The Impacts

Drilling and production impact water, air, lands, and communities

From spills and water contamination, to air pollution, habitat fragmentation, and community economic impacts, oil and gas drilling on public lands has multiple negative side-effects.

While oil and gas drilling remains one important use of America’s public lands, by law it is not the dominant use—just one of many activities sharing U.S. public lands.

It is the job of the Interior Department to help avoid and alleviate risks, while striking a balance between drilling impacts, drilling benefits, and other competing uses of public lands. As oil and gas production moves closer to Western communities and our prized public land, elected leaders should be working to strengthen—not undermine—common-sense standards to protect Western water, outdoor spaces, and communities.

 Oil and Chemical Spills | Air Pollution | Habitat Destruction | Community Impacts | Threatening Parks | Risk of Earthquakes

Oil and Chemical Spills

Oil and gas drilling results in chemical spills. Whether comprised of oil, condensate, or salty water laden with drilling chemicals, spills can significantly impact surrounding lands and water.  

According to analyses of state data, spills related to oil and gas production are common across the West. In New Mexico, companies reported 1,310 spills in 2016, roughly 3.6 per day. In Colorado, of the 509 spills reported in 2016, nearly 32 percent occurred within 1,500 feet of an occupied building. In 2015, Wyoming saw an average of 440 gallons of crude oil and 12,232 gallons of salty wastewater spilled each day.

Energy operation in the heart of a Weld County, Colorado neighborhood (photo credit: EcoFlight)

Air Pollution

The oil and gas industry is a significant source of methane, a potent contributor to climate change. Drilling operations on public lands release methane pollution through the leaking and flaring of natural gas. According to the Bureau of Land Management, between 2009 and 2015, about 462 billion cubic feet of natural gas (made up primarily of methane) was vented, flared and leaked from operations on public lands. That amount of gas could supply 6.2 million households for a year.

Oil and gas operations are also “the largest industrial source” of volatile organic carbons or VOCs. VOCs lead to the formation of ground level ozone, which is known to aggravate asthma, increased hospitalizations, and premature death.

Oil and gas drilling has been shown to dramatically increased ozone pollution around the region. Rural Western counties now have to contend with skyrocketing ozone levels, once a problem only for urban areas. Places like Utah’s Uintah County have air quality that rivals big cities like Los Angeles. A 2013 study found that oil and gas operations in Uintah Basin accounted for 99 percent of the volatile organic compounds and 70 percent of the nitrogen oxides, both key ozone precursors, in the region.

Methane gas flaring in North Dakota (photo credit: North Dakota Department of Health)

Habitat Destruction

Oil and gas development is so much more than just pipe in the ground and a pump jack. Development projects require road clearing, pipeline development, and significant land disturbances which can “fragment” habitat and have serious consequences for wildlife populations.

Ecologists have found that oil and gas development—and its impacts on habitat—puts significant pressure on a variety of species, including elk, deer, pronghorn, and sage grouse populations. One recent study found that energy production has much longer-lasting impacts on mule deer populations than recently thought, with nearly 40 percent reductions in populations inside natural gas development areas.

Another recent study added to the growing body of scientific evidence that oil and gas operations place a series stressors on sage grouse, whose populations have dropped precipitously in recent years. Land management plans were recently adopted across the West to strike a balance between sage grouse protections and energy development—and avoid an endangered species listing for the species. The current administration is considering policies to rollback the new management plans.

Dense oil and gas development in Wyoming's Jonah Field (photo credit: EcoFlight)

Community Impacts

Boomtowns have to deal with a massive influx of people, live with increased traffic and road deaths, provide social services, and address many of the social problems associated with booms: crime, drug abuse, crowded schools, and the list goes on.

Many communities live with the downsides of development because of the economic benefits provided when oil and gas is booming. But every boom eventually goes bust. Places like Rifle, Colorado; Vernal, Utah; Farmington, New Mexico; and Pinedale, Wyoming understand better than any that when drill rigs pack-up, so do the jobs and revenues.

Striking a balance and working to diversify economies can insulate communities from the worst impacts of an oil and gas bust.

Trucking through North Dakota's Bakken oil field (photo credit: A.G. McQuillan)

Threatening Parks, Monuments, and Recreation Areas

Some of America’s most treasured parks and public lands are on the chopping block, threatened by the impacts of oil and gas drilling. Places like Zion National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, and Bears Ears National Monument, are all at risk of being industrialized, threatened by noise and light pollution, reduced air quality, and view disruptions.

Drilling and production just outside Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Photo credit: National Parks Conservation Association)

Risk of Earthquakes

The links between oil and gas development and earthquakes are now well-established. As an article in Scientific American explains, “Scientists are increasingly confident about the link between earthquakes and oil and gas production.” Incidents of earthquakes have risen dramatically in states with oil and gas production and the U.S. Geological Survey scientists worry that “induced earthquakes” could be large enough to cause widespread damage.

Like all impacts, serious consideration should be given to where and how drilling occurs. Without thoughtful planning and safeguards, the impacts from development—be it earthquakes, spills, or habitat fragmentation—is only compounded.

An oil and gas operation in Colorado's Vermillion Basin (photo credit: EcoFlight)

LEARN MORE: Reports, Blogs, & Fact Sheets

REPORT: Lessons Learned

A blueprint for securing our energy future while safeguarding America’s sporting heritage.

Author: Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development

REPORT: Too Wild to Drill

This report identifies 15 important landscapes that are at high risk from energy development and mining on our public lands.

Author: The Wilderness Society

BLOG: Ryan Zinke, An investment that’s paying off for oil and gas interests

Is your favorite park on Oil and Gas Man Zinke’s list?

Author: Western Values Project

REPORT: Out of Balance: National Parks and the Threat of Oil and Gas Development

Without careful planning in these complex landscapes, national parks and other sensitive areas in the West can suffer harmful side-effects of oil and gas development.

Author: National Parks Conservation Association

REPORT: Cutting Natural Gas Waste is Good for New Mexico's State Budget

Every year, oil and gas companies vent and flare several hundred million dollars of natural gas from federal public lands, including $100 million in New Mexico alone.

Author: Western Values Project

REPORT: Oil and Gas Development at the Doorstep of "America's Best Idea"

A clear pattern is emerging between park visitation and the intensity of nearby oil and gas production.

Author: Western Values Project

REPORT: Oil & Gas Impacts

There is little doubt that oil and gas development—as does any form of energy production—comes with impacts.

Author: Center for Western Priorities

REPORT: Overlap between Priority Greater Sage-Grouse Habitats and Existing and Potential Energy Development

Decline in greater sage-grouse populations has been attributed to degradation of sagebrush habitats from energy exploration and development.

Author: Western Values Project

REPORT: Drilling Could Threaten Our National Parks

Data from the National Park Service identifies 42 park units where non-federal oil and gas drilling is or could be occurring in the future. 

Author: Center for American Progress

REPORT: 2016 Colorado Oil and Gas Toxic Release Tracker

In 2016, oil and gas companies reported more than 500 spills in Colorado.

Author: Center for Western Priorities

REPORT: 2016 New Mexico Oil and Gas Toxic Release Tracker

In 2016, oil and gas companies reported more than 1,300 spills in New Mexico.

Author: Center for Western Priorities

REPORT: 2015 Wyoming Oil and Gas Toxic Release Tracker

In 2015, oil and gas companies reported more than 600 oil and gas spills in Wyoming. 

Author: Center for Western Priorities

BLOG: Overturning environmental protection could harm western communities living near oil wells, maps show

Congress continues its attack on environmental safeguards and wants to eliminate an Obama-era reform to stop waste and pollution from federal oil and gas wells.

Author: The Wilderness Society

REPORT: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Fossil Energy Extracted from Federal Lands and Waters: An Update

These emissions highlight the growing importance of unconventional natural gas production and venting and flaring during oil production.

Author: The Wilderness Society

BLOG: When it comes to oil and gas, what we don’t know can hurt us

BLM field offices are not consistently tracking decisions regarding exemptions to lease and permit requirements. 

Author: The Wilderness Society

MAPS: Shrinking national monuments makes way for extracting oil, coal, and uranium

Utah's national monuments will be opened up to mining and drilling.

Author: Center for Western Priorities

BLOG: Zinke’s gift to his oil & gas friends

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is preparing to announce a series of oil and gas lease sales across the West.

Author: Western Values Project