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Expert Voices

Is a Shrinking Wilderness the Hidden Cost of Energy Security? (Op-Ed)

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(Image credit: Jesse Lewis)

Joseph Kiesecker is a lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy's Conservation Lands Team. This Op-Ed was adapted from a post to the Nature Conservancy blog CoolGreenScience. He contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Access to cheap energy has become essential to modern economies. How society meets future energy demand will have consequences for both people and nature.

Throughout the world, countries are determining how they will meet current and future energy needs, and increasingly are developing alternative sources of energy, and the United States is pushing to develop its own domestic energy resources in order to prevent potential disruption of energy supplies in the future.

However, estimates suggest that meeting those energy-development needs will require converting land from its current uses. Energy providers will need to develop more than 200,000 square kilometers (77,220 square miles) of virgin land for such uses by 2035. Expanding domestic energy sources in the United States requires addressing the challenges this new energy sprawl will create.

Nature Conservancy scientist Jeffrey Evans and I authored a new manuscript, just published in the journal PLOS ONE, that focuses on the importance of assessing cumulative environmental impacts over expansive landscapes. We considered the footprints of potential shale-gas and wind development across the Marcellus shale region, a mammoth gas field that underlies portions of six central Appalachian states: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

Our study predicts the potential for development of up to 106,004 new gas wells and 10,798 new wind turbines, affecting roughly 1,224,053 acres of forest land and resulting in the creation of up to 1,490,732 acres of impervious surfaces due to development of roads, well-pads and pipelines — materials such as concrete or soils compacted by development are highly impervious, meaning fluids cannot pass through them. As it turns out, this is enough impervious surface to cover an area larger than the state of Delaware.

Over time, those cumulative impacts pose the greatest challenge for both the environment and energy expansion. But taking a comprehensive look at the big picture — years in advance of energy development — could identify and help avoid conflicts that pit development needs against the value of other natural resources.

Despite the potential for significant cumulative impacts, there are no industry standards or best practices to account for the total risk, nor are there safeguards in place to assess — or even consider — the future impact in the decision process for placement of individual wells or wind turbines.

Society can avoid many negative environmental impacts through proactive land-use planning and proper siting of new energy development — an approach The Nature Conservancy helps advance through its science-based Development by Design methodology.

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Regulators can use scenario modeling, a tool that allows examination of future land use and the approach outlined in our publication, to examine the potential consequences of development objectives quickly and inexpensively. We encourage regulators to learn about the promise of scenario-based analysis and implement these methods so that environmental licensing can become more effective in fostering sustainable development.

Society can steer energy development to strike a better balance between economic growth and high-value natural systems. For example, assessing cumulative impacts can help identify ways to direct energy development to already-degraded land and avoid development in more valuable or sensitive areas.

Research approaches like the one my colleagues and I use are an opportunity to help inform the work of policymakers and corporate decision-makers, arming them with better tools to analyze and forecast where and how development should take place.

Energy security doesn't have to risk the security of the lands and waters upon which we all depend.

This Op-Ed was adapted from "How Can We Make Energy Security Sustainable?" on the Nature Conservancy blog CoolGreenScience. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.