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How Oil and Gas Development Transforms Landscapes

Oil and gas development, though it has met our demanding energy needs, also transforms landscapes, impacting both the environment and wildlife, new research says.

Researchers at the University of Montana (UM) have conducted the first-ever broad-scale scientific assessment of how oil and gas development transforms landscapes across the US and Canada, publishing their findings in the journal Science.

Using high-resolution satellite measurements of vegetation growth, what they found was that oil and gas development creates significant vegetation loss of rangelands and croplands across broad swaths of central North America.

“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,” lead author Brady Allred explained in a UM news release.

Allred and his colleagues estimated that from 2000 to 2012, oil and gas development removed large amounts of rangeland vegetation – even more than half that’s lost each year to livestock grazing. In fact, the amount of land removed from these drilling technologies is equivalent to 120.2 million bushels of wheat – that’s about 13 percent of all the wheat exported by the United States in 2013. Meaning, oil and gas development may impact US lands and the crop industry more so than we realized.

But landscape transformation isn’t the only issue at hand. In addition, fragmentation and loss of habitat also disrupts wildlife migration routes, alters wildlife behavior, and promotes new disruptive invasive plant species.

“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,” noted co-author Dave Naugle.

Furthermore, nearly half of wells drilled are in extreme- or high-water-stress regions. High-volume hydraulic fracturing uses two million to 13 million gallons of water per well. This creates more competition among agriculture, aquatic ecosystems and nearby towns and cities for water resources.

“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,” said 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,” said 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.”

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