Seven ways oil and gas drilling is bad news for the environment

Oil and gas drilling can be a dirty business. Drilling projects operate on a 24-hour basis, disrupting wildlife, water sources, human health, recreation and other purposes for which public lands were set aside and held in trust for the American people.

As the industry continues to creep closer and closer to our nation’s pristine wilderness areas and national parks, consider some of these top environmental threats presented by oil and gas drilling.

What happens to wilderness when oil and gas drilling moves in?

1. Disruption of wildlife migration routes and habitats from noise pollution, traffic and fences

Biological systems are incredibly complex, and can fall victim to serious ecological consequences when disturbed by human activity. Increased vehicle traffic at oil drilling sites contributes significantly to noise pollution in wildlands. Wild mammals and birds respond to noise disturbances with short-term avoidance behavior, but many studies have shown that these behaviors become habituated. Negative impacts include disruption of songbird communication in breeding and nesting seasons, as well as altered predator and prey dynamics. Mammals habituated to traffic may be more vulnerable to road kill.

Jackson Hole’s pronghorn antelope are an unfortunate example of the effects that oil and gas development (in this case, fencing and other infrastructure) have on wildlife's ancient migration routes. The survival of pronghorn antelope in Grand Teton National Park depends on their annual migration from the Upper Green River Valley. This seasonal migration is the second longest mammal migration route in the western hemisphere, clocking in at around 200 miles. But the Jonah oil and gas field has made their age-old trek incredibly difficult, and future energy development will ultimately cut off their route at key passages, threatening their survival as a species.

Photo: Larry1732, flickr

2. Oil spills on land and offshore drilling sites

Oil operations on land require drilling fluids (sometimes called "mud") that are injected into the wellbore to lubricate the drilling bit. These fluids are supposed to be captured in lined pits for disposal, but very often they are spilled and splashed around the well pad.

One oil production company in La Plata County, Colorado, spills drilling fluids so frequently, it’s currently hoping to reduce its number of reported spills to an occurrence every other day (160 spills per year!). The devastating cumulative effects of numerous small spills on land present long-term environmental impacts and chronic health effects including the potential risk of cancer. 

Offshore oil spills, such as the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon unit in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, affect marine mammals through direct contact, inhalation and ingestion of toxic oil. Certain inhaled and ingested chemicals in oil may:

  • Damage animals’ organs such as the liver, kidney, spleen or brain
  • Cause cancer, immune system suppression and lead to reproductive failure
  • Further injured or disturb animals due to response activities and long-term ecological changes 

In spite of these threats posed to the environment, the oil and gas industry has been exempted from all or portions of seven key environmental statutes.

Right now, the oil and gas industry is pressuring decision makers in Washington to open special areas of Alaska's Arctic to oil and gas drilling. The Wilderness Society continues to oppose efforts to open up the Arctic to drilling that would carve up the Arctic Refuge with roads and industrial infrastructure, fragmenting otherwise pristine habitat and exposing the fragile tundra and wildlife to toxic chemicals and oil spills.

(Note: The oil-coated sea otter pictured above, nicknamed "Olive," successfully recovered and was released after intense veterinary care from the California Department of Fish and Game in 2009.)

Photo: California Department of Fish and Game

3. Landscape changes from well pads and roads

Construction activities associated with oil and gas drilling leave behind radical impacts to the landscape. Well pad and road construction require the use of heavy equipment such as bulldozers, road graders and gravel trucks. Development of oil and gas complexes:

  • Strip the environment of vegetation
  • Increase erosion (which could lead to landslides and flooding) and the opportunity for weed infestation
  • Disturb the land’s ground surface
  • Seriously fragment once unspoiled wildlife habitats

The impacts caused to public lands by construction of oil and gas sites are often irreversible.

Photo: dsearls, flickr

4. Oil and gas infrastructure and traffic spoil peaceful settings for visitors

Outdoor recreation and tourism are major economic engines for America’s local communities. But oil tanks, power poles, noisy compressors and a network of roads compromise scenic values and important sources of revenue for our local communities. Too much noise near a good fishing hole, a reduction in numbers of an interesting bird species or excessive weedy plants such as thistles and tumbleweeds may lead to reduced satisfaction with the outdoor experience among fishermen, hunters, hikers, nature photographers and bird watchers.

Reduced recreational use of an area, due to the unsightly effects of oil and gas, can result in a loss of economic activity for the local community. American spend $646 billion on outdoor recreation every year—a benefit that depends on healthy wild lands in which to get out and play.

Photo: Richard Masoner, flickr

5. Haze, toxic chemicals and dust pollute the air and water

Open pits, ponds, and lagoons can contain wastewater, organic chemicals, petroleum hydrocarbons, surfactants and other substances which compromise the safety of our water. Pipeline explosions and wells (even if properly drilled) can cause drinking water problems by cross-contaminating aquifers. Development of gas wells may even require releases of methane and myriad toxic gases into the atmosphere.

In some Western states, air pollution from wells, tanks and pipelines is turning into ground level ozone. Oil and gas emissions in Colorado are now the main source of volatile organic compounds and the third-largest source of nitrogen oxides. But gaps in data and scientific understanding of how these emissions could negatively affect human health are currently hindering the creation of policies that would protect residents' well-being. 

Photo: Libelul, flickr

6. Machinery, gas flares and light pollution disrupt scenic views and clear night skies

Even in areas without specific cultural significance, the ongoing presence of oil and gas production and well sites destroys precious scenic values. Particularly along major travel routes or uniquely beautiful public lands, the presence of oil or gas wells is devastating.

The glare of America's oil and gas boom is even visible from space, as shown in NASA's high-definition photos of Earth at night, where North Dakota's Bakken oil fields burns almost as bright as nearby Minneapolis and Chicago. In the Bakken, much of that light is produced by burning off—or flaring—natural gas that is produced as a byproduct from oil wells. 

Photo: dandeluca, flickr

Bakken oil fields from space. Photo: NASA/Ceres



7. Dangerous methane emissions contribute to climate change

Methane, the main component in natural gas, is up to 84 times more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, trapping heat more effectively and intensifying global warming. What is even more worrisome is that 21 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, can be traced to oil, gas and coal extracted from federal lands, according to a December 2014 study by The Wilderness Society.

Preventable leaks and faulty infrastructure in natural gas production are so common that they contribute significantly to methane pollution in and around wild lands. In one recent case, a noxious methane plume the size of Delaware was discovered hovering above the Four Corners region of New Mexico. Oil and gas companies also often deliberately discharge methane into the air through venting, the controlled release of natural gas, and flaring, the burning of it off in the air.

Methane emissions on public lands are not well documented or reported, and The Wilderness Society has been urging the Bureau of Land Management to hold oil and gas companies accountable for this super pollutant.

Methane flare on Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado. Photo: Mason Cummings

Too Wild to Drill

Much of America’s oil and gas comes from public lands, which is why The Wilderness Society continues to fight against drilling in our nation’s wildest places. We have successfully protected several wildlands from the encroachment of oil and gas, and we can win again!