By Ted Auch, Juliana Henao and Samantha Malone
Currently, 11 percent (2,140 of 19,515 total) of all U.S. organic farms share a watershed with active oil and gas drilling. Additionally, this percentage could rise up to 31 percent if unconventional oil and gas drilling continues to grow.
Organic farms represent something pure for citizens around the world. They produce food that gives people more certainty about consuming chemical-free nutrients in a culture that is so accustomed to using pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides in order to keep up with booming demand. Among their many benefits, organic farms produce food that is high in nutritional value, use less water, replenish soil fertility and do not use pesticides or other toxic chemicals that may get into our food supply. To maintain their integrity, however, organic farms have an array of regulations and an extensive accreditation process.
What does it mean to be an organic farm?
The accreditation process for an organic farm is quite extensive. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic regulations include:
- The producer must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals or residues of prohibited substance.
- No prohibited substances can be applied to the farm for a period of three years immediately preceding harvest of a crop
- The farm must have distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones, such as runoff diversions to prevent the unintended application of a prohibited substance to the crop or contact with a prohibited substance applied by adjoining land that is not under organic management.
There are additional regulations that pertain to crop pest, weed and disease standards; soil fertility and crop nutrient management standards; seeds and planting stock practice standards; and wild-crop harvesting practice standards, to name a few. A violation of any one of these USDA regulations can mean a hold on the accreditation of an organic farm.
The full list of regulations and requirements can be found here.
Threats Posed by Oil and Gas
Nearby oil and gas drilling is one of many threats to organic farms and their crop integrity. With a steady expansion of wells, the oil and gas industry is using more and more land, requiring significant quantities of fresh water, and emitting air and water pollution from sites (both in permitted and unpermitted cases). Oil and gas activity could not only affect the quality of the produce from these farms, but also their ability to meet the USDA's organic standards.
To see how organic farms and the businesses surrounding wells are being affected, Ted Auch analyzed certain dynamics of organic farms near drilling activity in the U.S., and generated some key findings. His results showcase how many organic farms are at risk now and in the future if oil and gas drilling expands. Below we describe a few of his key findings, but you can also read the entire article here.
Key Findings: Organic Farms Near Oil and Gas Activity
Explore this dynamic map of the U.S. organic farms (2,140) within 20 miles of oil and gas drilling. To view the legend and see the map fullscreen, click here.
Of the 19,515 U.S. organic farms in the U.S., 2,140 (11 percent) share a watershed with oil and gas activity—with up to 31 percent in the path of future wells in shale areas. Why look at oil and gas activity at the watershed level? Watersheds are key areas from which O&G companies pull their resources or into which they emit pollution. For unconventional drilling, hydraulic fracturing companies need to obtain fresh water from somewhere in order to frack the wells, and often the local watershed serves as that source. Spills can and do occur on site and in the process of transporting the well pad's products, posing risks to soils and waterways, as well.
Figure 1, below, demonstrates the number of organic farms near active oil and gas wells in the U.S.—broken down by five location-based Regions of Concern (ROC).
The most at-risk farms are located in five states: California, Ohio, Michigan, Texas and Pennsylvania. Learn more about the breakdown of the types of organic farms that fall within these ROCs, including what they produce.
Out of Ohio's 703 organic farms, 220 organic farms are near drilling activity, and 105 are near injection (waste disposal) wells.
More and more oil and gas drilling is being permitted to operate near organic farms in the U.S. The ability for municipalities to zone out oil and gas varies by state, but there is currently no national restriction that specifically protects organic farms from this industrial activity. As the oil and gas industry expands and continues to operate at such close proximities to organic farms in the U.S., there are a variety of potential impacts that we could see in the near future. The following list and more is explained in further detail in Auch's research paper:
- A complete alteration in soil composition and quality,
- A need to restore wetland soils that are altered beyond the best reclamation techniques,
- A dramatic decline in organic farm and land productivity,
- A changing landscape,
- Wildlife habitat fragmentation, and
- Watershed resilience … to name a few.
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By Ted Auch
Now that we as a nation have weathered another silly season's worth of campaign ads, lawn signs and less than insightful debates between the country's two—and in the case of Vermont's gubernatorial election, seven—parties; it is time to get down to the job of governing this fine country and finding potential legislation that everyone can agree upon.
However, this will come with numerous attempts to abrogate U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions via the Congressional Review Act, investigations and defunding lead by likely chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee James M. “The Greatest Hoax" Inhofe (R-OK). Enter stage right the Keystone XL pipeline and statements like these from the GOP leadership and former Obama officials:
“We can act on the Keystone pipeline," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
“When you say energy these days, people think of the Keystone pipeline ... I mean, the employment figures connected with Keystone are stunning if we would just get going. [And I will] try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in," said Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
“If Republicans attach Keystone to a budget bill, I don't think he's so principally opposed to it that he would veto it," stated Former Obama State Department Bureau of Energy Resources lead David Goldwyn.
As anyone reading this knows by now, the Keystone XL is a highly controversial—but just one of many—proposal to create a N-NW to S-SW pipeline connector to the existing Keystone across Montana, South Dakota, the SW corner of North Dakota and Nebraska. The proposal would connect with the existing Keystone 55-60 miles southwest of Lincoln, Nebraska. This proposal is contentious for many reasons, one of which is the fact that it would cut across Nebraska's Sand Hills, Kansas' Flint Hills, and the region's Great and Glaciated Plains natural area sand sit just above the shallow 174,000 square miles of the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking water to 1.9 million people and irrigation to 27 percent of the arable land in the U.S.
Bipartisan Points of Interest
As soon as it was obvious at around 10:30 p.m. EST that there would be a sea change in DC with the GOP ousting floundering DNC incumbents or challengers, both sides turned to potential points of compromise with topics like immigration, tweaking Obamacare at the margins, etc. receiving quite a bit of air time. Top among these is revisiting the Keystone XL expansion as the ultimate olive branch the administration could offer to its friends across the aisle. It is worth noting that as our politicians continue to debate the science of climate change and do all they can to ramp up our already disproportionate reliance on fossil fuels across the pond, the political consensus in countries like Denmark and Germany is nearly unanimous that their energy portfolios should exceed 50 percent by 2020.
Both parties have their boutique or “go-to" studies supporting their point of view as it relates to Keystone XL job multiplier, oil production and environmental cost-benefit analyses but very few, if any, have analyzed the past, current and potential footprint of the Athabasca and Peace River Oil Sands as it relates to above- and below-ground ecosystem service loss resulting from land-use/land-cover (LULC) change. Even the province of Alberta presents an ESRI online map of current and proposed oil sands projects. Alberta oil sands has increased by 1,455 percent from its early annual averages of 50 Million Barrels (MBs) to its current annual average of 725+ (Figure 1).
Just like similar fossil fuel and related industries' activities (i.e. frack sand mining and freshwater withdrawals), oil sands production has reached an exponential inflection point which shows no signs of slowing and likely is accelerating with calls for “energy independence," OPEC “foreign radicals," and the seemingly insatiable appetite for energy in developed countries as well as the growing affluence of countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China (aka Goldman Sachs' BRICs). The increasingly conservative and fossil fuel-infatuated Canadian government lead by Stephen Harper has already put all its eggs in the oils sands' basket as a primary overseas export engine of GDP growth. Harper & Co. are not waiting for DC to get its Keystone house in order with their Saint John, New Brunswick Energy East pipeline proposal which we have documented here and here. But make no mistake. Decisions made in the coming months and years in DC will dramatically influence the rate of oil sand expansion in Alberta. And with the winds pointing in the direction of Keystone approval, it is imperative that we understand how much oil sands LULC change has degraded ecosystem services and how it may change in the future under a variety of scenarios.
Current and Potential State of Ecosystem Service Loss in Alberta Oil Sands
The ecosystems that have been most effected by the recent oil sands expansion are coniferous forests and myriad shrublands to the tune of 370+ square kilometers followed by 39 square kilometers of deciduous forest and the shrinkage of freshwater area by 83 square kilometers. Additionally, recent oil sand expansion has displaced 16 square kilometers of grassland and mixed forest coverage. Mined area constituted 16.4 percent of the area under consideration historically vs. 61.1 percent of the land area under the most recent expansion. The point here is that the more recent expansion has left very little native vegetation, while prior efforts were more diffuse and smaller with more extensive tracts of native ecosystems left intact. Putting a finer point on this, we see that exposed area broadly defined constitutes 61.4 percent of oil sands' recent expansion and 24.2 percent of the older efforts. Tailing ponds constituted 7.9 percent of the old oil sands footprint and <00.05 percent of the most recent expansion.
The total area exploited to date for oil sands is somewhere between 750 and 779 square kilometers with roughly 38 percent of the original 35,846 acres of freshwater remaining. Additionally, there is only 26 percent of the native vegetation left within what we will call the “actual footprint" (i.e. the northern, southern, eastern and westernmost points of activity), which extends to 2.46 times the aforementioned 750-778 square kilometers range at approximately 4,786 square kilometers. Native vegetation is spread across 1,000+ polygons averaging 48.4 acres and totaling 199 square kilometers.
Put another way, the total potential Athabasca footprint spread across 53 unique polygons totals 71,878 square kilometers—meaning the percent that has been physically exploited to date accounts for 1.1 percent of the available area and the “actual footprint" comes in at around 6.7 percent of the potential. Translation: the calculations we present here for ecosystem loss are just the tip of the iceberg if Canadian and Chinese officials, as well as, our congress get their way with respect to the Keystone XL expansion.
In order to get to the following estimates, we assumed the average Alberta native sub-arctic ecosystem produces 8,510-13,680 kilograms per hectare (kgs per ha) (3.8-6.1 tons per acre) of aboveground biomass, 4,810-7,020 kgs per ha (2.2-3.1 tons per acre) of soil carbon, and 1,870-2,800 kgs per ha (0.8-1.2 tons per acre) of root biomass each year and each hectare was home to 251,810-261,250 kgs (112-116 tons per acre) of soil carbon (Kurz et al., 2013).
Current and Past Oil Sands Exploitation
Below we present ecosystem loss in terms of tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), Per Capita Equivalents and in terms of U.S. dollars, assuming $5 and $75 per ton of CO2:
- Old and Recent Expansion
- 45.07 million tons (MT) of CO2 (8.9 Teragrams (Tg) CO2)
- 2.5 million per capita emissions equivalents (MPCEE), which is nearly the population of Chicago or Toronto
- A price of $204.18 million to $3.38 billion
- Assuming the average northern Alberta ecosystem burns every 20-21 years clearing all aboveground biomass, the above translates into:
- 918.79 MT of CO2 (181.7 Teragrams (Tg) CO2 or 13.3 percent of annual U.S. emissions from burning fossil fuels)
- 51.2 MPCEE
- $4.16-68.91 billion (The same multiplier could potentially be applied to the calculations below)
- Assuming the average northern Alberta ecosystem burns every 20-21 years clearing all aboveground biomass, the above translates into:
- Actual Footprint
- 357.8 MT of CO2
- 19.9 MPCEE, which is equal to the combined population of Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles
- A price of $1.62 to $28.84 billion
Ten year Alberta oil sands scenario across three rates of productivity increases:
- Total Athabasca and Piece River Exploited:
- 6.93 billion tons (BT) of CO2 (1,369.4 Teragrams (Tg) CO2 or 100 percent of annual U.S. emissions from burning fossil fuels)
- 385.8 MPCEE or the combined population of the U.S., Canada and Saudi Arabia
- A price of $31.37 to $519.34 billion, which is equal to the GDP of North Dakota and Norway, respectively
- Production increases at a rate of 5.8 percent (i.e. 2nd quartile rate of change):
- 71.37 MT of CO2
- 4.0 MPCEE or the entire population of Los Angeles
- A price of $323.29 million to $5.35 billion
- Production increases at a rate of 23.9 percent (i.e. 3rd quartile rate of change):
- 159.93 MT of CO2
- 8.5 MPCEE (i.e. Mexico City)
- A price of $692.79 million to $11.47 billion.
- Production increases at a rate of 76.9 percent (i.e. 4th quartile rate of change):
- 391.76 MT of CO2
- 21.8 MPCEE
- A price of $1.77 to $29.38 billion with the latter ironically being equal to the GDP of North Dakota.
Future Steps and Potential Ramifications
The Total Athabasca and Piece River exploitation scenario outlined above amounts to 4.3 percent of global CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. And if we assume the aforementioned 20-21 year fire interval, this would amount to 87.8 percent of global annual emissions—an extremely disturbing number given that we have already surpassed 350.org and Jim Hansen's proposed atmospheric concentration tipping points at a rate of 1.02 percent per year with exploitation of the Alberta oil sands likely to amplify this rate of change in parallel with the above results.
Finally, this is not just a story about CO2, but also two other primary GHGs: CH4 and N2O. If we assume a reasonably constant ratio of CO2 to these GHGs —which is admittedly a gross oversimplification given the large amounts of CH4 and N2O currently being emitted from melting permafrost soils—these rates of CO2 emissions will be accompanied by 481.8 TG worth of annual CH4 and N2O emissions or a fire interval value of 9,821.6 Tg which would add an additional 7.2 years worth of U.S. fossil fuels emissions equivalents to the atmosphere.
So before we decide to give carte blanche to the big players in the Athabasca and the folks at TransCanada, it will be important to discuss frankly and empirically what an atmosphere enriched with the above would mean for our way of life in the long-term rather than simply focusing on short-term royalty and ephemeral job multiplier numbers presented by industry and the politicians they have long been supporting financially.
The way U.S. and Canadian politicians and industry have been promoting the Keystone XL and Athabasca Oil Sands is equivalent to you or I assuming that we are balancing our checkbook if we keep scrupulous records of deposits, but only occasionally if ever, address withdrawals. That is no way to balance our personal finances or this planet's environmental finances (in my humble opinion). The long-term externality costs associated with the Keystone XL expansion are largely environmental in nature and will be socialized, while the short-term financial windfall profits will be privatized. It is going to be important to incorporate the costs described above into our planetary checkbook analogy.
 Keep in mind the vegetation in this region is cleared by fire every 20-21 years meaning this 1,369.4 Tg is actually more like 27,914.1 Tg if we assume a constant rate of biomass accrual. The latter figure is nearly equal to 20.5 years of U.S. CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Ted Auch
The New York Times' Diane Cardwell and Clifford Krauss recently published a piece on the interaction between the Greater Sage Grouse (GSG, Centrocercus urophasianus) and fracking in Big Sky country. We thought it might be helpful to dig a little deeper into the issue given the sensitivity of this species' as well as the Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) to habitat disturbance and the inevitable conflict between “energy independence" and the Endangered Species Act—the purpose of which “is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend."
Gunnison Sage Grouse
We looked at the GSG's range relative to hydrocarbon wells in Colorado and Wyoming keeping in mind the bird's range encompasses 11 states and “more than 165 million resource-rich acres." This analysis encompasses much of the bird's range accounting for 52 percent (134,149 square miles) of the aforementioned acreage (Figures 1 and 2) and 37 and 373 GSG habitat parcels in Wyoming and Colorado, respectively.
The largest shaded areas on the map are the bird's “Current Distribution" (67,879 square miles) in Wyoming and “Historic Habitat" in Colorado (24,505 square miles). GSG's range in Colorado is far more spread out than in Wyoming with discrete north- and southwest concentrations. Important Birding Areas (IBAs) as defined by the Audubon Society often overlap with oil and gas extraction sites as well as endangered species habitat. Thanks to the Audubon Society's Connie Sanchez and Tom Auer we were able to determine how many hydrocarbon production wells exist within these states' IBA parcels. Wyoming is home to 39 IBAs, while Colorado contains 53 of these designated parcels. The average Wyoming IBA is 257 square miles, however, while Colorado's average 59 mi2. In total these two states are home to 13,154 mi2worth of IBAs. These figures account for 3.7 percent of U.S. IBAs and 2.2 percent of IBA acreage.
1. Wyoming: 51 unconventional hydrocarbon wells in IBAs, 2,238 in primary GSG habitat, and for some perspective 1,983 of the latter are in what EIA has designated primary shale plays. At the present time 97 percent of Wyoming's production wells lie within some segment of the GSG's habitat.
2. Colorado: 163 unconventional hydrocarbon wells in IBAs
- Southwest: 7,838 wells in primary GSG habitat
- Northwest: 16,609 wells in primary GSG habitat
- EIA Shale Plays: 24,178 wells
- 53 percent of Colorado's production wells lie within some segment of the state's GSG habitat.
In Colorado, the GSG's historical habitat has already been overrun by hydrocarbon wells with 20,809 across the bird's north- and southwest range. The bird's production/brooding area in the northwest contains 1,142 wells while its winter range contains 662 wells.
Figure 2. Wyoming hydrocarbon production laterals and Greater Sage Grouse Habitat.
Table 2. Colorado hydrocarbon production wells in various sectors of the Greater Sage Grouse's range.
Another way to look at the interaction between hydrocarbon production and GSG in the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest is to investigate the density of wells in the bird's historic range. That is precisely what we did for the 16 states where GSG once roamed. The bird's historic range is 2.21 times the size of its current range, while the acreage we analyzed is slightly more than the often-reported “165 million resource-rich acres" (Cardwell and Krauss, 2014). On average each of the 16 states was home to 35,580 square miles of GSG habitat and are now home to a mere 28 percent of that figure.
While GSG habitat in these states has decreased, hydrocarbon production has skyrocketed. There are currently 153,358 hydrocarbon wells across the 16 states and an average of 12,780 wells per state—excluding the four states devoid of wells in GSG habitat. These wells and associated infrastructure occupy approximately 39,649 square miles which is a disturbing 7 percent of the species' historic range and nearly 15 percent of its current range. From an historic GSG range perspective, Kansas has the highest density of wells with 3.5 per square mile of habitat. Unsurprisingly North Dakota, has the highest density of wells in the bird's current range, with 6.1 wells per square mile of habitat. Colorado was second in both departments with 1.1 and 2.9 wells per square mile of historic and current GSG habitat, respectively.
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken (LPC)—along with GSG—is hardly what anyone would call charismatic mega-fauna but it's habitat is coming under pressure in the name of drill baby drill “energy independence" across many of the same Great Plains states. The Prairie-Chicken's range once spread across 97,977 square miles in five states with 43 percent of that acreage in Kansas alone. The bird's range has declined by 68 percent and as much as 78-79 percent in Colorado and New Mexico. In terms of US hydrocarbon production the Prairie-Chicken's historic range is home to 58,152 wells, while its current extent contains 22,049 wells.
On average the four states we investigated sans Texas contain 14,538 and 5,512 wells in this bird's historic and current range, respectively, with the largest values for both not surprisingly in the state that contains most of the bird's primary grassland habitat Kansas's southwest corner. Across these states the density of wells in Prairie-Chicken habitat is 0.603-0.682 hydrocarbon wells per square mile with as many as 1.06-1.25 wells per square mile of Prairie-Chicken habitat in New Mexico. These wells and related infrastructure have an approximate footprint of 22,378 square miles, which is 23 percent the LPC's historic range and 72 percent of its current range.
The five states that contain LPC habitat are also home to 2,978 square miles worth of IBAs across ten parcels averaging 596 square miles, with Kansas home to the most IBA acreage (1,793,845 acres) and New Mexico the most parcels (4 parcels). These values equate to 0.40 percent of US IBAs and 0.99 percent of IBA acreage.
What this analysis means for the GSG and LPC is hard to discern. It stands to reason, however, that their already sensitive mating behavior and plummeting/disconnected populations have not seen the last of energy independence's encroachment. In contrast to the well-noted battle in the Pacific Northwest between environmentalists, loggers, developers and cattle grazers over the much smaller range of the Spotted Owl—and the US Fish and Wildlife Service's “"God Committee"—the GSG's range includes much of the U.S.'s primary wind and mineral resource acreage. GSG's habitat requirements overlap with US shale resources in a significant way with 29 percent of its range in shale basins and 11 percent in currently active shale plays. For a more detailed legal perspective on this issue the reader is referred to our friends at the Center for Biological Diversity and their long-term commitment to protecting and increasing suitable GSG habitat.
Meanwhile the historic and current range of the LPC is like the Spotted Owl in that it is quite small amounting to 97,978 and 31,237 square miles, respectively, which is approximately 11-17 percent of the GSG's range. Similar to GSG we found that 31 percent of LPC's historic range lies within shale basins while only percentage of its habitat is within currently active shale gas plays.
Table 3. Historic and Current Range of Greater Sage Grouse along with the number of producing hydrocarbon wells in that range by state.
Table 4. Historic and Current Range of Lesser Prairie-Chicken along with the number of producing hydrocarbon wells in that range by state (Note: Texas well location data is not available at the present time).
Table 5. Square mileage and number of Important Birding Areas (IBAs) in the Lesser Prairie-Chicken's historic range.
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