Oil industry tries to prove science is unscientific
© WildEarth Guardians

In the latest salvo in a war against science, the Western Energy Alliance joined other oil industry interests and a smattering of county governments to launch three complaints against scientific reports on sage grouse, claiming they don't meet scientific standards. The bottom line: They think the science is unscientific.

To an industry comfortable with big-money influence peddling and power politics, the objective findings of independent scientists pose a dangerous threat. Last week, the fossil fuel lobby ascended to the highest pinnacle of hubris and planted their flag on it, attacking not only well-referenced government reports on sage grouse science, but even an independent scientific publication itself.

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The industry groups and their allies lodged the complaints this week with three federal agencies under the Data Quality Act. Congress passed this obscure law during the George W. Bush administration to muzzle scientific input into federal policy, in an effort to block "regulation by information."

First on the hit list is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Conservation Objectives Team report. True, the Conservation Objectives Team was a state-federal collaboration including non-scientists like Bob Budd of the state of Wyoming, who was there to advance the state's political agenda. But beyond identifying "priority and general habitats" (based partially on a scientific study mapping sage grouse density, and partially on favors to extractive industries granted by state governments and collaborative committees) and identifying different primary threats to the bird in different regions, this report does very little to direct conservation efforts. To the limited extent that this report makes conservation recommendations, published science is cited.

The second target of the oil industry is the Greater Sage-grouse National Technical Team report, published in 2011 by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Authored by sage grouse biologists from state and federal agencies across the West, this report undertakes a comprehensive review of the best available science on the threats facing sage grouse, and recommends habitat protection levels based on the science. Despite federal laws that direct agencies to take a science-based "hard look" at every federal project before approval, such a thorough review of the available science as the National Technical Team did wasn't just rare, but unprecedented for the BLM. Just about every statement contained in this report is referenced to scientific studies that are published in peer-reviewed scientific journals refereed by independent scientists themselves.

Perhaps the crown jewel of the complaints targets the United States Geological Survey for its supporting role in a sage grouse monograph published by the scientific journal Studies in Avian Biology. In this volume, the nation's most eminent sage grouse scientists authored articles chronicling the century-long dwindling of the sage grouse and focusing on many of the activities responsible for the bird's decline. It's not even a government publication, but a compendium of scientific studies that has passed the rigorous peer review of academia and itself constitutes independent science. It's as if this gaggle of petroleum executives and low-level politicians is saying to the scientific community, "We know science, and you're not science."

Ironically, one of the scientists targeted by the industry complaint is Matt Holloran, whom the oil industry funded for his 2005 Ph.D. research into oil and gas and sage grouse in western Wyoming. Clearly, the industry was hoping for evidence that its activities were having little impact on wildlife. What it got was groundbreaking research demonstrating for the first time that gas wells and roads within two miles of sage grouse leks drive grouse populations toward extinction, even after the drilling rigs are gone and the wells are producing quietly.

Apparently industry members doesn't like the results, because now, a full decade later, they complain about this very study being cited nine times by the National Technical Team and twice by the Conservation Objectives Team.

Every time scientists publish their conclusions, the oil industry loses more ground. Having lost the scientific debate, industry is turning on the scientists in an effort to squelch insights into their industry's environmental consequences and cast doubt on established science itself.

Published studies have linked fracking to water contamination and earthquakes, triggering industry-backed cover-ups. The Western Energy Alliance has long backed climate-denier politicians who cast doubt on the growing scientific consensus that the changing climate is human-caused and poses a major threat to human populations, agriculture, business and healthy ecosystems on land and in the sea throughout the world. Today, sage grouse science has become the inconvenient truth.

The scientific results are in, and it's unanimous: Traditional oil and gas development is incompatible with the survival of sage grouse populations. Now that an overwhelming avalanche of science has demonstrated that the oil and gas industry lies at the root of an ecological collapse across the Rockies (with the sage grouse as Exhibit A), federal laws have been triggered requiring conservation efforts to be based on science, and something has to change.

Industry's response: Get rid of science.

The message of the oil industry's sage grouse public-relations stunt is clear: Let's get those pesky scientists out of the way so we can get back to politics as usual. Fossil fuels are a dirty business, which has translated into fighting a dirty war on science as well.

Molvar directs the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.