Restoring Degraded Energy Landscapes

The needs of humans and nature has often been viewed as conflict, but research suggests that healthy landscapes improve economic well-being and ecosystem function. Degraded energy production lands offering neither economic nor environmental benefits provide an great restoration opportunity.

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The impact of human activity on ecosystems is high with ecological modification and degradation causing many species to decline or go extinct as many landscapes lose their vital ecological functioning. Throughout the world, lands have been transformed by agriculture, urban development, mining, logging, and all other types of human activity. Recently it has been noted that the energy industry is the largest driver of land-use change in some highly industrialized societies, such as the United States. In the US, millions of hectares of land are devoted to oil and gas production while alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar are rapidly increasing their land footprint as well.

 

Oil and gas drilling is an interesting example because extracting these resources is a temporary activity at any given location. Typically, drillers build infrastructure such as well pads, roads, pipelines, and pumping stations in a production region so that oil and gas can be acquired and moved from the ground to where it is needed.  However, every oil and gas well is a temporary economic driver, for over time, production declines to eventually reach a level too low to be economically valuable. Typically, the well is then abandoned. After abandonment, this land that the well infrastructure occupies now has no economic value and typically no ecosystem services as well. It is now a lose-lose proposition to both human economies and the biosphere.

Governments and fossil fuel companies are well-aware of this phenomenon and, as a result, most jurisdictions require oil and gas operators to place bonds on each well that is drilled. This money is set aside for well removal and land restoration after production of oil and gas ceases. However, many studies have noted that well bonds are typically too low to fully fund restoration costs. So, my colleagues and I suspected that this mismatch between available funds and restoration needs would result in abandoned well infrastructure scattered across the landscape. But we had little idea of how much and what the cost was to society.

 

An abandoned gas well. Courtesy of Steve Hillebrand, USFWS

We therefore set out to estimate the impacted landscapes by using a series of tools now available to researchers. An industry well database company, Enverus, keeps records of every oil and gas well drilled in the U.S. and high-resolution satellite imagery available from public platforms such as Google Earth allows us to examine the landscape on which wells occupy. What we found was more than 430,000 well sites covering about 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) in the US that had ceased production, and therefore had no economic value, but had not yet been restored. Many well sites had remained unrestored for many years. So, what was being lost from these lands? The two values we examined were agricultural production and carbon storage. In areas where wells overlapped with agricultural areas, we found that billions of dollars of losses were occurring annually as these lands remained idle and not contributing to the farming and ranching economy. The lost opportunity for storing carbon through plant growth and other biological processes added billions of losses more (in the form of excess carbon in the atmosphere). If all these lands were restored, over the next 50 years, society would gain $21 billion in value, while the cost of restoring these lands was only estimated at $7 billion (3:1 net benefit with a 5-year break even point). When we added additional, harder-to-estimate ecosystem services values, our benefit to cost ration was even higher. With over five million total oil and gas wells present in the U.S., it was also easy to see that future losses were inevitable as these wells become non-producing. And since many economic and environmental losses are annual, total impacts will accumulate the longer the well sites remain unrestored.

 

So, what should we do about it? We addressed some of these question in the paper. Raising well bond fees on oil and gas companies could be done, but that would presumably meet resistance from the industry. Public spending at the state and/or federal level could also provide the funds, but that also could meet resistance during times of high deficit spending (or at any time!). For agricultural areas, loans might be economically feasible since restored lands will produce real economic benefits for years to come. Regardless of how we do restoration, we argue that we need to do it, for we have shown that the benefits far outweigh the costs. Maybe a robust program of land restoration could even create a more sustainable society ethic of environmental restoration that would extend to other damaged and degraded lands that litter our landscape.

Former gas well location (red dot) and infrastructure area (green outline) restored for agricultural activity.

Paper Reference: Haden Chomphosy, W., Varriano, S., Lefler, L.H. et al. Ecosystem services benefits from the restoration of non-producing US oil and gas lands. Nat Sustain (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00689-4 

Further Reading:

1. McClung, M. R., Taylor, N. T., Zamzow, B. K., Stone, E. T., Abad, H., & Moran, M. D. (2019). The threat of energy diversification to a bioregion: a landscape-level analysis of current and future impacts on the US Chihuahuan Desert. Regional Environmental Change19(7), 1949-1962.

2. Moran, M. D., Taylor, N. T., Mullins, T. F., Sardar, S. S., & McClung, M. R. (2017). Land‐use and ecosystem services costs of unconventional US oil and gas development. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment15(5), 237-242.

3.Trainor, A. M., McDonald, R. I., & Fargione, J. (2016). Energy sprawl is the largest driver of land use change in United States. PloS one11(9), e0162269.

4. Allred, B. W., Smith, W. K., Twidwell, D., Haggerty, J. H., Running, S. W., Naugle, D. E., & Fuhlendorf, S. D. (2015). Ecosystem services lost to oil and gas in North America. Science348(6233), 401-402.

Matthew Moran

Elbert L. Fausett Distinguished Professor, Hendrix College