Land Use Impacts of Fossil Fuels

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Bioenergy > Issues > Greenhouse gas emissions/Land use > Land Use Impacts of Fossil Fuels

Note: This page was originally researched and written by Gwendolyn Brown, International Climate & Energy Intern, National Wildlife Federation.

Note: See also the ILUC Portal.



The issue of direct and indirect changes in land use accompanying the increased production of biofuels -- and the resulting increases in overall greenhouse gas emissions -- has emerged as a key issue in debates concerning biofuels. (For more information, see the BioenergyWiki ILUC Portal page). Nevertheless, there has not been a corresponding level of scrutiny of the land use and land-use change impacts of fossil fuels –- despite the fact that such impacts would also affect the overall lifecycle GHG emissions of such fuels. While less land may be affected as a result of the indirect impacts of fossil fuel extraction activities, especially in relation to total energy output produced, the land use impacts of fossil fuels is a legitimate issue for investigation and comparison.

The production of feedstock crops for biofuel production directly competes with other potential uses of fertile existing farmland. Increased demand for crops can then lead to agriculture expanding into new areas, and may be accompanied by the conversion of grasslands or forests to agricultural uses. Fossil fuel production, in contrast, is not directly linked to agricultural land, and often takes place in remote areas that are more likely to be arid, forested or otherwise not agricultural lands (or not even land at all, in the case of offshore oil drilling) nor likely to be converted to agriculture.

Other potential impacts related to fossil fuel development include the impacts of roads, which in many cases facilitate access to -- and settlement in -- previously undeveloped areas, such as of tropical forest, which may be home to vulnerable, indigenous cultures.

Nevertheless, there have been an increasing number of studies to address the land use impacts of fossil fuel development. The study “Biofuels and indirect land use change: The case for mitigation”, issued in October 2011 by the consulting firm Ernst and Young, addresses the problems that failure to track ILUC emissions of fossil fuels presents for climate-related impacts of fuel choices, stating

  • “The calculation of biofuels emissions based on both direct and indirect impacts introduces a methodological inconsistency into the FQD [the Fuel Quality Directive of the European Union]. Greenhouse gas intensity under the FQD of both fossil fuels and biofuels is based on direct emissions, so using a different approach for just biofuels would make meaningful comparisons extremely difficult.” (Ernst and Young 2011).

Landmark 2010 UC Davis Study

Land Use Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Conventional Oil Production and Oil Sands , a study published in 2010 in Environmental Science & Technology, provided one of the first estimates of land use change GHG emissions from petroleum production. “It turns out that while many researchers have looked at land use impacts of biofuels, few have looked at the land use impacts associated with oil,” according to Sonia Yeh of the Institute of Transportation Studies, of the University of California, Davis (UCD),one of the study’s authors.

This study examined conventional extraction methods of oil, such as drilling, in California and Alberta, and non-conventional extraction methods in Alberta, to determine the amount of land impacted by the different processes and the resulting GHG emissions from land use change. According to a UCD-provided summary, “Their findings conclude that emissions released from land disturbed by certain fossil fuels extraction methods can be comparable to or higher than emissions from land disturbed by farming crop-based biofuels—when measured as tons of carbon emitted per unit of land disturbed. However, when measured per unit of energy produced, the land impacts of even the most high-impact fossil fuels are a tiny fraction of those of biofuels.” [1] Specifically, the study found that “When contrasting land use GHG intensity of fossil fuel and biofuel production, it is the energy yield that greatly distinguishes the two. Although emissions released from land disturbed by fossil fuels can be comparable or higher than biofuels, the energy yield of oil production is typically 2-3 orders of magnitude higher, (0.33-2.6, 0.61-1.2, and 2.2-5.1 PJ/ha) for conventional oil production, oil sands surface mining, and in situ production, respectively).” (From the study’s abstract)

In examining the land use impacts of non-conventional oil sands [also known as tar sands or oil shale] processes in Alberta, Canada, the team found ILUC emissions for oil sands to be significantly greater than conventional oil extraction methods. The primary reason was that the surface mining process of oil sands extraction disturbs land that is particularly rich in carbon deposits, specifically peat lands, which they estimate comprises roughly 23% of the land utilized in Alberta for oil sands extraction. The UCD summary quoted Yeh as stating, “Peat lands accumulate carbon over thousands of years, and the average carbon per hectare stored in boreal peat land is six times that stored in non-peat forest.” Additionally, only a small percentage of the surface mining area in Alberta is reclaimed, prolonging the land impact. Finally, the summary stated that “the use of tailings ponds makes the land unavailable for reclamation and carbon sequestration” and the ponds themselves generate methane, a potent GHG.

Other Studies

Studies Concerning Oil Sands Extraction Methods

The 2009 paper “Quantifying land use of oil sands production: a life cycle perspective (PDF file)” by Sarah M. Jordaan, David W. Keith, Brad Stelfox, included land use in a life cycle assessment comparing two methods of extraction of Alberta’s oil sands: surface mining and ‘’in situ’’ extraction technologies. Though ‘’in situ’’ extraction uses less land per unit of production, the researchers found that its land use impacts are great because the disturbed areas are more dispersed,the study found,

  • “Using a life cycle perspective, we show that the land area influenced by ‘’in situ’’ technology is comparable to land disturbed by surface mining when fragmentation and upstream natural gas production are considered. The results suggest that land disturbance due to natural gas production can be relatively large per unit energy.” (PDF file)

Study of Alberta Case Study of Oil Sands Extraction

The report “Death by a Thousand Cuts: Impacts of In Situ Oil Sands Development on Alberta’s Boreal Forest (PDF file)” co-sponsored by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and Pembina Institute, examines a case study of the OPTI-Nexen Long Lake project of Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) ‘’in situ’’ oil sands recovery and found that,

  • “As of July 2005, the total area of land leased for in situ development in Alberta was 3.6 million ha. If all these leases, most of which have yet to be developed, are subjected to the same industrial footprint as the Long Lake project, then 296,000 ha of forest will be cleared for SAGD infrastructure and over 30,000km of access roads will be built. This is a conservative estimate and does not take into account transient disturbances such as seismic exploration, forest harvesting, or wildfire. Furthermore, new leases are continually being awarded by Alberta’s Department of Energy.” (PDF file).

The report also notes that deforestation by the oil industry is not accurately tracked, making it difficult to accurately calculate the full GHG emissions of oil development, stating

  • “Despite the fact that land clearing by the petroleum industry now approaches that of the forest industry, the rate and distribution of landscape disturbance associated with petroleum development is poorly tracked by both government and industry. The Alberta Government does not track or report on cumulative terrestrial footprints, and reporting of disturbances by individual oil and gas companies is limited or absent. Without readily available information about the current status of the landscape it is difficult to make meaningful assessments about the progress of individual companies in reducing impacts, or to determine whether ecological thresholds are being exceeded.” (PDF file).

Studies Concerning Conventional Oil Extraction

In the Amazon and Tropical Regions

While much of the literature on land use change impacts of fossil fuels examines oil sands extraction and its impacts in Canada, conventional oil extraction in other locations also contributes to land use change and deforestation. A study by Chris W. Baynard of the University of North Florida Department of Geology, examined land use change in Venezuela and found that

  • “… petroleum exploration, pushed by government policies to boost oil production in response to recent high prices (2001-2005), was the primary driver of observed land use change in connection with two large oil development projects in Venezuela’s heavy oil belt.” [2].

In the Arctic

In their 2001 study, "Potential impacts of proposed oil and gas development on the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain: Historical overview and issues of concern," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service addressed some of the physical impacts of oil exploration in Alaska's North Slope, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in particular:

  • "Although technological advances in oil and gas exploration and development have reduced some of the harmful environmental effects associated with those activities, oil and gas development remains an intrusive industrial process. The physical "footprint" of the existing North Slope oil facilities and roads covers about 10,000 acres, but the current industrial complex extends across an 800 square mile region, nearly 100 miles from east to west. It continues to grow as new oil fields are developed."

The study also goes on to speculate about the potential land use change impacts if oil exploration were to occur in the controversial "1002 Region" of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge:

  • "The 100-mile wide 1002 Area is located more than 30 miles from the end of the nearest pipeline and more than 50 miles from the nearest gravel road and oil support facilities. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, possible oil reserves may be located in many small accumulations in complex geological formations, rather than in one giant field as was discovered at Prudhoe Bay. Consequently, development in the 1002 Area could likely require a large number of small production sites spread across the Refuge landscape, connected by an infrastructure of roads, pipelines, power plants, processing facilities, loading docks, dormitories, airstrips, gravel pits, utility lines and landfills."
  • "A substantial amount of water is needed for oil drilling, development, and construction of ice roads. Water needed for oil development ranges from eight to 15 million gallons over a 5-month period, according to the Bureau of Land Management. If water is not available to build ice roads, gravel is generally used. Water resources are limited in the 1002 Area. In winter, only about nine million gallons of liquid water may be available in the entire 1002 Area, which is enough to freeze into and maintain only 10 miles of ice roads. Therefore, full development may likely require a network of permanent gravel pads and roads."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also identifies "cumulative biological consequences of oil field development that may be expected in the Arctic Refuge", including sevral which could have land use change impacts, such as:

  • "alteration of natural drainage patterns, causing changes in vegetation
  • deposition of alkaline dust on tundra along roads,altering vegetation over a much larger area than the actual width of the road
  • local pollutant haze and acid rain from nitrogen oxides, methane and particulate matter emissions"

The study also finds the following long-term effects of oil exploration on vegetation:

  • "Seismic exploration involves sending sound waves into the ground, recording how the sound reflects back, and interpreting the results to construct an image of subsurface geology to determine if oil may be present. A seismic exploration program on Alaska's North Slope is typically a large operation with many people and vehicles driving across the tundra in a grid pattern. Although such exploration is conducted only in winter, snow cover on the 1002 Area is often shallow and uneven, providing little protection for sensitive tundra vegetation and soils. The impact from seismic vehicles and lines depends on the type of vegetation, texture and ice content of the soil, the surface shape, snow depth, and type of vehicle."
  • "Two-dimensional (2-D) exploration was authorized by Congress in the 1002 Area in the winters of 1984 and 1985. Monitoring of more than 100 permanent plots along the 1,400 miles of seismic lines has documented that while many areas recovered, some trails had still not recovered by 1999. Some of the trails have become troughs visible from the air. Others show changes in the amount and types of tundra plants. In some areas, permafrost (permanently frozen soil) melted and the trails are wetter than they were previously." [3]

Several pictures from the report document the long-term nature of oil exploration impacts [4]:

Other Potential Land Use Impacts

The Tribal Energy and Environmental Information Clearinghouse (TEEIC) notes that, among the development impacts of oil and gas drilling,

  • “Indirect impacts to vegetation would include increased deposition of dust, spread of invasive and noxious weeds, and the increased potential for wildfires. Dust settling on vegetation may alter or limit plants' abilities to photosynthesize and/or reproduce” [5].

Furthermore, it has been noted that in tropical rainforest regions “the construction of roads for accessing remote oil sites opens wild lands to colonists and land developers.” [6]. This raises the question, ‘If roads for oil drilling enable or allow for later deforestation by other parties, such as land developers or colonists, should this deforestation be included as an ‘’indirect’’ land use change of fossil fuels, and thus be accounted for in a lifecycle analysis?’


The land use impacts of oil and natural gas extraction involve land use change as a result of land clearing, which can lead to significant releases of GHGs that should be accounted for in lifecycle analyses and comparisons of lifecycle emissions between biofuels and fossil fuels. While in the case of biofuels the main impact of "indirect" land use change affecting GHGs may be due to shifts in cropping patterns due to increased production and consumption of biofuel feedstocks and thus conversion of forested land to non-forest uses, fossil fuel extraction activities may also lead to indirect land use and land-cover change impacts, as a result of increased occurrence of forest fires that would not have occurred without the fossil fuel extraction activities, although the dynamics of such indirect impacts may not yet be fully understood.

Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) edit
Land use change (LUC case studies) | Land Use Impacts of Fossil Fuels | ILUC Portal

Indirect land use impacts (Searchinger-Wang debate)
Land use change factors: Agriculture (Livestock, Crops -- Corn, Palm oil, Rice, Soy) Deforestation | Mining

Environment edit
Climate change - Greenhouse gases | Ecosystems (Forests, Grasslands, Wetlands) | Life-cycle analysis
Species (Biodiversity, Invasive species, Orangutans)
Biotechnology/Genetically Modified Organisms | Pollution | Soil (Soil erosion)
Land - Desertification | REDD
RSB Working Group on Environment

Land use edit
Dry lands | Land tenure | Land use change (LUC case studies) | Land Use Impacts of Fossil Fuels | ILUC Portal

Indirect land use impacts (Searchinger-Wang debate)
Land use change factors: Agriculture (Livestock, Crops - Rice) | Deforestation | Mining


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