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Oil Drilling Causes Longer-Lasting Damage to Landscapes Than We Thought

Oil and gas drilling destroys vegetation for longer than scientists had hoped, new research shows.
Landscape impacts of oil and gas development (Image: Chris Boyer/

Oil and gas drilling is blowing up in the US, and new satellite image research shows just how big of a toll it's taking on the environment.

There has been a big boom in drilling across the Great Plains in recent years, fueled in part by advances in technology and government pressure towards achieving energy independence.

According to study a ​published yesterday in Science, an average of 50,000 new wells have been constructed per year in Central North America since 2000.


Much of these operations are horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking), both of which result in a relatively large clearing of the surrounding landscape.

In the study, researchers examined the damage using a combination of industry data, public records, and high-resolution satellite data.

William Kolby Smith, an author on the paper, said this is the first study to use satellite data to monitor the impact of drilling on vegetation.

"In the images, you can see where a well is established, there is a clear reduction in vegetation activity around the wells," he told Motherboard. "Because satellite data is a data product that we continue to receive on a pretty regular basis, we can maintain updates on the state of vegetation. It's a very nice tool to monitor on a large scale the impacts of well expansion."

The main effect of drilling researchers measured in the report was on net primary production (NPP), the rate at which plants store carbon—a metric for the health of ecosystems. They found a "long-lasting and potentially permanent" reduction in NPP between 2000 and 2010 as drill sites increased.

Smith said the clearing of land for drilling also affects biodiversity and fragments the landscape, changing the way animals traditionally moved through the environment.

He said initially, scientists believed that vegetation would regrow after wells went out of production, but the images showed that was not the case. He said scientists were not anticipating the duration or scale of drilling effects on the landscape.


"It surprised us, and it highlighted this is an important issue to figure out, how to put wells in the right places, and once they're out of production, we need to do everything we can to make sure the vegetation gets back to its pre-drilling condition," he said.

Federal agencies have made some effort to reduce the negative effects of drilling, but the laws are often limited to federal land, which makes up only 10 percent of where drilling infrastructure has been built since 2000.

Initially, scientists believed that vegetation would regrow after wells went out of production

The authors of the study called for "broad environmental regulations," and Smith said that using satellite imagery and similar research could help ensure land is used as efficiently as possible.

"Having an assessment that's at a high spatial resolution will allow us to start optimizing our usages of the land so that we can meet all of our needs while at the same time preserving some of the ecosystem services we talk about," he said. "So we can have win-win: maintaining habitats while at the same time meeting future energy targets."