7 ways oil and gas drilling is bad for the environment

Oil well in black and white

Reckless drilling can be devastating for the environment and local communities

David Kingham/Flickr

Oil and gas drilling is a dirty business

Oil and gas drilling has serious consequences for our wildlands and communities. Drilling projects operate around the clock, disrupting wildlife, water sources, human health, recreation and other aspects of public lands that were set aside and held in trust for the American people.

The federal government has prioritized drilling above all other uses of our public lands, including habitat conservation and recreation. The oil and gas industry is encroaching upon too many of our nation’s unspoiled wildlands. And the consequences could be devastating for the environment and local communities.

1. Drilling disrupts wildlife habitat

Proghorn herd

The pronghorn antelope has one of the longest big game migrations in the U.S.


Oil and gas extraction is a menace to wildlife. Loud noises, human movement and vehicle traffic from drilling operations can disrupt avian species’ communication, breeding and nesting. The infrastructure built for energy development can also get in the way. Powerlines, wellpads, fences, and roads fragment habitats for many species.

The pronghorn antelope and mule deer in Wyoming are among the species most impacted. In the winter, some pronghorn travel south from the Grand Teton National Park to the Upper Green River Valley to escape heavy snow. Their journey is one of the longest big game migrations in the U.S.

But recently, animals making this age-old trek have faced a series of obstacles, notably, intense activity in major natural gas fields. The pronghorn have to navigate past enormous wellpads and noisy compressor stations to find what forage hasn’t been bulldozed. Future energy development farther south could ultimately have major impacts on the abundance of this herd.

2. Oil spills can be deadly to animals

Dr. Brian Stacy, NOAA veterinarian, prepares to clean an oiled Kemp's Ridley turtle.

Dr. Brian Stacy, NOAA veterinarian, prepares to clean an oiled Kemp's Ridley turtle after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

NOAA and Georgia Department of Natural Resources/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Big oil spills are known killers of wildlife. Just think back to the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The resulting spill covered 68,000 square miles of sea surface and killed approximately 1 million coastal and offshore seabirds, 5,000 marine mammals and 1,000 sea turtles.

Smaller spills, including of other substances in the oil extraction process, don’t always make the headlines but can also be dangerous. During oil extraction on land, drilling fluids are injected into the well for lubrication. These oil-based fluids known as "mud" are supposed to be captured in lined pits for disposal, but they’re often spilled and splashed around the drilling site.

Big and small, oil spills have been steadily increasing in the West’s top producing states. A recent report by the Center for Western Priorities found that 2,834 oil spills were reported by oil and gas companies in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming in 2018 – a record number since the organization started to collect this data in 2015.

These spills can have long-term environmental impacts and devastating effects on animals through direct contact, inhalation and ingestion of toxic chemicals. Oil and chemical spills can

•    Damage animals’ liver, kidney, spleen, brain or other organs
•    Cause cancer, immune system suppression and reproductive failure
•    Trigger long-term ecological changes by damaging animals’ nesting or breeding grounds

In spite of these risks, the federal government is attempting to quietly open several marine sanctuaries and wilderness lands to drilling. One of the most shocking plans would hand over 19 million acres of untouched wilderness in Alaska's Arctic Refuge to oil and gas companies. The disastrous move would expose fragile wildlife and tundra to oil spills.

3. Air and water pollution hurt local communities

Two yellow two-story buildings in downtown Bakersfield with a blue sky on top.

Residents of Bakersfield, CA, know all too well the consequences of having fossil fuel extraction in their backyards

David Seibold/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

There are 1.3 million oil and gas facilities across the U.S. – from active production wells to processing plants. More than 12 million people live within 1/2 mile of these facilities, and many are exposed to air and water pollution on a daily basis, which can lead to an array of health issues. The most affected are people of color, who typically live in neighborhoods with more pollution.

Oil and gas production are among the main culprits of air pollution – one of the world’s biggest killers according to the United Nations. When fossil fuels are burned by power plants, automobiles and industrial facilities, they generate toxic gases. Breathing this air can trigger respiratory problems such as asthma, cardiovascular diseases, developmental issues and even cancer.

The health risks from oil and gas extraction are not limited to air pollution. The drilling method of “fracking” is known for contaminating drinking water sources with chemicals that lead to cancer, birth defects and liver damage. The controversial method injects a mixture of water and chemicals into rock formations to release oil and gas. As a result, it generates huge volumes of wastewater with dangerous chemicals that can leak to ponds, lagoons and underground aquifers. 

Although the health threats from oil and gas production are very real, the federal government continues to push for fossil fuel drilling near communities. The city of Bakersfield, in California, is a sad example of that trend. The current administration is pushing to open up more than one million acres of land to drilling and fracking in the region. The move would directly impact Latino communities.

4. Dangerous emissions contribute to climate change

Forest Fire

Longer wildfire seasons are a consequence of the planet’s rising temperatures


Since the industrial revolution, humans have been burning more and more fossil fuels, releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These emissions have been trapping unwanted solar heat and causing the planet’s temperatures to rise. The consequences are all around us in the form of longer wildfire seasons, stronger hurricanes and harsher heatwaves.

Most dirty emissions originate from fossil fuels. The most abundant type of greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, primarily released into the air through the burning of oil, coal and gas that fuel everything from cars to manufacturing. Another gas, methane, is released during the extraction of natural gas through the method of “fracking.” 

The U.S. is one of the world’s top emitters. Currently, 24 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, can be traced to fossil fuel extracted from federal lands. 

The federal government should rethink its practice of leasing public lands to the fossil fuel industry. They should also regulate leaks and deliberate discharge of methane on our wild lands. Ultimately, the goal should be to install renewable energy projects at appropriate “low-impact” sites on public lands to accelerate the country’s transition from dirty to clean energy.

5. Oil and gas development ruins pristine landscapes

Oil and gas development on BLM lands around Bakersfield, CA

Oil and gas development on BLM lands around Bakersfield, CA

Bob Wick/BLM

Infrastructure built for oil and gas extraction can leave behind radical impacts on the land. The construction of roads, facilities and drilling sites known as well pads requires the use of heavy equipment and can destroy big chunks of pristine wilderness. The damage is often irreversible.

A University of Montana study found that between 2000 and 2012, fossil fuel infrastructure occupied about 3 million hectares of land in the country – the equivalent of three Yellowstone National Parks. Those developments removed large amounts of rangelands and vegetation that is used by wildlife and people.

The study’s researchers warned that even if oil and gas companies eventually abandon these sites, it can take centuries before the land fully recovers. The problem is that most fossil fuel development is located in semi-arid climate that receives little precipitation. A full recovery would require human intervention and a bundle of resources. 

Development of oil and gas complexes can cause serious and long-term damage to land, including

•    Stripping the environment of vegetation
•    Increasing erosion, which can lead to landslides and flooding
•    Disturbing the land’s ground surface
•    Seriously fragmenting unspoiled wildlife habitats

6. Fossil fuel extraction turns visitors away

Two people overlooking wilderness plagued with oil rigs

The unsightly effects of oil and gas can degrade visitors’ experience on public lands

Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society

Hunters, anglers, hikers, birders and vacationing families go into the wilderness to experience nature in all its beauty. Oil tanks, power poles, noisy compressors and busy roads are not what they expect to see. Too much noise near a good fishing hole, a population of wildlife or a formerly peaceful landscape can ruin anyone’s nature getaway.

The unsightly effects of oil and gas can degrade visitors’ experience on public lands and ultimately hurt local communities that depend on tourism. Outdoor recreation is a big driver of local and national economies. In 2018, visitors to national parks spent an estimated $20.2 billion on their trips and supported 329,000 jobs, according to the National Park Service.

But under the current administration, polluters are getting to call the shots on public lands, ushering in a new era of unbridled energy development on wildlands that deserve preservation.

7. Light pollution is impacting wildlife and wilderness

Stars at Chaco Canyon National Park in New Mexico

Chaco Canyon is considered one of the best places in the world to stargaze

Sky over Chaco/Arcadiuš/FLICKR CC BY 2.0

The glare from oil and gas sites is so strong that it’s even visible from space. Photos of Earth taken by NASA satellites show North Dakota's Bakken oil fields burning almost as bright as cities like Minneapolis and Chicago. Much of that light is produced by the burning – or flaring – of natural gas, well pads and storage sites. 

Scientists have found that the bright glow hurts pollinators such as bees. These insects have a very important job of moving pollen around to generates new fruits and plants. But luminosity disrupts their sleep, feeding and reproductive cycles, leading to the dwindling of plants such as the cabbage thistle.

The brightness is also changing uniquely beautiful landscapes like the Chaco National Park. The park’s pristine skies could disappear to the human eye due to the glare coming from nearby oil and gas complexes. The park is known for being one of the best places in the world to stargaze, but the show could come to an end if the federal government doesn’t permanently protect the surrounding area from this development.

Too Wild to Drill

TWTD LogoMuch of America’s oil and gas comes from public lands, which is why The Wilderness Society continues to fight against drilling in our nation’s wildest places. Check out some last remaining wild places that are just Too Wild to Drill.

Gas flare