Uinta Basin Oil Shale

Graham's penstemon
Photo by Kevin Megown/USFS

A Home to Dozens of Rare Plants

Uinta Basin in Utah and Colorado is a badland region that is home to dozens of rare plants found nowhere else in the world. The Uinta Basin is also home to oil shale outcroppings. Threats to the rare plant species have increased as developers have flocked to the area to exploit oil share and tar sands deposits.

Saving Rare Wildflowers from Extinction

In 2014, we joined six other conservation groups to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for denying Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection to two species of imperiled wildflowers affected by the oil and gas drilling. The Service proposed to protect the White River and Graham’s penstemon in August 2013 after determining that 91% of Graham’s penstemon populations and 100% of White River penstemons were threatened by the impacts of oil and gas development. The Service then reversed course in August 2014, opting instead for an inadequate “conservation agreement” with the Bureau of Land Management and several state and county agencies with active roles in energy development.

In its 2013 proposal the Service determined that 84,000 acres should be protected as critical habitat “essential to the survival” of the two plants. But the conservation agreement provides for only 49,000 acres of so-called conservation areas, which will be subject only to weak and voluntarily protections. The Service drew the conservation area boundaries to exclude numerous areas planned for fossil fuel development.

This conservation agreement provides for more than 30,000 fewer acres of protected lands than the Service has determined these plants need to survive, and it specifically excludes areas where the plants are most imminently imperiled by oil shale projects. Botanists believe that the protections in the conservation plan aren’t adequate to prevent further decline of these imperiled wildflowers. It’s clear that to avoid extinction these beautiful wild flowers need nothing less than the full protection of the Endangered Species Act, which is 99 percent effective at preventing extinction.

Current Status

We are still in Court fighting for the protections necessary to protect these rare plants.

In March 2015, we obtained public records that show that the conservation agreement purposefully excluded wildflower habitat from protection to accommodate oil shale mining and drilling. In its initial proposal to list the species, the Service recognized oil shale mining in the plants’ habitat as one of the primary threats supporting the need for ESA protections. The Service also found that the development of just two planned oil shale projects by the Enefit and Red Leaf corporations would have substantial impacts and would reduce the viability of the species. However, the voluntary conservation agreement denies protections on private and state lands slated for oil shale development during the 15-year term of the agreement, including those owned or leased by Enefit and Red Leaf.

“Although the Fish and Wildlife Service previously identified habitat that was essential to the survival of these wildflowers, the agency rolled over during negotiations and sacrificed more than 40% of this essential habitat, including lands the oil shale industry plans to strip mine in the next 15 years,” said Robin Cooley, an Earthjustice attorney representing our conservation group partnership.

The conservation groups we partnered with for the lawsuit include the Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Trust, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Utah Native Plant Society, Western Resources Advocates, and Western Watersheds Project. We are represented by Earthjustice in Denver, Colorado.