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.
Under the Trump administration, reckless policy could put drilling above all else on public lands, helping the industry creep closer to taking over our nation’s pristine wilderness areas.
Here are 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
Right now, the Trump administration and pro-drilling members of Congress want to open up 19 million acres of untouched wilderness in Alaska's Arctic Refuge for oil and gas drilling.This would be disastrous, carving up the Refuge with roads and industrial infrastructure, fragmenting otherwise pristine habitat and exposing the fragile tundra and wildlife to toxic chemicals and oil spills.
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. Under President Trump, there are attempts to quietly open marine sanctuaries and monuments to drilling. 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.
Photo: Florian Schulz
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.
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 and contribute billions to the U.S. economy every year.
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. But under Trump, polluters are getting to call the shots on public lands, ushering in a new era of unbridled energy development on wild lands that deserve preservation.
Photo: Mason Cummings/TWS
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.
There are 96,000 active oil and gas wells on public lands, and pollution from these well not only contribute to climate change, but also have been linked to asthma attacks in children and worsening respiratory disease. In six western states, nearly 74,000 people are threatened by pollution emitted from wells, tanks and pipelines.
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 recent years, 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.
Congress failed in an attempt to dismantle pollution safeguard that help stop natural gas waste and methane pollution--a small victory in a bigger battle against the Trump administration furious attack on policies that help protect public health and the environment from dirty fossil fuel development.
Methane flare on Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado. Photo: Mason Cummings
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. Check out 15 places in 2017 that are simply too wild to drill.