Moving West: The Expansion of Oil’s Conquest and Destruction

Joseph Pacifico

Blog Post: Energy


Meeting the world’s energy needs is becoming a growing problem moving into the future. Oil and coal are killing people. Oil and coal are killing animals. Oil and coal are causing climate change. The world we live in demand the use of oil and coal for our primary energy needs. The question becomes: How can we create a balance? The balance lies where we produce some oil and coal (which is unavoidable), but limit it to the point where we are saving lives and not causing as much damage as we are currently (assuming we stay on this track of unsustainability), and will cause in the future.

The way to achieve the balance that we desire is by becoming more sustainable in our industries, such that we seek intergenerational equity. By doing so, we maintain a standard of living for not only ourselves but for the future generations to come. Our overreliance on depletable resources will lead to massive social unrest and potential future global conflicts. The problem of oil’s scarcity and sustainable development is best explained by Kim Stanley Robinson: “It doesn’t even mean sustainable anymore. It means: let us continue to do what we’re doing, but somehow get away with it. By some magic waving of the hands, or some techno silver bullet, suddenly we can make it all right to continue in all our current habits.” [1] In order to achieve this much-needed move off oil, albeit not completely, towards other alternative forms of renewable energy can be incentivized through taxation. The natural tendency towards this is being halted by government subsidies and a lack of taxation that increases marginal costs for a firm and discourages them from continuing to extract deeper and deeper in the ground, as well as moving to other drill sites. These firms, facing this new reality, would funnel their resources and investments into switching off oil, albeit not entirely, towards dependency on non-depletable resources/renewables.

The need for the switch off oil is evident not only because of its current unsustainable extraction and production but also because of the projected future impacts on US land ecosystems in the west. Oil and gas projects continue to threaten wildlife and biodiversity, and ignores the impact that this implies. Several papers have been released that provide new research and projections to future damage caused to the Sage-Grouse bird population in the western United States, where future development of oil and gas projects are predicted to increase. According to Defenders of Wildlife: “Sage-grouse are the charismatic ambassador for the Sagebrush Sea, a little known but critically important western landscape that supports hundreds of fish and wildlife species. A classic umbrella species, sage-grouse need large expanses of healthy sagebrush grasslands and functioning hydrologic systems to survive and flourish. Conserving sage-grouse will benefit a host of other species in the Sagebrush Sea, pronghorn, elk, mule deer, native trout, and nearly 200 migratory and resident bird species.” [2] A study done by a team of analysts focused on a small section of northwestern states where future oil and gas projects are predicted to expand to, and how those locations can come into conflict with natural Sage-Grouse mating areas.

Figure 1             [3]

ECO 310 blog post #2 energy pic1

In figure 1, Sage-Grouse mating areas, or Leks, are consistently being affected by new developments. The analysts found that “we can expect a 7–19 percent population decline in sage-grouse from future oil and gas development and that the impacts within our study area will be greatest to sagebrush (3.7 million ha) and grassland (1.1 million ha) ecosystems and the species that inhabit them” [3] By, showing these potential areas of conflict, policy-makers can hopefully preserve some of the major breeding grounds that are vital to the survival of the Sage-Grouse, and the other organisms that depend on them in the natural ecosystem. The same model used here can also be applied to other areas and other species that may be at risk to oil’s expansion west.

Another study found similar results and provide the following suggestions: [4]

  • Renewables have the advantage over oil sites of being able to use the same land every year, so this provides a limit to land use expansion.
  • The current and projected energy footprint in the west is not compatible with habitat conservation.
  • The industry should emphasize fuel cell and electric vehicles powered by wind, solar, or nuclear, which would lower greenhouse gases and land use impact.
  • All forms of energy should avoid sensitive habitat areas.
  • The use of solar panels on current infrastructure can increase energy production without the need to expand into natural areas.
  • Wind, oil and gas production facilities can be co-located with cropland so as to restrain the amount of inflicted areas.
  • Infilling natural gas wells instead of extending into new areas can restrain the amount of inflicted areas.
  • Biofuels can reduce land use negative impacts.


Another study found even more supporting evidence of the negative correlation between a number of gas and oil production sites and a number of Lek mating areas. The Sage-Grouse population is also affected by West Nile Virus, which alongside the disturbances of new developments of gas and oil, can lead to further drops in population. “The prevalence of WNv may be higher within coal bed natural gas fields, because ponds created from ground water brought to the surface during gas extraction provide additional habitat for the mosquito.” [5] The Sage-Grouse is characterized as a wildland species that requires large, intact sagebrush landscapes, and is largely intolerant of human disturbance. They also suggest placing new developments outside of core Lek mating areas for the greatest likelihood of sustaining their population. [5] So the Sage-Grouse is already negatively affected by WNv naturally, and the current and future oil and gas projects constructed near their mating grounds only further decline and prevent them from breeding and spawning. There is a plan set in motion in Wyoming to prevent this from happening. “The 2012 Near-Term Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Action Plan lays out a spatially explicit approach by identifying the threats for each core area, the appropriate conservation action to abate those threats, and the probability of success if those actions are fully implemented.” [5]


Figure 2           [5]

ECO 310 blog post #2 energy pic2


Figure 2 shows the several conflicting areas between oil interests and wildlife conservation interests that this study found. The Sage-Grouse Initiative attempts to do this by partnering with 1,474 ranchers to conserve 5.6 million acres across 11 western states. [6] Most western states with substantial populations in Sage-Grouse should adopt a similar action plan.

Another study produced similar findings and focused on the factors that lead to Lek abandonment. “Increasing numbers of oil and gas wells are associated with an increase in road development and other disturbances to sagebrush communities. The indirect effect of additional infrastructure required with energy development can also take a toll on sage-grouse populations. Developing roads can accelerate the dispersal and establishment of exotic plant species.” [7]


Figure 3          [7]

ECO 310 blog post #2 energy pic3


Figure 3 shows this relationship, whereas persistence of Lek development declines as the number of oil and gas wells increases. Sage-Grouse Lek abandonment is a real threat to the local habitats, as well as the wildlife species that rely on them.

Several of the studies that have been listed have proven that expanding efforts in the west will have a direct impact on the local wildlife of the areas involved. It is imperative to produce efforts that hinder oil’s expansion. The way to do this, as mentioned earlier, is to encourage the development of renewables and taxing, as well as preventing subsidies to, gas and oil extraction. These actions would follow a natural path to replacing our overdependence on oil with a more sustainable solution in a majority of our industries and will make a permanent change that aims at reaching that balance between two extremes that we so desire.


Work Cited


  1. Geoff Manaugh, “Comparative Planetology: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson,”

BLDGBLOG, December 19, 2007,



  1. BASIC FACTS ABOUT SAGE-GROUSE. ©2017 Defenders of Wildlife,


  1. Copeland HE, Doherty KE, Naugle DE, Pocewicz A, Kiesecker JM (2009) Mapping Oil and Gas Development Potential in the US Intermountain West and Estimating Impacts to Species. PLoS ONE4(10): e7400.


  1. Trainor AM, McDonald RI, Fargione J (2016) Energy Sprawl Is the Largest Driver of Land Use Change in United States. PLoS ONE11(9): e0162269.


  1. Taylor RL, Tack JD, Naugle DE, Mills LS (2013) Combined Effects of Energy Development and Disease on Greater Sage-Grouse. PLoS ONE8(8): e71256.


  1. “Overview.” Sage Grouse Initiative Wildlife Conservation Through Sustainable Ranching., Copyright © 2017 Sage Grouse Initiative.,


  1. HESS, JENNIFER E., and JEFFREY L. BECK. “Disturbance Factors Influencing Greater Sage-Grouse Lek Abandonment in North-Central Wyoming.” The Journal of Wildlife Management, vol. 76, no. 8, 2012, pp. 1625–1634. JSTOR, JSTOR,





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s