Fracking in South Texas: Spatial Landscape Impacts

by Emil Morhardt

In a Master’s thesis from the University of Texas at Austin, Jon Paul Pierre presents an interesting analysis of the effects of development (which includes a good deal of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing) in the Eagle Ford Shale play in South Texas, where more than 5,000 wells have been drilled since 2008. What he sets out to do is assess the spatial fragmentation of the landscape from the construction of drilling pads, roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure. He used 2012 aerial photography with a 1-m resolution obtained from the National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP), and over laid on that the locations of well pads, pipelines, and other infrastructure, then used Geographical Information System (GIS) tools to characterize the types of areas being disturbed.

For the 628 wells in La Salle County (s portion of the overall study area) for which there was evidence of associated infrastructure on the aerial imagery, pipeline disturbance occupied 97 square kilometers, and drilling pads, 17 square kilometers. These activities heavily disturbed 3% of the county area, but 8.7% of the core areas, with a reduction in overall vegetated area from 91% to 89%, and of forest area from 76% to 68%. Probably of more concern than the absolute loss was the ecological spatial fragmentation caused mainly by the pipelines, potential soil loss from wind erosion of the disturbed areas, and interference with normal drainage patterns.

There aren’t any particularly novel conclusions from this research, but it is a good example of how to analyze the physical effect of large-scale well development (or any kind of spread-out industrial development) on the landscape.) Nevertheless, as you can see from the image above (from the Texas Observer) of an oil field south of Odessa Texas, that the landscape is pretty thoroughly disrupted by oil and gas development, maybe even more so than this thesis implies.

Pierre, J.P., 2014. Impacts from above-ground activities in the Eagle Ford Shale play on landscapes and hydrologic flows, La Salle County, Texas. University of Texas at Austin, Master of Science Thesis, August 2014. http://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/handle/2152/26912/PIERRE-THESIS-2014.pdf?sequence=1

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