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Energy Development in Colorado’s Pawnee National Grasslands: Mapping and Measuring the Disturbance Footprint of Renewables and Non-Renewables

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This paper examines the pattern and extent of energy development in steppe landscapes of northeast Colorado, United States. We compare the landscape disturbance created by oil and gas production to that of wind energy inside the Pawnee National Grasslands eastern side. This high-steppe landscape consists of a mosaic of federal, state, and private lands where dominant economic activities include ranching, agriculture, tourism, oil and gas extraction, and wind energy generation. Utilizing field surveys, remote sensing data and geographic information systems techniques, we quantify and map the footprint of energy development at the landscape level. Findings suggest that while oil and gas and wind energy development have resulted in a relatively small amount of habitat loss within the study area, the footprint stretches across the entire zone, fragmenting this mostly grassland habitat. Futhermore, a third feature of this landscape, the non-energy transportation network, was also found to have a significant impact. Combined, these three features fragment the entire Pawnee National Grasslands eastern side, leaving very few large intact core, or roadless areas. The primary objective of this ongoing work is to create a series of quantifiable and replicable surface disturbance indicators linked to energy production in semi-arid grassland environments. Based on these, and future results, we aim to work with industry and regulators to shape energy policy as it relates to environmental performance, with the aim of reducing the footprint and thus increasing the sustainability of these extractive activities.

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  1. The official name is H.R. 8- North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015 (114th Congress 2016).

  2. CRDF Award Number: OISEJ14J61033J0, Analyzing the geo-ecological state of steppe ecosystems affected by oil and gas production in North Eurasia and North America.

  3. Colorado is the 7th largest oil-producing US state in 2016 (EIA 2016d) and was the 6th largest gas producer in 2014 (EIA 2016e).

  4. Twenty National Grasslands exist in the US today, located in 12 states and totaling 15,550 km2 (Olson 1997).

  5. After digitizing wind turbines and initial analysis was completed, we found a USGS dataset containing these and other onshore wind turbines in the US updated to March 2014. So while our dataset was updated to February 2016, we used some the attribute information provided in the USGS set (USGS 2015).


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This publication is based on work supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF Global) with funding from the United States Department of State—Award Number: OISEJ14J61033J0. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of CRDF Global or the United States Department of State. We thank Hussam Khayat, GIS Research Assistant at the University of North Florida with help in data acquisition and preparation.

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Correspondence to Chris W. Baynard.

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Baynard, C.W., Mjachina, K., Richardson, R.D. et al. Energy Development in Colorado’s Pawnee National Grasslands: Mapping and Measuring the Disturbance Footprint of Renewables and Non-Renewables. Environmental Management 59, 995–1016 (2017).

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