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Oil and gas extraction drive ecosystem loss in North America


A new study published in Science, co-authored by Luc Hoffmann Institute Fellow William Kolby Smith, found present-day oil and gas extraction practices drive the large-scale loss of ecosystem services across the North American Great Plains.

Improved drilling technologies coupled with energy demand resulted in an average of 50,000 new wells drilled per year in central North America — displacing an area of crop and rangeland equivalent to three Yellowstone National Parks between 2000–2012.

High resolution satellite data provide the clues

By combining high-resolution satellite data of vegetation growth with oil and gas industry data for central North America, the authors provide a first broad-scale assessment of ecosystem services loss due to oil and gas extraction.

“There are two important things here,” say lead author Brady Allred of the University of Montana. “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.”

Terrestrial plant production or net primary production (NPP) is the foundation of the carbon cycle and the basis for a multitude of ecosystem services. Depicted is the NPP loss due to oil and gas activity across central North America. The amount of NPP loss in croplands alone is equivalent to 120 million bushels of wheat, or 13% of what the United States exported in 2013. Credit: University of Montana / Science.

Terrestrial plant production or net primary production (NPP) is the foundation of the carbon cycle and the basis for a multitude of ecosystem services. Depicted is the NPP loss due to oil and gas activity across central North America. The amount of NPP loss in croplands alone is equivalent to 120 million bushels of wheat, or 13% of what the United States exported in 2013. Credit: University of Montana / Science.

The impacts of extraction techniques

Ecosystem fragmentation and habitat loss causes widespread loss of agricultural and grazing land, disrupts wildlife migration routes, alters wildlife behavior and allows for the establishment of invasive plant species.

New technology such as high-volume hydraulic fracturing uses up to 13 million gallons of water per well annually, intensifying an already fraught competition among agriculture, aquatic ecosystems and municipalities for water resources across this largely arid region.

Research findings will help inform policy decisions

The authors hope that these findings will provide a platform for policymakers, land managers and scientists to collaborate to develop policy aimed at meeting future energy demands while minimizing adverse environmental impacts.

“We already know that rapid, unrestricted land use change can have large-scale detrimental consequences. With the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, it took catastrophic environmental and economic loss to trigger policy reforms that addressed the risks of broad-scale land use change,” says Smith. “Fortunately, today, we have the data and information to ensure we don’t repeat past mistakes. Now the challenge is making sure the science is integrated into the decision making process.”

William Kolby Smith is a Luc Hoffman Institute postdoctoral fellow working on the research project Assessing Sustainability Standards. He is based at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Environment Global Landscapes Initiative and the Natural Capital Project.

Additional authors of the study include lead author Brady Allred of the University of Montana, Dirac Twidwell of the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska; Julia H. Haggerty of the Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana; Steven W. Running and David E. Naugle of the University of Montana, Missoula, Montana; and Samuel D. Fuhlendorf, Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Main image: Aerial view of a typical drilling pad in the upper Green River valley, Wyoming. Roughly 50,000 new wells are drilled per year across central North America. Credit: SkyTruth/Flickr

Luc Hoffmann InstituteOil and gas extraction drive ecosystem loss in North America

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