The U.S. energy boom resulted in 7.4 million acres of lost vegetation in the Midwest from 2000 to 2013, a new study from the University of Montana says.
That’s similar to losing about 120 million bushels of wheat, about half the federal land available for grazing, or Yellowstone National Park three times over.
“I was a little surprised; I don’t think I was expecting it to be this large,” says Brady Allred, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of rangeland ecology in the university’s College of Forestry and Conservation. “We all know these landscapes are changing, we understand that, but when you add it all up, it actually is a large number.”
More than 1.1 million active unconventional oil and gas wells dot the country, each developed through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and horizontal drilling. The practices entail using blasts of water, sand and chemicals to crack open deposits of oil and gas trapped in shale rock and force it above ground. Together, they have turned the U.S. into the world’s largest energy producer, providing hundreds of thousands of jobs and a strong tool for conducting foreign policy. But the methods have also been cited for a range of health and environmental risks.
A study late last year found toxic chemicals and carcinogens skyrocket near shale oil and gas sites, which often sit near residents’ homes. Another analysis found faulty wells were leaking dangerous chemicals into drinking water supplies, and this week, the Oklahoma Geological Survey acknowledged that the practice of reinjecting water underground was likely behind the hundreds of earthquakes that have rattled the Sooner State.
In this latest study, published Thursday in the journal Science, Allred says his goal was not to say whether unconventional oil and gas development is “good or bad,” but instead to “quantify” how it has affected other areas of the environment.
“We need energy, we all use it, it’s a necessary part of our lives. But because this trend [of new wells] keeps going up, we need to quantify these impacts so we can make informed decisions,” Allred says. “It’s important to find what are the trade-offs.”
And those trade-offs could prove significant. The research team specifically examined “the goods and services that ecosystems provide for humans,” Allred says, meaning not just food, but carbon storage (provided by plants that absorb the heat-trapping gas and keep it from entering the atmosphere), wildlife habitats, and the “cultural or spiritual values the ecosystem gives us.”
Reclaiming and restoring the land that provides such benefits has lagged behind the opening of new wells, the research team found, suggesting the destruction of vegetation “is likely long-lasting and potentially permanent,” they wrote in their paper.
The Dust Bowl, they add, could prove a useful example – not because the Great Plains are again at risk of being engulfed in fearsome clouds of dirt and grit, but because regional, if not federal, cooperation will be required to strike some balance between energy development and protecting the environment.
“The story is similar: In the early 1900s, you had an increase in technology – mostly the combustion engine – that led to an increase in farming, and people felt they could farm anywhere, and our policies of the time did encourage that. You had these drastic, drastic consequences,” Allred says. “We don’t have to repeat this. We live in a time and an age now where information is absolutely abundant.”
And it’s that wealth of data, he says, that could help policymakers decide which trade-offs they can and should make.