Reducing Energy’s Footprint: Restoring land after coal, oil, & gas development

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At an educational Congressional briefing on September 12, two expert panelists will discuss the process of restoring land that has been used in energy development to beneficial uses.

Since 2010, the United States has been the second largest energy consumer in terms of total use, surpassed only by China. While the development of renewable energy sources is making significant progress, fossil fuels still provide 85% of the energy used in the U.S. However, more and more people are concerned about the environmental impact of fossil fuel energy development. Is there a way to harvest fossil fuels while mitigating the environmental impacts of mining and drilling? Can we have it all when it comes to fossil fuels? Research in the field increasingly indicates the answer is yes.

On September 12, the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America will sponsor an educational Congressional briefing about land reclamation. The expert panelists, both members of the sponsoring societies, will discuss the process of restoring land that has been used in coal, gas or oil development to beneficial uses.

Fossil fuel exploration activities do cause disturbances to the environment, but a major component of modern mining and drilling operations is land restoration. A wide range of pre-mine environmental resources studies are conducted. These studies can lead to strategies such as designs for sedimentation ponds used to treat surface water runoff and plans for re-shaping and re-contouring disturbed lands after mining.

“A lot of people don’t realize the amount of work and planning that must be done before the actual mining operations begin,” says James Deutsch, Director of the Reclamation and AML Divisions for the North Dakota Public Service Commission.

At the briefing, both panelists will discuss how the fossil fuel industry is using cutting edge research to mitigate the environmental impacts of coal mining and oil and gas drilling operations. Research on soil ecology, biogeochemistry, wildlife habitat restoration and plant-soil-microbial Interactions are all critical in establishing the most effective reclamation policies.

For example, successful revegetation of a mine site depends greatly on the health of the redistributed soil. After surface mining operations are completed, the land is covered in a mixture of rocks, rock fragments, soil and other natural materials. This is called mine spoil. Different qualities of the mine spoil dictate how the soil will need to be redistributed for that site.

In North Dakota, reclamation policies that dictate the thickness of redistributed soils are in place. These policies were based on research studies of the chemical and physical characteristics of mine spoils. “Research conducted by North Dakota State University and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, determined the soil thicknesses necessary to attain optimum cropland production under different spoil conditions,” says Deutsch.

Different regions of the United States face unique challenges when developing reclamation plans. For example, an area of southern Wyoming, known as Wamsutter Field, is the home of the largest offshore natural gas fields in North America. While there is abundant natural gas potential, the semiarid steppe climate, makes reclamation particularly difficult.

“Desert area soils are not well developed, not very fertile, and almost always dry,” says Peter Stahl, Director of the Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center and Professor at the University of Wyoming. “We’re working on methods to increase water holding capacities of soils and using soil amendments to make working with these difficult soils a little easier.”

Reclaimed lands can be used for a variety of purposes, each regulated by research-based strategies that shape the reclamation process. Farmland, grazing lands, high value wildlife habitat and even recreational sites are just some uses for restored lands. Collaboration between researchers, industry, and government will help make land reclamation and reuse as effective as possible.

“Remediation is challenging,” says Stahl, “but we’re getting better and better at it all the time.”

Media representatives are invited to attend the land reclamation Congressional briefing on September 12, 2013 at 10:30am at the Cannon House Office Building, room 122. RSVP is required. Please contact Julie McClure, Science Policy Associate, 202-735-5904, jmcclure@sciencesocieties.org to RSVP or with any questions.

 The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) is a progressive, international scientific society that fosters the transfer of knowledge and practices to sustain global soils. Based in Madison, WI, SSSA is the professional home for 6,000+ members dedicated to advancing the field of soil science. It provides information about soils in relation to crop production, environmental quality, ecosystem sustainability, bioremediation, waste management, recycling, and wise land use.

SSSA supports its members by providing quality research-based publications, educational programs, certifications, and science policy initiatives via a Washington, DC, office. Founded in 1936, SSSA proudly celebrated its 75th Anniversary in 2011. For more information, visit www.soils.org or follow @SSSA_soils on Twitter.

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