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Thirty thousand square kilometers of land lost to oil and gas development

Thirty thousand square kilometers of land lost to oil and gas development thumbnail

All across North America, patches of land are being taken over by the rigs, roads, and storage facilities of thousands of oil and gas drilling operations. Now, for the first time, a study tallies up the land area they consume: 30,000 square kilometers—an area equivalent to three Yellowstone National Parks.

“For all intents and purposes, these are parking lots,” says Brady Allred, an ecologist at the University of Montana, Missoula, who led the study, published online today in Science. “The question is: How long are they going to stay this way?”

The authors acknowledge that there are benefits from the operations—namely, energy—and also that the lost land is a small fraction of North America’s total area. But they say the well sites are rarely remediated and replanted, and so the cumulative impact could begin to take its toll through the degradation of animal habitats and the loss of plants, which sop up carbon dioxide.

The study is a mash-up of two types of data. Allred paid tens of thousands of dollars to private sources and state regulators to get the location of well sites. The researchers found that, since 1900, more than 2 million wells have been drilled, and most of that has happened in two spurts—one beginning in the mid-1970s with the OPEC oil embargo, and the other beginning in 2000 with the advent of directional drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and other techniques that make it easier to extract oil and gas from tight rock formations. In the last decade, they found, industry has been sinking more than 50,000 wells a year. “Whenever we tell people there are 50,000 wells being drilled per year, they think we’re crazy,” says co-author Steven Running, a University of Montana ecologist. “Nobody has any idea of the magnitude of this.”


Industry has drilled more than 2 million wells since 1900. The displaced productivity of well sites amid croplands (red) is higher than those in rangelands (green).The researchers combined the well locations with satellite imagery to arrive at estimates of the plant productivity lost when the dirt and gravel of a graded site replaces cropland or rangeland. The amount of lost biomass in croplands alone is equivalent to 120 million bushels of wheat, or 13% of what the United States exported in 2013, the team reports. And the collective toll of drilling from 2000 to 2012 means that the landscape has lost the ability to soak up 4.5 teragrams of carbon per year. That number pales in comparison to the 1000 teragrams of carbon per year taken up across the entire study area in croplands and rangelands, Allred acknowledges. But Running points out that the impact of drilling extends beyond the numbers, especially for animals such as sagebrush grouse or mule deer. “They get a sense of the human presence,” he says. “There’s a substantial disruption that’s more than just the well pad itself.”

Some researchers say the landscape impacts of oil and gas drilling are far from unique. Jeremy Weber, a natural resource economist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, says the situation is not so different from farmers selling land to developers for housing tracts. “I would see it as equivalent to suburban sprawl—gobbling up farmland and turning it into housing developments.”

And Katie Brown, a spokeswoman for Energy In Depth, an outreach organization in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the oil industry, points out in a statement that renewable energy sources also take up space. “Any type of energy development, whether it’s a natural gas well or a wind farm, is going to have some kind of ecological footprint,” she says. With the directional drilling that is now in vogue, the size of well operations can shrink, too, she adds. “Companies are now drilling multiple wells on a single well pad, and these are wells that can stretch miles underground, greatly reducing the surface land footprint.”

Allred would like to see more stringent standards for remediation of well sites after drilling is completed. That is already happening in some regions. In Pennsylvania, for instance, regulators require that drillers set aside and save topsoil, return the drill site to its original contours, and reseed it.

In the meantime, he’s just glad he can finally affix a number to the collective area associated with oil and gas development in the heartland. “We all use energy and there are tradeoffs,” he says. “But we need to quantify these tradeoffs.”


15 Comments on "Thirty thousand square kilometers of land lost to oil and gas development"

  1. apneaman on Thu, 23rd Apr 2015 5:07 pm 

    Shitting where you eat.

  2. Nony on Thu, 23rd Apr 2015 5:27 pm 

    I like cheap gas o line

  3. Plantagenet on Thu, 23rd Apr 2015 5:57 pm 

    I wonder how much land is lost to wind power farms?
    How much land is lost to solar power arrays?
    I wonder how much land is lost to freeways?
    how much land is lost to shopping malls?
    How much land is lost toMcDonald’s?
    How much land is lost to Dog parks?
    How much land is lost to strip clubs?
    How much land is lost to electric car plug ins?
    How much land is lost to bike lanes?

    It would be interesting to see the comparisons.

  4. Baptised on Thu, 23rd Apr 2015 6:03 pm 

    What about all the casing that are put where bore holes go through a water table to get to the oil that’s deeper,
    50,75,100,200 years later?

  5. BobInget on Thu, 23rd Apr 2015 6:27 pm 

    US Oil Production down 135,000 B p/d

  6. BobInget on Thu, 23rd Apr 2015 6:32 pm 

    I need to retract a statement.
    The Pentagon states we Do Not have troops
    (300) acting as advisors in Ukraine.

    I repeated a rumor. Apologies to one or two readers who might have jumped out a window.

  7. Makati1 on Thu, 23rd Apr 2015 8:03 pm 

    Fraking is only a part of the destruction of life support.

    “As part of a settlement of a 1998 lawsuit over a mountaintop removal mine near Blair, West Virginia, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to conduct an environmental impact study on the cumulative impact of mountaintop removal mining, which it published in 2005. In the roughly 12-million-acre (~18,750 sq.miles) region of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia, and eastern Tennessee where mountaintop removal mining takes place, nearly 7 percent of the land had been or would be disturbed by mountaintop removal mines between 1992-2012. More than 1,200 miles of streams had been degraded by mountaintop removal mining. At least 724 miles of streams were completely buried by valley fills between 1985 and 2001. Permits issued since then will affect thousands of additional acres and hundreds of miles of streams.”

    And this is just one area of strip coal mining in the Us. If you want to see the other areas, go to:

    The Us is destroying itself in the name of Capitalism and human greed.

  8. Makati1 on Thu, 23rd Apr 2015 8:10 pm 

    BTW: 30,000 square kilometers = 11,583 square miles. That is smaller than the area of strip coal mining in the West Virginia/Kentucky area alone.

  9. apneaman on Thu, 23rd Apr 2015 8:19 pm 

    Oklahoma goes from two 3.0 quakes a year to two a day

  10. buddavis on Fri, 24th Apr 2015 7:31 am 

    Red are croplands and green are rangelands? If that map is like every other oil and gas map I have seen, red is gas wells and green are oil wells. The red in East Texas around the Carthage gas field, there are very little, if any, crop lands over there. Unless you count timber lands as a crop. And they paid “thousands” of dollars to state regulators? I would love to know who these state regulators are. They should be fired for charging these people money that they hand out for free.

    Google Earth could do wonders for this article.

  11. eugene on Fri, 24th Apr 2015 9:16 pm 

    As long as it’s not in my backyard, who cares?

  12. rockman on Sat, 25th Apr 2015 1:25 am 

    “Oklahoma goes from two 3.0 quakes a year to two a day”. So in other words OK has much fewer earthquakes then the average state: according to the USGS there are hundreds of thousands of “earthquakes” of that magnitude every year.

    BTW: don’t know about all states but Texas, La and AL require remediation. In AL a state inspector has to approve replanting results. About 6 months ago had to have one of my AL reseeded because in didn’t pass inspection. Texas actually doesn’t regulate the process since every lease I drilled on here required remediation. And a great deal of those western leases are on govt lands and they set the regs. I did drill on a field in WY that covered 25,000 acres. The 550 wells utilized about 2 acres each so about 24,000 acres out of the 25,000 that would have been color coded as an “oil field” remained the same untouched nearly unplanted scrub land that seem very hospitable to the pronghorns that populated. I’m sure someone more familiar with the Permian Basin could describe the absurdity of the “parking lot” analogy. Just more childish hype.

    Not that extraction efforts don’t cause some disruption this piece is just one more pathetic effort to demonize the industry. We do have our share of problems but exactly what does the article propose to change?

  13. PrestonSturges on Sat, 25th Apr 2015 9:51 am 

    “…..BTW: 30,000 square kilometers = 11,583 square miles. That is smaller than the area of strip coal mining in the West Virginia/Kentucky area alone”

    We’ve strip mined an area the size of Delaware. Clearly this can’t go on forever.

  14. Nony on Sat, 25th Apr 2015 2:00 pm 

    Strip mining is mostly a Western US technique. There are some mountaintop removals in the East, but mostly it is deep shafts. In the West, it is open pit strip mining. However, they restore the surface behind them. Already doing this for many years. Watch the movie “Switch” for a good explanation (note, it is not a pro coal movie…more the opposite, albeit really balanced overall.)

    3.00 rental. Well worth it. You keyboard warriors might learn something. and it is a great documentary in terms of the visuals regardless.

  15. Apneaman on Sat, 25th Apr 2015 2:32 pm 

    The Tar sands are strip mining. I spent a few years working there. Just fucking lovely.

    To the Last Drop: Canada’s Dirty Oil Sands – Part 1

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