Fracking costs ecosystem services

Matthew D. Moran and Maureen R. McClung are professors of biology at Hendrix College, where they collaborate with undergraduate students to study questions about how humans impact landscapes and the implications for ecosystems. They share this Frontiers Focus on estimating the ecosystem services costs of fracking in the United States, from the June 2017 issue of ESA Frontiers.

Since the early 2000s, new technologies in oil and gas exploration popularly known as “fracking” have allowed expansion of drilling throughout many regions of the U.S. We estimated the ecological costs of fracking in the United States and found that, by 2015, the annual cost had reached over $272 million per year. We calculated this value by estimating the impact of land-use changes on what are called “ecosystem services.”

Ecosystem services are functions that the natural world provides, which when lost, have a defined economic cost to humanity. For instance, a natural forest helps filter and purify water that is then used for human consumption. When a forest is removed, this service is lost and society must spend money to make water safe for people. Another ecosystem service is the value humans place on natural landscapes for recreation. Millions of people visit the Grand Canyon each year, spending money that supports a vibrant tourism economy. If damage to the Grand Canyon caused people to no longer spend recreational time there, that economic activity would be lost.

Fracking hotspots

Fracking hot spots: Rapid growth in unconventional oil and gas production in the US has concentrated in eight regions, known as “plays” by the industry. Moran and colleagues tracked changes in land use from 2004 to 2015 through satellite imagery, to estimate the ecosystem services costs of land-use conversion. The map displays major plays (focal plays), development off of those major plays (other plays) and areas where oil is held in the ground (basins). Credit: ESA, from WebFigure 1 of Moran et al 2017.

Increasing fracking activity over the past two decades has caused controversy and concerns regarding water and air pollution, earthquake risks, human health impacts, property value effects, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Fracking also changes the way land is used by humans. Oil and gas drilling develops natural landscapes and converts them to infrastructure like well pads, roads, and pipelines.

We measured the amount of land impacted in the most important fracking regions and found that nearly 500,000 acres have been developed or modified since 2004. These changes have caused a cumulative ecosystem services cost of $1.4 billion. The annual costs are rising as drilling continues. We suggest that taxing companies that engage in fracking, and using that money to rehabilitate landscapes, could have significant positive environmental impacts.


Matthew D Moran, Nathan T Taylor, Tabitha F Mullins, Sehrish S Sardar, and Maureen R McClung (2017) Land-use and ecosystem services costs of unconventional US oil and gas development. Front Ecol Environ DOI: 10.1002/fee.1492

Before and after

Before and after: Satellite imagery shows a forest a) before and b) after fracking development. The developed landscape has been impacted by roads, pipelines, and drilling sites. Credit ESA from figure 2 of paper.

Author: Frontiers Focus

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