An Improved Approach for Forecasting Ecological Impacts from Future Drilling in Unconventional Shale Oil and Gas Plays
Authors: Brad D. Wolaver, Jon Paul Pierre, Svetlana A. Ikonnikova, John R. Andrews, Guinevere McDaid, Wade A. Ryberg, Toby J. Hibbitts, Charles M. Duran, Benjamin J. Labay, Travis J. LaDuc
Directional well drilling and hydraulic fracturing has enabled energy production from previously inaccessible resources, but caused vegetation conversion and landscape fragmentation, often in relatively undisturbed habitats. We improve forecasts of future ecological impacts from unconventional oil and gas play developments using a new, more spatially-explicit approach. We applied an energy production outlook model, which used geologic and economic data from thousands of wells and three oil price scenarios, to map future drilling patterns and evaluate the spatial distribution of vegetation conversion and habitat impacts. We forecast where future well pad construction may be most intense, illustrating with an example from the Eagle Ford Shale Play of Texas. We also illustrate the ecological utility of this approach using the Spot-tailed Earless Lizard (Holbrookia lacerata) as the focal species, which historically occupied much of the Eagle Ford and awaits a federal decision for possible Endangered Species Act protection. We found that ~17,000–45,500 wells would be drilled 2017‒2045 resulting in vegetation conversion of ~26,485–70,623 ha (0.73–1.96% of pre-development vegetation), depending on price scenario ($40–$80/barrel). Grasslands and row crop habitats were most affected (2.30 and 2.82% areal vegetation reduction). Our approach improves forecasts of where and to what extent future energy development in unconventional plays may change land-use and ecosystem services, enabling natural resource managers to anticipate and direct on-the-ground conservation actions to places where they will most effectively mitigate ecological impacts of well pads and associated infrastructure.