The first large-scale scientific assessment of the oil and gas industry’s impact on the landscapes of the US and Canada was recently completed by researchers at the University of Montana.
As anyone who’s seen a picture of what oil fields look like from the air (much less the tar sands) can probably guess, the prognosis isn’t good. Incredibly, though, the authors of the new study have found that between the years of 2000-2012 oil and gas development removed such large amounts of rangeland vegetation that (at peak rates) such development was removing the equivalent of more than half the vegetation removed by annual grazing every year in the US — in other words, the equivalent of 120.02 million bushels of wheat (~13% of all wheat exported by the US in 2013).
For those not grokking the implications that clearly — oil and gas development is rapidly destroying the countries reserve potential to generate food. When the high water use of many oil and gas extraction methods are factored in — and the reality that agriculture and the fossil fuel industry are competitors with regard to water use — the situation seems even more pronouncedly “bad”.
As the lead author of the new study (“Ecosystem services lost to oil and gas in North America“), Brady Allred, stated: “There are two important things here: First, we examine all of central North America, from the south coast of Texas to northern Alberta. When we look at this continental scale picture, we see impacts and degradation that are missed when focusing only at a local scale. Second, we see how present policies may potentially compromise future ecosystem integrity over vast areas.”
A recent press release provides more:
Fragmentation and loss of habitat also disrupts wildlife migration routes, alters wildlife behavior, and assists new disruptive invasive plant species.
Furthermore, nearly half of wells drilled are in extreme- or high-water-stress regions. High-volume hydraulic fracturing uses 2 million to 13 million gallons of water per well, intensifying competition among agriculture, aquatic ecosystems, and municipalities for water resources.
The authors assessed the ecosystem services lost by using high-resolution satellite measurements of vegetation growth based on methods developed by co-author W Kolby Smith and previous groundbreaking research by author Steve Running. Terrestrial plant production is the foundation of the biospheric carbon cycle and the basis for a multitude of critical ecosystem services.
Co-author Dave Naugle noted: “We’ve known about the impacts of oil and gas development for years, but we now have scientific data from a broad regional scale that tells us we need to act now to balance these competing land uses.”
“We need a policy framework that quantifies and weighs major tradeoffs at large scales because current policy does not address both assessment and future mitigation adequately,” stated co-author Julia Haggerty of Montana State University.
“Satellite technologies now can provide annual acre-by-acre information for land managers on oil-and-gas-driven land-use changes,” stated Steve Running, a co-author and UM Regents Professor of Ecology. “We must have policies that ensure reclamation of this land after production has ended. Otherwise, by 2050, tens of millions of acres of land will be permanently degraded.”
The new findings a detailed in a paper just published in the journal Science.
Image Credit: University of Montana