Impacts from above-ground activities in the Eagle Ford Shale play on landscapes and hydrologic flows, La Salle County, Texas
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Expanded production of hydrocarbons by means of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of shale formations has become one of the most important changes in the North American petroleum industry in decades, and the Eagle Ford (EF) Shale play in South Texas is currently one of the largest producers of oil and gas in the United States. Since 2008, more than 5000 wells have been drilled in the EF. To date, little research has focused on landscape impacts (e.g., fragmentation and soil erosion) from the construction of drilling pads, roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure. The goal of this study was to assess the spatial fragmentation from the recent EF shale boom, focusing on La Salle County, Texas. To achieve this goal, a database of wells and pipelines was overlain onto base maps of land cover, soil type, vegetation assemblages, and hydrologic units. Changes to the continuity of different ecoregions and supporting landscapes were then assessed using the Landscape Fragmentation Tool as quantified by land area and continuity of core landscape areas (those degraded by “edge effects”). Results show an increase in ecosystem fragmentation with a reduction in core areas of 8.7% (~333 km²) and an increase in landscape patches (0.2%; 6.4 km²), edges (1.8%; ~69 km²), and perforated areas (4.2%; ~162 km²) within the county. Pipeline construction dominates sources of landscape disturbance, followed by drilling and injection pads (85%, 15%, and 0.03% of disturbed area, respectively). This analysis indicates an increase in the potential for soil loss, with 51% (~58 km²) of all disturbance regimes occurring on soils with low water-transmission rates and a high runoff potential (hydrologic soil group D). Additionally, 88% (~100 km²) of all disturbances occurred on soils with a wind erodibility index of approximately 19 kt/km²/yr or higher, resulting in an estimated potential of 2 million tonnes of soil loss per year. Depending on the placement of infrastructure relative to surface drainage patterns and erodible soil, these results show that small changes in placement may significantly reduce ecological and hydrological impacts as they relate to surface runoff. Furthermore, rapid site reclamation of drilling pads and pipeline right-of-ways could substantially mitigate potential impacts.