UM study: Oil and gas development transforms landscapes

MISSOULA – Improved drilling technologies and energy demand have resulted in the large-scale expansion of oil and gas development, with 50,000 new wells drilled per year recently in central North America. Locations such as the Bakken, Eagle Ford and the Marcellus Shale are now commonplace, and drilling activity frequently makes news.

But what are the ecological consequences of this accelerated drilling activity? Researchers at the University of Montana have conducted the first-ever broad-scale scientific assessment of how oil and gas development transforms landscapes across the U.S. and Canada.

Their work was published April 24 in an article titled “Ecosystem services lost to oil and gas in North America” inĀ Science, one of the world’s most prestigious journals. The article concludes that oil and gas development creates significant vegetation loss of rangelands and croplands across broad swaths of central North America.

Lead author Brady Allred said, “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.”

Allred and co-authors estimated that from 2000 to 2012 oil and gas development removed large amounts of rangeland vegetation, culminating at a rate per year of more than half of the annual grazing on U.S. public lands. Vegetation removed by this development on croplands is equivalent to 120.2 million bushels of wheat, approximately 13 percent of all wheat exported by the U.S. in 2013.

Fragmentation and loss of habitat also disrupts wildlife migration routes, alters wildlife behavior and assists new disruptive invasive plant species. Co-author Dave Naugle highlights the complexity of the issue: “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.”

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