Advanced technologies in oil and gas extraction coupled with energy demand have encouraged an average of 50,000 new wells per year throughout central North America since 2000. Although similar to past trends (see the graph, this page), the space and infrastructure required for horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing are transforming millions of hectares of the Great Plains into industrialized landscapes, with drilling projected to continue (1, 2). Although this development brings economic benefits (3) and expectations of energy security, policy and regulation give little attention to trade-offs in the form of lost or degraded ecosystem services (4). It is the scale of this transformation that is important, as accumulating land degradation can result in continental impacts that are undetectable when focusing on any single region (5). With the impact of this transformation on natural systems and ecosystem services yet to be quantified at broad extents, decisions are being made with few data at hand.
We provide a first empirical analysis to advance beyond common rhetoric and speculation of oil and gas development (6), combining high-resolution satellite data of vegetation dynamics with industry data and publicly available data of historical and present-day oil and gas well locations for central North America. In addition to this broad-scale assessment of satellite-derived net primary production (NPP), a fundamental measure of a region’s ability to provide ecosystem services (7), we also evaluate patterns of land-use change and water use. Before this work, little has been done in examining these types of data and their relations with ecosystem services at broad scales.