campaign season alone. Enzi, for his part, has taken in more than $500,000 in oil-industry campaign dollars throughout his congressional career.

Perhaps the best insight into the industry’s strategy of tarnishing supporters of a sage grouse listing came during the Western Energy Alliance’s annual meeting in Colorado Springs last summer. The meeting featured presentations such as “Big Green Radicals: Exposing Environmental Groups,” with Richard Berman, a Washington political consultant, serving as keynote speaker. Berman told the oil representatives that they must wage an “endless war” with environmental groups. The industry will win, he added, only by taking away “the moral authority” of its opponents and “reframing the debate” on its own terms. According to The New York Times, he told the industry that the challenge was either to “win ugly or lose pretty.”

Oil and gas interests continue to insist that they, too, want to protect grouse. An alliance report notes that the industry “implements, on average, 6.5 restrictive measures per project to protect the Greater Sage-Grouse.” But some question the efficacy, not to mention the sincerity, of these efforts. The report “does not address whether these measures are (or) have been adequate to protect the species,” says Mark Salvo, a Defenders of Wildlife staffer.

There is a sad irony to all of this. The oil and gas sector, desperate to keep sage grouse off the endangered species list, has done more than any group to impede the state-based conservation efforts that are the best chance there is to avert a listing. By undermining federal law, by politicizing scientific facts, by using scare and smear tactics, and pushing its weight around Congress, it has poisoned the debate. All the while, grouse populations continue to decline.

In the end, this is about more than birds. Big Oil wants unfettered access to the public lands, and it is determined to win ugly.

Jimmy Tobias is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. A freelance journalist and former trail worker with the Forest Service, he lives in California.