Collaborating with industry to protect biodiversity

05 August 2011

Natural gas well sunset wide
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We saw the worst-case scenario of the dangers of oil and gas extraction in 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and caused the biggest oil spill in US history. The event was also a public relations disaster for BP, and highlighted the need for corporations to have a firm understanding about the ecology of the area they work in. Researchers from the Oxford Martin School are working alongside industry to help them make more informed decisions about what land is suitable for development, and what regions should be avoided due to their high ecological value. These collaborations have a dual aim of conserving important ecosystems while improving cost efficiency for business.

The effects of drilling and extraction of gas and oil are well known: contamination of soil and groundwater, losses in species richness and diversity, and the risk of catastrophic spills. But even from the earliest stages of exploration there are indirect impacts, such as the creation of new access routes through previously remote areas of forest –roads that can also be used by the logging industry or bushmeat hunters. There is a great need for businesses to have more specific information about an area’s ecological value before undertaking field-based exploration.

Members of the Oxford Centre for Tropical Forests recently released results of a project that assessed the overlap between extractive development sites in sub-Saharan Africa and locations that have been designated World Heritage sites by UNESCO. It was the first time this activity in and around protected areas has been quantified, and this research would not have been possible without cross-sector collaboration with IHS, a global energy consultancy, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP-WCMC).

Using a geographic information system overlay analysis, the team found that oil and gas activity in sub-Saharan World Heritage sites has been limited so far: 27% of sites have developments or areas designated for exploration within their boundaries, but there are currently no active wells on these lands. While these results are encouraging, the authors stress that there is high potential for future pressure on the landscape as industry continues to expand in the region. The report, published in Biodiversity and Conservation, can be used to inform the inclusion of new sites into the World Heritage network.

It’s easy to agree that World Heritage sites are valuable lands, but what about regions that don’t have formal recognition? What areas outside of protected land are essential for the ecological processes they support? Members of the Biodiversity Institute are working with Statoil to develop LEFT, the Local Ecological Footprinting Tool, which maps ecologically important regions outside of government reserves. Using existing web-based databases and models, the tool provides a score based on five key ecological features (biodiversity, fragmentation, threat, connectivity and resilience) for every 300m parcel within a specified region. All that is required for input are the coordinates of the land under consideration, and within 10 minutes LEFT provides a map indicating locations of higher ecological risk within a given landscape in any region of the world. Practitioners involved in planning the location of an industrial facility can use this tool before undertaking more costly field-based environmental assessments.

These projects have potential to influence how conservationists and the extractive industry can work together to identify areas of conservation importance that may be affected by oil and gas exploration, and to use this information to reduce these impacts. For more detail on the researchers or the results of their studies, please see below:

Megan was formerly the Projects Officer at the Oxford Martin School

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.