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Leave it in the ground! How fossil fuel extraction affects biodiversity

Greenhouse gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels have resulted in well-publicised changes to the Earth’s climate. But the impacts of fossil fuels start long before their carbon dioxide reaches…

Yasuni National Park in Ecuador is one of the world’s most biodiverse regions. It’s home to country’s largest oil field. Flickr/joshbousel

Greenhouse gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels have resulted in well-publicised changes to the Earth’s climate. But the impacts of fossil fuels start long before their carbon dioxide reaches the atmosphere. Our new research, published today in Science, looks at the effects of coal, oil and gas extraction on biodiversity.

The problem

Biodiversity loss is accelerating, and the risks to biodiversity are increasing. We are in the midst of a global biodiversity crisis.

The biggest threats to biodiversity are human activities. These act across a range of scales. Even local biodiversity loss can have knock-on large scale impacts on ecosystem function and productivity.

Fossil fuel consumption and demand show no signs of levelling off, let alone decreasing. Of course more consumption means more refineries, power stations and infrastructure, in addition to the extraction itself.

Given the increasing demand and consumption, it is reasonable to assume that most if not all remaining fossil fuel reserves will be exploited, using conventional and new methods such as fracking.

Mining and drilling have often been seen as having limited environmental impacts. It’s often assumed that restoring ecosystems after fossil fuel extraction can ultimately return the ecosystem to a state close to what it was before.

And the effects of extraction activity have generally been considered trivial compared with other human activities, such as large-scale agricultural land clearing. But this is not the case: fossil-fuel extraction causes disturbance and degradation to ecosystems.

The impacts of fossil fuel extraction fall into three main categories: the direct impact of extraction activity, indirect impacts of infrastructure development and expanded human activity, and the consequences of extraction disasters. Road building is in fact the main catalyst for irreversible ecosystem change.

The various ways fossil fuel extraction impacts on biodiversity. Nathalie Butt

Critical areas

In our research we compared areas of biodiversity and reserves of fossil fuel. We identified two key regions where fossil fuel reserves coincide with high levels of biodiversity and threatened species: the western Pacific Ocean and northern South America.

The Western Amazon, in northern South America, includes parts of Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and western Brazil. It’s one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet and also contains large reserves of oil and gas.

The forest also provides vital ecosystem services - water, climate regulation and carbon storage, which all have implications for biodiversity conservation globally.

Large oil and gas projects already developed in the area have caused major environmental and social impacts, including deforestation for construction of roads, drilling platforms and pipelines, contamination from oil spills and waste-water discharge. Each kilometre of road constructed means 4-24 km2 of deforestation for colonisation and related agricultural development.

We also looked at Western Papua New Guinea in the western Pacific, where oil extraction and transport pose an increasing risk to mangrove and coral ecosystems.

These mangrove forests support the highest diversity of mangroves globally, and are home to many rare and endemic plant and animal species. The abundant and diverse coral reefs in the region are some of the most pristine and least exploited in the world.

Oil spills would cause profound damage. Projections based on historic spill rates and estimated oil resources in the region suggest that the area could expect approximately four spills larger than 10,000 barrels in a 15-year period. As Gulf of Papua currents circulate to the Great Barrier Reef along Cape York in Australia, the potential biodiversity loss in the event of a catastrophic spill would extend far beyond the local waters.

Mapping of fossil fuels shows the risks to biodiversity. Nathalie Butt

What can we do?

We’ve identified a new substantial risk to key biodiversity areas globally, but are there any solutions?

Many countries in the high risk areas have weak governance and poor implementation and enforcement of environmental regulations, and may lack the ability to respond effectively to environmental disasters.

They may also be too remote or undeveloped to attract much media coverage - and so environmental damage may remain undetected and unaddressed.

International environmental organisations could fulfil an essential role by ensuring that fossil fuel extraction takes place according to best practises and ideally avoids areas of high biodiversity. It is crucial that trade-offs between biodiversity conservation and development are properly assessed to ensure threatened or endemic species are not lost.

International pressure can also help to ensure that any environmental damage that does occur is mitigated and the companies involved are appropriately penalised, as in the case of BP and the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

One possible mechanism to preserve biodiversity in fossil fuel-rich areas was recently attempted at Yasuní National Park in Ecuador. This highly biodiverse also area has the country’s largest oil reserves.

In 2007 the Ecuadorean government proposed that in return for not extracting the oil from the park, and keeping the forest biodiversity, they would be compensated. The funds were to be raised through the international Green Climate Fund (UNFCCC), to the value of $3.6 billion, about half the value of the oil.

Ten per cent of the money was raised, from countries, regions, corporations, foundations and individuals, to be invested in renewable energy projects. But unfortunately due to lack of global commitment and organisational support the project failed. Oil extraction will now go ahead. If the international support was strong, and organisation effective, schemes such as this could be a way of protecting biodiversity in fossil fuel rich areas.

Of course, the bottom line is that we need to decrease our fossil fuel demand, extraction and consumption; the rest is pretty much just rearranging the deck chairs.

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