This project is focused on increasing our understanding of the impacts of energy exploration and development, drought, and importantly, identifying opportunities to mitigate these impacts. During the first five years (2016 - 2021), we will focus on traditional oil and gas sites found on the Colorado Plateau, addressing the impacts represented in Figure 1.
Energy exploration and development can have a range of impacts on ecosystems. Exploration activities often entail extensive vehicle travel off designated routes, which disrupts soils, increases dust production, and negatively affects plant communities. Development of oil or gas extraction sites (for example, the building of well pads) typically includes earthwork with heavy equipment, scraping of topsoil, and removal of vegetation. Therefore, drill pads and their associated access roads are susceptible to erosion by wind and water, can disrupt wildlife habitat, and reduce forage availability for domestic livestock. The cumulative impacts of these disruptions can be substantial, particularly if they occur in wildlife migration corridors. Energy development occurs on lands with multiple existing uses, including recreation. Public land managers need information to plan and identify management prescriptions in response to changing recreational uses during development phases.
Finding ways to reclaim and restore disrupted ecosystems is an important aspect of this project. Healthy functioning of desert landscapes depends on a persistent matrix of resilient perennial species on stable soils. Site reclamation involves immediate action to reduce soil losses due to wind and water erosion and minimize weeds. Ecological restoration involves repairing the natural ecological processes that provide key services that can promote ecosystem stability and resilience in the face of climate variability. Activities that disrupt the perennial plant matrix and de-stabilize soils are difficult to reverse. While recovery of faster growing grass and forb species is more common, recruitment of shrubs is rare. Nevertheless, shrubs are a critical part of Colorado Plateau plant communities. Thus, intervention is required early to reestablish ecosystem functions from a range of important plant types. Our approach to rehabilitation is conceptualized in Figure 2.
We will use data and understanding from the above activity to estimate current and forecast future cumulative impacts of energy exploration and development disturbance on the ecological and human systems of the Colorado Plateau. This will enable us to provide a better understanding on how to minimize the loss of ecosystem services and any conflict that might arise over competing land uses.