Using GIS in Ecological Management: Green Assessment of the Impacts of Petroleum Activities in the State of Texas

Edmund Merem, Bennetta Robinson, Joan Wesley, Sudha Yerramilli (Department of Urban & Regional Planning, Jackson State University) and Yaw Twumasi (Department of Advanced Technologies, School of Agriculture & Applied Sciences, Alcorn State University) have published a paper titled „Using GIS in Ecological Management: Green Assessment of the Impacts of Petroleum Activities in the State of Texas.“

Geo-information technologies are valuable tools for ecological assessment in stressed environments. Visualizing natural features prone to disasters from the oil sector spatially not only helps in focusing the scope of environmental management with records of changes in affected areas, but it also furnishes information on the pace at which resource extraction affects nature. Notwithstanding the recourse to ecosystem protection, geo-spatial analysis of the impacts remains sketchy. This paper uses GIS and descriptive statistics to assess the ecological impacts of petroleum extraction activities in Texas. While the focus ranges from issues to mitigation strategies, the results point to growth in indicators of ecosystem decline.

The introduction to this paper reads:

Every facet of energy exploration, recovery, storage processing, and distribution carries some risks associated with environmental impacts. But sometimes these risks are often difficult to assess and costly to anticipate. By developing credible scientific and technological information to characterize those risks, and sharing that data with government regulators and industry operators geo-spatial information technologies such as GIS can minimize and address the problems. In the past years, widespread environmental concerns emanating from oil and gas operations prompted the formulation of new regulations across the United States. While these sets of laws laid the structure for much of the environmental mitigation measures adopted by industry, compliance costs have been rising, thereby making things more complicated. In the fiscal year 1996, the petroleum industry, together with refining, spent heavily on nature protection—nearly the same as it paid in the exploration of fresh supplies—with a price tag of $8.2 billion dollars. Some of these issues could have been anticipated in advance and periodically tracked to aid decision making had geospatial technologies been integrated in the policy framework.

In the study area of Texas, where 700,000 to 1 million oil and gas wells were drilled, abandonment and well leakages have emerged as a common occurrence. In 1992, when the state had about 88,000 abandoned oil wells, each of these wells was plugged at a cost of $25,000. Out of these numbers, close to 24,449 abandoned wells contravened the plugging rules set by Texas Railroad Commission. The other leading areas of concern remain problems of oil spills, and atmospheric and water contamination. Minute spills occur with some regularity; however, the large one is time and again the concern. Of major concern are the potential impacts on tourism, air and water. At the same time, soil pollution, mainly from oil refineries and petrochemical operations, also creates additional problem. Accordingly, the issue of pollution is now starting to attract serious attention in North Texas and it may be on the rise. Given the gravity of the impacts, most scholars in the area say it is worth studying to determine the scope of the problem. The level of ground level ozone from hydrocarbons is also on the rise. A study of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2006 indicated that storage tanks solely accounted for about 38 tons of volatile organic compounds which are equivalent to 7 to 8 percent of the volatile compounds in North Texas airshed. Those chemicals constitute the key elements in ground level ozone, the region’s major pollution problem.

Accordingly, geospatial technologies are valuable tools for ecological assessment in stressed environments. Visualization of spatial relationships in these instances between natural features and landscapes prone to ecological disaster associated with oil and gas not only helps in focusing the scope of environmental management analysis with records of changes in affected area, but also it can furnish information on the pace at which resource extraction activities affect the natural environment. With ecosystem protection around oil and gas operations now, key aspects of management in the sector, very little effort has been made by managers to capture the impacts of petroleum activities and trends spatially in Texas. For more information on related studies in other areas see Merem and Twumasi in 2006.

With management practices focused solely on production at the expense of conservation and environmental quality, there continues to be widespread concerns on rising costs, scarcity and ecosystem erosion. Accordingly, efficient management in the context of hydrocarbon exploration in the state requires commitment towards monitoring of degraded areas using geospatial information systems. Over the past years, GIS and GPS have been used in detecting and mapping the distribution of environmental dis-benefits such as harmful plant varieties. GIS has long been used by researchers as a tool to manage, store, analyze, and display spatial data. They provide opportunities for assessing location and the likelihood of damages within an area and the surrounding ecosystem. Assessing the fate of the ecosystem in this setting is a vital contribution to management efforts and the promotion of environmental health strategies needed in oil producing communities of the study area.

Previous studies in sub-Saharan Africa show that GIS and remote sensing offer governments and enterprises a solution for monitoring the carrying capacity of fragile ecosystems impacted by oil and gas activities in areas such as the Niger River Delta. In that work, GIS technology as the authors show fulfills a useful purpose in mapping and inventorying of emission and other related ecological data.

Geospatial technology also helped quicken the spatial display of the factors, patterns, and environmental effects of oil and gas activities and their implications for global climate change in a region. Integrated data analysis using remotely sensed satellite imagery and GIS modeling facilitated the analysis of the spatial diffusion of CO2 emission and the potential environmental change involving forest cover and hydrological changes occurring in the Niger Delta environment across time. These studies show the capacity of GIS to provide valuable information about natural resources, environmental change and basis for sustainable planning.

This paper uses GIS methodology to analyze pressures mounted on the environment in the oil sector of selected counties in the state of Texas for efficient management of the environment. Emphasis is on the issues, factors, management efforts, and future strategies for mitigation. The aims of the paper center on the need to make a contribution to the literature and to design a decision support tool to assist natural resource managers. Other objectives focus on the design of novel geo-spatial methods for analyzing degradation in the oil producing areas of Texas, the need to analyze environmental health issues of pollution with the latest advances in geospatial technologies, and the state of ecosystem health with respect to Texas. The paper is divided into five sections. The first section provides the introduction of the research beginning with a profile of the study area, the issues and benefits; while, the second portion describes the materials and methods. Section three presents the results of data analysis on various themes from temporal profile to geospatial analysis of the impacts of oil and gas activities. In section four, the paper discusses several findings from the research and offers recommendations to address the problems. The fifth and final section highlights the conclusions of the research.

The study area consists of the oil producing districts of Texas. The state is located very close to the Gulf of Mexico. With a population of nearly 23 million inhabitants during the last five years, the number of people in the state rose to 24.3 million in 2008. Petroleum infrastructure remains fairly widespread in the area, with a huge network of pipelines and storage facilities. Now, an extensive system of interstate natural gas pipelines run from Texas, serving consumer depots from seaboard to seaboard. The state’s huge natural gas demand serves the industrial and electric power sectors, which jointly account for over four-fifths of State consumption. Of all the states, Texas has the largest crude oil production and proved reserves in the nation with about 4,944 million barrels.

Among the major problems, as shown in Table 1, are the ecological issues facing the oil sector from drilling waste management and risk management planning. While the Table highlights the common problems of the industry, it unveils the growing scale at which oil and gas activities contribute to pollution with insidious threats to the ecosystem. Notable environmental problems consist of large volumes of waste materials made up paper, plastics, wood, glass, and metal, generated by offshore oil and gas operations as well as water contamination. Within the Gulf of Mexico, of the total marine debris tabulated for the three neighboring states of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, roughly 66 percent occur in Louisiana and Texas as compared to 34 in Mississippi. On the distribution of hazardous waste generation by industry in Texas, in the 2001 fiscal year, note that chemicals and allied products accounted for 62.6%, the other 27.7% came from petroleum refining. This is much larger when compared with the combined total for the other sectors of the economy at that time.

Table 1. Common Environmental Problems of the Oil Industry.

Industry Issues Drilling waste management
Low impact operations in sensitive environments Spill prevention
Public lands/ leasing Air emissions, Toxic releases Remediation
Production waste management Risk management planning Produced water management Underground injection

Note: DOE 1997.

According to the Railroad Commission of Texas, as of August 2008, there were about 14,415 wells classified as non complaint inactive wells that were in violation of the commissions’ plugging rule. Of the 14,415 non complaint wells, 5,092 wells belonged to the operators with an active organizational report on file and with the commission and 9,323 wells belonged to operators with delinquent organizational reports [24]. While the commission defines these 9,323 facilities as orphan wells, the current regulatory frameworks in the state require operators to plug them at their expense upon the cessation of production. Knowing the sanctions awaiting violators of the plugging rules for non compliance, during 2003 to 2008 the state witnessed the plugging of 8,400 non compliance oil and gas wells (Table 2). With the current level of ecological threats from the petroleum sector on the rise, using GIS technology provides opportunities to assess the impacts of these activities and the spatial dispersions in the face of mounting environmental liabilities in various oil and gas districts of the state.

Table 2. Number of Non Compliance Wells Plugged.

Years Numbers
2003 1,527
2004 1,726
2005 1,756
2006 1,877
2007 1,514
2008 1,143
Total 8,400

Note: RRCT 2008 [24].

Read the full paper here in PDF format.

Citation: Merem E.,Robinson B., Wesley J.M.,Yerramilli S.,Twumasi Y.A. Using GIS in Ecological Management: Green Assessment of the Impacts of Petroleum Activities in the State of Texas. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2010; 7(5):2101-2130.


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