Millions of acres of land across the U.S. and Canada has been taken over by oil and gas development in the last 12 years, according to a new study.
The study, published Friday in Science, tallied up the amount of land that’s been developed to house drilling well pads, roads, and other oil and gas infrastructure in 11 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces. It found that between 2000 and 2012, about 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) have been turned over to oil and gas development, a stretch of land that, combined, is equal to three Yellowstone National Parks.
This land takeover can have ecological consequences, according to the report.
“Although small in comparison with the total land area of the continent, this important land use is not accounted for and creates additional pressures for conserving rangelands and their ecosystem functions,” the report states. “The distribution of this land area has negative impacts: increasing fragmentation that can sever migratory pathways, alter wildlife behavior and mortality, and increase susceptibility to ecologically disruptive invasive species.”
Most of the land converted into drilling operations was cropland and rangeland — a term that encompasses prairies, grassland, shrubland, and other ecosystem types — and roughly 10 percent was woodland. Wetlands, according to the report, were mostly spared by oil and gas developers, though a very small amount have been converted into oil and gas sites.
Land takeover due to oil and gas development can have a number of negative consequences, the report states. It removes vegetation that’s important for food, habitat, and carbon storage, and it also fragments ecosystems in such a way that can disrupt the natural behavior of wildlife.
According to the report, oil and gas development reduced the study area’s net primary production (NPP) — the rate at which an ecosystem produces plant biomass, which the report calls “a fundamental measure of a region’s ability to provide ecosystem services” — by 4.5 teragrams (9,920,801,798 pounds). The amount of vegetation lost from rangelands amounts to about five million animal unit months (the amount of vegetable forage required to feed an animal for one month), which “is more than half of annual available grazing on public lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.”
“The loss of NPP is likely long-lasting and potentially permanent, as recovery or reclamation of previously drilled land has not kept pace with accelerated drilling,” the report states.
Steve Running, co-author of the study and ecology professor at the University of Montana, told Midwest Energy News that the upward trend of oil and gas development is concerning in terms of land use, especially if serious efforts to reclaim land aren’t taken.
“The point we’re trying to make with this paper is not so much that some huge fraction of current land area has been de-vegetated, as much as the trajectory of drilling, (consuming) a half-million acres per year,” he said. “If we continue that to 2050, you get to some seriously big amounts of land.”
Right now, there’s not much known about to what extent oil and gas areas in the U.S. are being reclaimed after they’ve been developed, said Samuel D. Fuhlendorf, another co-author of the report from Oklahoma State University. And, he said, there isn’t much work at the federal or state level to regulate or enforce this reclamation. Some states — including Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Dakota, and West Virginia — do require oil and gas companies to submit plans for reclaiming land after they’re done drilling. But others, like Colorado, don’t require these plans.
“You’d expect there would be both state- and federal-level policy,” Running told Midwest Energy News. “But we’re not aware of a clear policy on this. We don’t see any active discussion or regulatory planning of how that’s going to be done, who will do it and when it will be done. Beyond policy, is there actual enforcement. We are not aware that any state or federal policies are actively following this.”